ALSIP, Ill. — Three gravediggers and a cemetery manager unearthed hundreds of corpses from a historic black cemetery south of Chicago, dumping some in a weeded area and double-stacking others in existing graves, in an elaborate scheme to resell the plots, authorities said Thursday. All four were charged with felonies.
Frantic relatives of the deceased descended on Burr Oak Cemetery _ the final resting place of lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington _ in hopes someone could tell them their loved ones' remains were not among the pile of bones that littered a remote area of the property in Alsip, 12 miles south of Chicago.
Some found apparently undisturbed plots, but others wandered, unable to locate loved ones.
"This is a mess. We can't find our people," said Ralph Gunn, 54, of Chicago, who filled out a report for authorities after a futile search for the headstones of his brother and nephew.
Others cried and clutched cemetery maps as they waited for a chance to look themselves. They listened as Sheriff Tom Dart said the displacement of bodies "was not done in a very delicate way," and that remains were dumped haphazardly, littered with shards of coffins. For graves stacked on top of each other, Dart said it appears they "pounded the other one down and put someone on top."
A visibly shaken Rev. Jesse Jackson voiced the mounting anger at those who would toss the bones of the dead like trash.
"In my judgment, there should be no bail for them, there should be really a special place in hell for these graveyard thieves who have done so much, hurt these families," he said.
By late afternoon, orange flags marking grave sites that might have been disturbed could be seen throughout the 150-acre cemetery, where as many as 1,000 burials are held a year. Officials took phone numbers and told family members they would call within 72 hours. Dart said FBI agents would help sort through evidence and identify bodies and that it could be months before investigators fully understand what took place.
"I feel betrayed and violated," said Gregory Mannie, 54, a Chicagoan with four relatives buried at Burr Oak. Mannie was particularly worried about his grandmother, whose grave is in a more secluded area he did not visit as often as the others. He grew suspicious when he saw it Thursday _ it seemed too clean.
"It's almost like killing them all over again," Mannie said.
The suspects, all of whom are black, were identified as Carolyn Towns, 49, Keith Nicks, 45, and Terrence Nicks, 39 _ all of Chicago _ and Maurice Dailey, 61, of Robbins. They each have been charged with one count of dismembering a human body, a felony.
Bond was set at $250,000 for Towns, the cemetery's manager, and at $200,000 for the other three.
Authorities said Towns also pocketed donations she elicited for an Emmett Till memorial museum. She has not been charged in connection with those allegations. Court documents show she was fired from the cemetery in late May amid allegations of financial wrongdoing.
Cook County state's attorney's office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said Towns is being represented by a private attorney, but Simonton did not know the attorney's name. The Cook County public defender's office said it had not yet assigned attorneys to the other three cases.
The investigation was prompted in May, when a groundskeeper discovered skeletal remains in the part of the cemetery that wasn't supposed to be used, and cemetery officials notified Alsip police. Around the same time, the cemetery's Arizona-based owner, Perpetua Inc., called Cook County authorities to report the alleged financial wrongdoing.
Towns allegedly took cash for new graves, then instructed the three gravediggers to empty existing plots and move the remains inside to an unused part of the cemetery covered with chest-high grass and dotted with trees.
Perpetua Inc., said in a statement Thursday that the company is cooperating with investigators.
"We will make every attempt to insure and maintain the dignity of those that have been entrusted to our care," the company said.
It's the second time in recent years that Burr Oak has been at the center of an investigation. In 2005, the body of the 14-year-old Till, whose slaying in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman helped galvanize the civil rights movement, was exhumed as part of a reopened investigation of his death.
Dart said Till's grave was not disturbed in the alleged plot-selling scheme, but he did not have information about the graves of Washington and others.
One of Till's cousins who lived at the Mississippi home where Till had been staying when he was killed and witnessed the teen being dragged away by two white men, called the Burr Oak scandal "horrific."
"To me, it's just as bad as it was the night they took Emmett," Wheeler Parker said. "Emmett's thing sounded like a nightmare and a dream, and this is the same thing."
Associated Press Writers Don Babwin, Karen Hawkins and Christina Wright contributed to this report from Chicago.