Ruined records

A file cabinet filled with ruined, fused-together and unreadable records found in an office at Burr Oak Cemetery in 2009. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / July 14, 2009)

Bodies were dumped in an unused corner of Burr Oak Cemetery in far greater numbers than a 2009 criminal investigation originally found, according to an archaeologists' report recently delivered to the Cook County sheriff's office.

"Human remains and associated materials are buried deeply throughout" the area detectives identified as "Crime Scene A," according to the site survey done by Chicago-based Archaeological Research Inc., which found remains are "buried immediately below the surface and deeply buried" in that same area at the northeast corner of the historic cemetery, according to the sheriff's office.

"In every stage of this investigation human remains and related grave materials were encountered," the report from ARI' Dr. David Keene notes.

The firm was appointed last year by a bankruptcy court judge who is overseeing the possible sale of the Alsip cemetery. ARI was asked to determine if it would be feasible for the 5.9 acres known as "Crime Scene A" ever to be used by new owners to conduct burials or even build a mausoleum there. Ground penetrating radar and disking tools were used in an effort to reach those determinations.

That corner of the cemetery had been considered for new burials because it was thought to be the only part never used for burials and was only reported to be used to dump broken headstones, branches, leaves and other debris, known as a "spoil area."

But ARI's work conducted in November and December found that area is elevated as much as 12 feet above the original ground level and they repeatedly found human remains and coffin pieces -- including some burned -- going as far as 8 feet deep.

"Any future excavations into this spoil area for whatever reason will uncover human remains … therefore, it would not be appropriate to use this area for future burials."

A more detailed report is expected to be delivered to the bankruptcy court next month. But Dart said the initial report delivered last week supports his contention that there should be no new burial plots sold at Burr Oak Cemetery.

"It's our hope that this report, once and for all, makes clear that if you dig at any level in these areas, you're going to find human bones, pieces of coffins and God knows what else," said Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. "We know this cemetery likely reached its capacity years ago, so any digging for graves already paid for is being done with the utmost of caution. But even with those, we regularly receive calls asking for our detectives, because something has been discovered."

Dart could not say exactly how many bodies may be in "Crime Scene A."

In July 2009, criminal charges were filed against Burr Oak Cemetery manager Carolyn Towns and laborers Keith Nicks, Terrence Nicks and Maurice Dailey. A Cook County Sheriff's investigation found they engaged in a years-long scheme to unearth bodies in unmarked graves to make room for new burials, then shared in the profits from those sales. Exhumed coffins were then dumped in two separate areas of the cemetery. All remain free on bond while awaiting trial on charges of dismembering a human body, a Class X felony.

Separately, a federal judge is overseeing bankruptcy proceedings involving Burr Oak’s Arizona-based owner, Perpetua Inc. Since the scandal was uncovered, a court-appointed receiver has been running day-to-day operations at the cemetery.

The court, meanwhile, is overseeing the potential sale of Burr Oak and another local cemetery to local owners who want the right to conduct new burials in "Crime Scene A." Dart has wholly objected to that proposal, while Perpetua has voiced support for a mausoleum, which they say would require minimal amounts of digging in that area. Dart instead supports a community-based effort to establish a permanent memorial in that section of the cemetery for those whose final resting place was disturbed as a result of criminal activity.

An attorney for the cemetery owner did not have immediate comment.

(Click HERE for searchable database on grave sites at Burr Oak)

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