FBI: Identifying All Displaced Bodies Will Be Difficult
Investigators gather at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip Monday, July 13, 2009. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)
The FBI set up a mobile command center truck at the Alsip cemetery Monday morning. About 20 FBI agents and 10 investigators from the Cook County sheriff's office began combing the area which they termed a crime scene, FBI Spokesman Ross Rice said at a press conference outside of the cemetery gates.
Unlike previous disasters where names and identities of survivors were available to compare DNA samples from bodies, the cemetery records at Burr Oak are in such disarray they don't know who was buried there, Rice said.
"It may not be possible to identify the remains ... in a perfect world, yes we would like to identify every remain and bring closure to the families," said Rice. "Here we don't know who's been unearthed and who was buried here based on the records.''
Among the FBI Investigators is a forensic anthropologist from the FBI's lab at Quantico, Va. Investigators began cataloging the remains found in a 1,600-foot by 1,200-foot area of the cemetery.
They began by breaking down the area into different grids and then removing debris and weeds from the area. Flags and ropes have been placed throughout the cemetery to aid the grid search.
Tuesday morning, sheriff's officers and other employees, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, will canvass the entire cemetery, according to sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson.
The sheriff's office is also using people sentenced to community service to clean tombstones and cemetery grounds, "not only because it's the right thing to do, since it appears much of the cemetery was neglected, but to also assist in our documenting of each grave site," Patterson said.
No remains have been moved yet, but remains are scattered throughout the area, some visible to the naked eye, Rice said. He said the role of the FBI is to catalog the information to be used by prosecutors in a criminal proceedings.
"It's going to take a long time,'' Rice said.
Sheriff's officials say the cemetery will be closed to the public for at least the rest of the week but could reopen next week.
Around 12:40 p.m. today, a freelance photographer was arrested by sheriff's police as he stood on a ladder and tried to scale a fence to get into the cemetery, Patterson said. Frank Polich, of Burr Ridge, was charged with obstruction of justice for entering a crime scene.
Detectives believe at least 300 bodies were illegally exhumed and dumped in a mass grave so their plots could be resold, but thousands of dead remain unaccounted for by their families because records have been destroyed.
As of noon today, the sheriff's office had received the following requests for information about loved ones buried at Burr Oak: 12,000 requests filed in-person; 37,500 calls to hotlines; and 4,000 emails.
"That's 53,500 total requests for help in finding a loved one in a cemetery with more than 100,000 burial plots," Patterson said.
On Sunday alone, 1,000 relatives filled out forms with their buried family members' details at a drop-in center set up by the Cook County sheriff's department. People continued to show up at Burr Oak this morning.
Lutia Payne said she has nine relatives buried there and couldn't get through on the hotline Dart's office set up for family members. Officials said they are working on getting more lines.
Cook County board president Todd Stroger announced today that three "peer support" centers would be offering help as soon as this afternoon at the county's three public hospitals: Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest.
The centers would be staffed by the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, which would provide a sympathetic ear and direct people to other programs, including bereavement services, pastoral care or mental health professionals.
More information on the peer support centers is available at 312-603-8180 or, later this afternoon, at www.cookcountygov.com.
Patterson said overwhelmed investigators working 16-hour days have been "bogged down" by the cemetery's disastrous record-keeping. Police "can't make heads or tails out of many of these records," he said.
The sheer scale of the outrage has even seen a "significant increase of visitors" asking questions about their relatives at the nearby Lincoln Cemetery, where there are no allegations of wrongdoing, said Jennifer Roberts, a cemetery spokeswoman.
Virginia Davis-Stephens, who visited the graves of her son and nephew at Lincoln Cemetery Sunday, said her conscience had been pricked by the Burr Oak revelations. "It's been a year since I was out here, and it just made me want to pay my respects," she said.
Carolyn Towns, 49, the former manager at the cemetery, is accused of masterminding the excavation of 200 to 300 bodies that were tossed in a "dump area" of the cemetery so their plots could be resold for cash. Towns and groundskeepers Keith Nicks, 45, Terrence Nicks, 39, all of Chicago, and Maurice Dailey, 59, of Robbins, each face a felony charge of dismembering a human body, and could get 30 years in prison.
The Cook County sheriff's office has set up an e-mail address for families who are concerned about loved ones who are buried at the cemetery: firstname.lastname@example.org. Family members also may call a sheriff's hotline on Burr Oak, 800-942-1950 or, if calling from a local phone, (708) 865-6070.
The Sheriff's office also is providing updates on its Web site, www.cookcountysheriff.org
(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)
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