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Families decry disinterment of bodies

Near Chicago, outraged relatives look for loved ones' graves, which four people are accused of emptying to resell the plots.

July 10, 2009|Lolly Bowean, Matt Walberg and Steve Schmadeke

ALSIP, ILL. — They came in droves, generations of families pushing relatives in wheelchairs, holding them and helping them walk -- all while clutching faded obituaries and death certificates. A few brought worn-out family Bibles so they would have lists of names and dates.

Pamela Brown was one of hundreds of people who wandered through Burr Oak Cemetery near Alsip, Ill., on Thursday, searching for answers. Even though the cemetery was shabby, Brown said, she had continued to bury relatives there because she wanted her four grandparents, her mother and father, cousins and aunts to all rest together.

"Once you have one family member here, you'd put the others here," she said.

So when she heard that four people had been accused of reselling plots and dumping the remains of old bodies in an empty, abandoned lot, she was overcome with emotion. After searching the cemetery, she could locate only two of the grave sites of her 11 relatives.

"This is the biggest breach of trust I've ever experienced," Brown said.

According to prosecutors, 200 to 300 bodies were dug up and dumped in an isolated area of the historic cemetery south of Chicago where many prominent African Americans are buried, including civil rights icon Emmett Till.

Exposed bones, chunks of concrete and broken coffins littered a hilly, overgrown area about four blocks long, authorities said.

Former cemetery manager Carolyn Towns, 49; foreman Keith Nicks, 45; dump-truck operator Terrence Nicks, 39; and backhoe operator Maurice Dailey, 59, each have been charged with dismembering a human body. All face up to 30 years in prison.

"This crime, it's a whole new dimension that shows us what lengths people will go to for financial gain," said Cook County State's Atty. Anita Alvarez.

County Sheriff Tom Dart said investigators, including dozens of FBI agents, would be at Burr Oak for months sorting through the discarded piles of bones. Not only were remains heaved into a "dump area" at the cemetery, bodies allegedly were double-buried in existing plots, Dart said.

"They pounded the other [body] down and put someone on top," he said.

"The idea of grave robbers, in my judgment there should be no bail. . . . There should be a special place in hell," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at a news conference with Dart and Alvarez.

Police described Towns, who has filed for bankruptcy three times, as the brains of the operation. She had been fired by the cemetery's owners because of theft allegations. Authorities also were investigating a memorial fund she set up in 2005 to build an Emmett Till museum and mausoleum at Burr Oak for the remains of Till, his mother and stepfather.

No construction work was ever done, and a Till family member said he hadn't heard from Towns in four years. Officials asked any donors to come forward.

Towns, who is being held on $250,000 bail, was placed in the psychiatric wing of Cermak Hospital in Chicago, authorities said.

In a May interview with the Chicago Tribune, Keith Nicks -- who has nearly a dozen arrests since 1998 on misdemeanor charges including assault, domestic battery and violating orders of protection -- said the cemetery made money but the owners weren't investing in equipment and upkeep.

"It's embarrassing to have to explain to people why the cemetery looks this way," said Nicks, who like other grounds workers wore a uniform with the words "Alive with history."

Distraught family members had bigger concerns than appearances.

JoAnn Dean, 66, worried about her blood pressure and diabetes as she sat in the heat waiting for access to cemetery records.

"They've opened old wounds," she said, then spoke the names of the dead she had buried there: her great-grandmother, Ella Britt; her grandfather, Robert Brown; her grandmother, Blanche Brown. They've been buried there since the 1950s, she said.

"They didn't think there'd be anyone here to connect the present to the past," Dean said. "I'm following up -- these are my loved ones."

The more Dean thought about it, the angrier she got.

"They threw the bodies to the side," she said. "Dogs and cats don't even get treated like that. . . . They threw our bodies to the side. I never thought I'd be going through this, never."

--

lbowean@tribune.com

mwalberg@tribune.com

sschmadeke@tribune.com

Chicago Tribune reporters Erika Slife, Alena Scarver, Cara Anthony and Georgia Garvey contributed to this report.

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