Thousands seek relatives' graves at Ill. cemetery - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Thousands seek relatives' graves at Ill. cemetery

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Posted: Saturday, July 11, 2009 3:23 pm | Updated: 1:24 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

ALSIP, Ill. — Thousands of relatives hoping to find their loved ones showed up Saturday as officials exhumed one grave in a cemetery where four former employees are accused of digging up and dumping hundreds of bodies in a scheme to resell plots.

One body was found in the exhumed grave at the historic black cemetery, the Cook County sheriff said, despite an earlier report that two bodies were there. The former workers also have been accused of burying some bodies in shared graves.

Authorities closed Burr Oak Cemetery, home to the graves of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singer Dinah Washington, on Friday and declared portions a crime scene. Saturday, lines snaked out of white tents where relatives filled out forms in an effort to find their loved ones' bodies.

"It's a zoo, and it's going to be a zoo because every black person in Chicago has someone buried here," said Chicago resident Jennifer Gyimah, 51, who was waiting to check on family members' graves. "As a living human being, you give dignity to the dead. The dignity today has been shattered."

Officials said they'd try to respond to families in the next week, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the investigation was hampered by a lack of maps for large sections of the cemetery. Many of those his staff had found were hand-drawn and sketchy, he said.

"You might as well be talking about hieroglyphics here," he said. "This is unheard of."

A portion of the cemetery devoted to children, called "Baby Land," was particularly poorly documented, Dart said.

Chicago resident Gail Cooper's 7-year-old daughter was buried there in 1984. She was trying to check on the grave Saturday.

"I had trusted her to these people," said Cooper, 48. "How could you have someone so shady and underhanded to do something like this?"

One man who had long suspected his mother was buried on top of another person had her grave dug up Saturday in an exhumation scheduled before the investigation started.

Workers dug down 7 feet. At 33 inches, the minimum depth allowed under state law, they found a casket, Dart said. Relatives recognized momentos resting on top and said the coffin belonged to Rachel Boone, the man's mother, the sheriff said. The casket was reburied without being opened, and relatives held a short memorial service.

Earlier in the day, an attorney for the cemetery's owner told Cook County authorities they would find two bodies in the grave, a sheriff's spokeswoman said. It was not clear what the attorney based that statement on or how the finding of one body would affect the investigation.

Three former gravediggers and a former cemetery manager have each been charged with one count of dismembering a body. The four sold existing deeds and plots to unsuspecting customers, authorities said. They then allegedly dug up hundreds of corpses and either dumped them in a weeded, vacant area of the cemetery - which authorities labeled the original crime scene - or double-stacked them in graves.

The four made about $300,000 in a scheme that stretched back at least four years, authorities said.

While Till's grave site was not disturbed, investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a shack at the cemetery, police said Friday. He was exhumed in 2005 during an investigation of his death and reburied in a new casket. The original casket was supposed to be kept for a planned memorial.

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