Intelligence Report: 'Chaos' at Homewood cemetery

February 17, 2011 4:16:48 PM PST
Another cemetery scandal erupted Thursday in Cook County, this one at the south suburban Homewood Memorial Gardens, where authorities say they discovered indigent bodies in mass graves and babies buried 10 to 15 to a box.

In this Intelligence Report: The backstory of Homewood cemetery's scandal that began in 2009 with the I-Team.

An I-Team investigation called "Grave Concerns" in July of 2009 focused on Homewood Gardens. Family members couldn't find tombstones or the bodies of loved ones that were supposed to be buried underneath.

Now, 19 months later, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is pushing for new state laws after unearthing what he calls "'disturbing'' burial practices at Homewood.

"I just want to know why is her headstone over here, and I can't find her body," said Natalie Taylor.

It was sunny and warm the day in 2009 when Taylor came to Homewood Memorial Gardens to find her mother's tombstone and others shoved into some weeds, atop a pile of dirt, her gravesite plowed over, her remains, who knows where.

As the I-Team spoke to Taylor, the owner of the 150-year-old cemetery walked up.

"We know exactly where she's at, and the reason that the tombstone was moved, and it's been 2 months now, as you can see right here, we are burying people and we are landscaping this area, so unfortunately we have to move those, the markers, so that we can come in with heavy equipment," said Tom Flynn, Homewood Cemetery's owner. "We care about people, we care deeply about people, and we know exactly where your mother is."

"So where is she?" Taylor asked.

"Well I don't have my computer in front of me, I don't have the girls in the office, I don't have the grid system," said Flynn.

At a news conference Thursday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart described what investigators found at the Homewood Gardens as "chaos."

"It was appalling, and this was with me there," Dart said Thursday. "People were being buried one stacked on top of each other. We've been informed that people are buried eight deep out there. There is no rhyme or reason, there is no grid system, no nothing out there. You couldn't find people if you wanted to find them...Babies are buried 10-15 to a box. They are buried with animals remains. They are buried with arms and legs and body parts that are found throughout the year. There isn't anything that our county or society should say is acceptable."

Cook County is involved because Homewood has a county contract to bury the indigent. Tax funds reimburse Homewood $239 per burial, less than the normal rate of $995 for the least expensive plot.

The owner told ABC7'S Ben Bradley that Homewood doesn't decide how to bury the bodies of poor people, the county medical examiner does.

The sheriff says he supports state legislation introduced last week requiring coroners or medical examiners to obtain DNA samples from unidentified remains at the time of burial. The bill calls for a $1 fee added to the cost of death certificates to cover expenses from the DNA plan.

Dart called on Cook County commissioners to conduct a hearing on the issue before signing a 2011 contract for indigent burials. Homewood memorial gardens has held that contract since 1980 and most recently served as the only bidder for the 2009-10 contract.