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Burr Oak Gravedigger Talks About Blowing Whistle On Cemetery Scheme

DON BABWIN   07/21/09 03:17 PM ET   AP

Willie Esper departing the Burr Oak Cemetery after his shift in Alsip, Ill. Esper, a gravedigger who helped expose an alleged scheme to dig up graves and resell plots at a suburban Chicago cemetery, says he only spoke up after another worker warned him to keep his mouth shut or risk losing his job. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

ALSIP, Ill. — Willie Esper was just trying to get better at his job as a gravedigger when he unearthed a scandal.

Loose bones kept turning up as he practiced digging holes with a backhoe in a supposedly unused section of Burr Oak Cemetery, a historic black graveyard near Chicago. Esper refused to keep his mouth shut about the grisly things he saw, leading to the arrest of four cemetery workers accused of digging up and dumping hundreds of bodies and reselling their plots.

"I ain't a hero," said the 26-year-old whistleblower, who came to Burr Oak more than a year ago. "I had my mouth closed too long."

In his first interview since the macabre scandal broke two weeks ago, Esper said he didn't plan to make a big deal about what he had found until another worker told him he had better keep quiet if he wanted to keep putting food on the table for his baby boy. He said he got especially angry when the fellow black employee referred to Esper's mixed-race child as an "Oreo."

"I just got tired of people threatening me," Esper told The Associated Press.

Not wanting to go to authorities himself, Esper started talking about what he had seen within earshot of another employee who was known to have a big mouth. Sure enough, that co-worker talked, and word soon reached sheriff's detectives.

The four defendants – Carolyn Towns, Keith Nicks, Terrence Nicks, and Maurice Dailey – are in jail on charges of dismembering a body.

The cemetery is the final resting place of perhaps 100,000 people, including blues singers Dinah Washington and Willie Dixon, boxer Ezzard Charles, several Negro League baseball players, and Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. Authorities have said there is no indication any of those graves were disturbed.

In court papers, Esper is mentioned by name in one place. The documents also refer to a whistleblower as "Employee A." A person close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on, confirmed that Esper is Employee A.

According to the court papers, the employee kept finding what appeared to be human skeletal remains each time he practiced digging graves. When he went to more senior groundskeepers with questions, he was told to stop digging in that area.

Later, Employee A led a detective around the 150-acre graveyard to places where he had found both exposed and buried bones, pointing out what appeared to be a jawbone lying on top of the soil.

Esper would not describe the bones he found. But "I have pictures of certain things," he said without elaborating.

In the first few days after the news broke, thousands of relatives with loved ones buried at the cemetery converged on the graveyard. Many were convinced their relatives' graves had been moved or destroyed until, Esper said, he was able to lead them to the right spots. He estimated he helped find 300 graves in those early days.

"I put their mind at rest," he said.

He understood what they were going through: After he figured out the scheme, he quickly checked on the grave of a 38-year-old cousin who was buried at Burr Oak about six weeks ago. He said her grave appeared undisturbed.

However, investigators said body parts are so jumbled, and the cemetery's records such disarray, that many families may never recover the remains of their loved ones.

Authorities are working to put Burr Oak's daily operations in the hands of a cemetery manager appointed by a judge. Esper plans to continue working at the graveyard as long as he has a job there.

"I ain't the type to go out in the streets and sell drugs," he said. "I'd rather work. I'd rather not collect unemployment."


Filed by Ben Goldberger  |