I-Team Report: The Grave Record

June 20, 2012 (CHICAGO)

Now the I-Team has learned of neglect spanning a century: the county's grave record of caring for tens of thousands of dead.

Only the wind ruffles the picture of peace in Oak Forest, an undisturbed landscape in the southern reach of Cook County. You can't tell, but beneath the tall grass, are the remains of more than 90,000 people.

"That's a grave. It's collapsed," said Detective Jason Moran, Cook County Sheriff's Department.

For two years, Detective Moran has tried to trace where Cook County buried its poor, forgotten, and unknown dead since the late 1800s. He found 90, 740 of them across a grassy expanse in front of the county's Oak Forest Hospital.

"I'm in the wood, the wood is inside the cement, I went through the open cover, you can feel it, it's a little more pliable. If I had a shovel I could dig this out and you could see, probably get to the remains," said Moran.

"One of the most disturbing things we found out about was that it is unclear not only where people are buried, whether other structures are built over people, because the record keeping is so horrible," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Sheriff Dart assigned Detective Moran to find the bodies after Moran exposed the infamous Burr Oak grave selling scandal three years ago.

Now, new questions have arisen about how government has tended to the most vulnerable in society. An Oak Forest facility was long known as "the poor farm" and used as an "insane asylum." Most buried there were among them.

In 1959, the county board of commissioners dedicated a sign marking the site. So they weren't buried in secret, but authorities say they have been forgotten.

"There is a monument at the front saying that it's the Cook County Cemetery for the indigent. But as far as individual grave markers or monuments there is none," said Detective Moran.

You can make out strips of grave sites; some are sunken. And there is a bigger problem.

"Is there any doubt that there are bodies buried under that salt dome over there?" ABC7's Chuck Goudie asked Moran. "By looking at the cemetery map, it appears the IDOT facility is built on top of a portion of the cemetery. However, I can't confirm that without breaking the ground," he replied. "And that's something more the county is going to have to chose to do if they want to actually find out who or what is buried there."

A state transportation department spokesman says it is highly unlikely there are any burials on the IDO property. Sheriff Dart says otherwise.

"The reality is that some of the maps we have make it appear as if there's people are buried underneath some of the structures over there," said Dart.

It isn't just in the south suburbs.

Dart points to a similar situation on the North Side of Chicago at what used to be the county's Dunning insane asylum.

Beginning in 1854, there were 38,000 people buried here in a potter's field, including some from the Civil War and the Chicago fire.

Although a memorial marks the general location, parts of the graveyard were sold off and built on, with homes and a shopping center. According to a sheriff's report, "the county may have desecrated the graves of Civil War Veterans for a parking lot."

"Whether you're here, or you're up on the North side where houses were built over burial grounds, you have a mess on your hands here, and I don't even know where to start with some of this," said Dart.

The county now does a better job of tracking it's 250 public aid burials every year, according to Sheriff Dart.

County president Toni Preckwinkle, who has frequently been at odds with the sheriff over public burials, is also at odds with him on this issue. Her spokeswoman says there are logs on all county burials; they know where everyone is; she says nothing has been build on top of any grave and suggests Mr. Dart is creating a story where none exists.

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