Century-old Oak Forest graves dug up by forest preserve crews

ABC7 I-Team Investigation
OAK FOREST, Ill. (WLS) -- An old public cemetery where 100,000 people are buried is causing a clash between two Cook County agencies because one of them started to dig up the graves, the ABC7 I-Team is reporting.

One hundred and twenty-five years of resting in peace has come to an end for some Cook County residents. Forest preserve crews disturbed the dead in a sprawling unmarked graveyard near the old Oak Forest Hospital, and now how it happened is triggering a contentious inter-county quarrel with the sheriff's department.

"We have a trail system that takes you around the perimeter of this site, part of what we wanted to do is connect it in the middle, the plan here was for that to be that connection," said Supt. Arnold Randall of the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

The problem with the plan is there are 100,000 people buried here. As the I-Team uncovered more than two years ago, the unmarked graves belong to Cook County's poor, forgotten and unidentified since the late 1800s. Many are from the old Oak Forest sanitarium and from Cook County's insane asylum.

In 2012, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart assigned a team to inspect the graves and try to reconstruct the records of who is buried here. This fall, the forest preserve district told the sheriff that they were going to start excavating for walking paths here. Dart says he asked them to hold off, but they didn't.

"We made it clear to them forest preserve in these areas you have to be particularly sensitive. For whatever reason they weren't, and as a result of that numerous graves have been disturbed out there," Dart said.

"The challenge is a lot of the drawings and maps are old and not entirely accurate, so we worked through a process and we encountered some human remains during the excavation process for the trail," Randall said.

"We've collected just over 150 bones that were just laying there," Dart said.

"We'll have a plan, we'll have another consultant who with oversee the process to reinter the remains that we did find," Randall said. "This part of the trail is on hold now. And we'll have to make a determination if we even want to have this portion of the trail. There is a likelihood that we would have to eliminate this portion of the trail."

The forest preserve district superintendent says they dug up those old graves despite having worked with archeological consultants and the state historic preservation agency. Now he says they'll be bringing in a new consultant with new plans to rebury the remains.
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