ALSIP, Ill. - Four former employees accused of digging up bodies and reselling plots at a historic black cemetery near Chicago made about $300,000 in a scheme believed to have stretched back at least four years, authorities said Friday.
Three gravediggers and a manager at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip are accused of unearthing hundreds of corpses and either dumping some in a weeded, desolate area near the cemetery or double-stacking others in graves. The cemetery is the burial place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington.
While Till's grave site was not disturbed, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said investigators found his original iconic glass-topped casket rusting in a shack at the cemetery.
The 14-year-old Chicagoan was killed in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to his uncle's house in Mississippi. Nearly 100,000 people visited the casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago, and images of his battered body helped spark the civil rights movement.
When Till was exhumed in 2005 during an investigation of his death, he was reburied in a new casket. The original casket was supposed to be kept for a planned memorial to Till.
Thousands of families have come to the cemetery since Thursday looking for answers about their loved ones, authorities said. Hundreds of relatives, some clutching maps of the 150-acre site, were seen at the cemetery Friday.
Dart said officials have assisted the families in locating relatives' plots, and family members have reported at least 30 cases of disturbed graves and missing headstones.
The sheriff said two burials planned for Thursday also have gone wrong - with one person initially buried in the wrong plot and another whose plot was already occupied by someone else's body.
"This is a heartless act, these graveyard robbers," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Friday. Jackson called on the cemetery's Arizona-based owner, Perpetua Inc., to answer for the conditions.
The Illinois official who regulates cemeteries said Friday that the process of revoking the cemetery's license has been started. Comptroller Daniel Hynes also said Friday his office is investigating whether the money that families paid for future cemetery needs is still safely held in a trust.
The cemetery is owned by Perpetua Holdings of Illinois. Hynes said the company is cooperating with authorities, but the horrible problems at Burr Oak justify revoking the license.
Perpetua started the investigation by calling Cook County authorities to report alleged financial wrongdoing and issued a statement Thursday that the company is cooperating with investigators.
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 a 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.