Thursday, July 9, 2009

ALSIP, Ill. (AP) — Workers at a historic Illinois cemetery may have dug up more than 100 bodies and dumped them in mass graves at the back of the 150-acre property in a scheme to resell plots to unsuspecting customers, authorities said Wednesday.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said his office was questioning five employees from Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, about 20 miles southwest of Chicago. But no charges were announced and investigators were working to determine how many plots may have been resold.

The sheriff’s investigation began six weeks ago when the cemetery’s owner reported that an employee who began feeling guilty revealed what allegedly had been going on, possibly for as long as four years, Dart said.

“All of us who were working on this for the last week were pretty distraught,” Dart said. “You start with the premise of your own loved ones and how they are cared for after they are buried, but there is also a true significance to this particular cemetery.”

Chicago native Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching at age 14 added impetus to the civil rights movement, is buried at Burr Oak. It’s also the final resting place of singers Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, as well as former world heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles, Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson, and several Negro League baseball players.

“For many years, this was the only cemetery where African Americans could be buried,” said Spencer Leak Sr., president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home, noting that Burr Oak once was owned by Ebony Magazine publisher John Johnson.

Dart said the scheme appears to have targeted older, unmarked graves that had not been visited in a long time. There was no indication the more famous sites were disturbed.

Perpetua Holdings of Illinois, Inc., a subsidiary of a Tucson, Ariz.-based funeral home and cemetery development company, has owned the cemetery since 2001. A message seeking comment was left Wednesday for the company president, listed on corporation records as Melvin Bryant of Richardson, Texas.

The Cemetery Care and Burial Trust Department, a division of the Illinois Comptroller’s office, has said it has received complaints in recent years about poor upkeep at Burr Oak, including sunken or tilting gravestones, unmanageable roads, drainage problems and weeds.

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