cemetery workers accused in grisly plot

By SOPHIA TAREEN, Associated Press Writer Sophia Tareen, Associated Press Writer
ALSIP, Ill. – Three gravediggers and a cemetery manager unearthed hundreds of corpses from a
historic black cemetery south of Chicago, dumping some in a weeded area and double-stacking
others in existing graves, in an elaborate scheme to resell the plots, authorities said Thursday. All four
were charged with felonies.
Frantic relatives of the deceased descended on Burr Oak Cemetery — the final resting place of
lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington — in hopes
someone could tell them their loved ones' remains were not among the pile of bones that littered a
remote area of the property in Alsip, 12 miles south of Chicago.
Some found apparently undisturbed plots, but others wandered, unable to locate loved ones.
"This is a mess. We can't find our people," said Ralph Gunn, 54, of Chicago, who filled out a report
for authorities after a futile search for the headstones of his brother and nephew.
Others cried and clutched cemetery maps as they waited for a chance to look themselves. They
listened as Sheriff Tom Dart said the displacement of bodies "was not done in a very delicate way,"
and that remains were dumped haphazardly, littered with shards of coffins. For graves stacked on top
of each other, Dart said it appears they "pounded the other one down and put someone on top."
A visibly shaken Rev. Jesse Jackson voiced the mounting anger at those who would toss the bones of
the dead like trash.
"In my judgment, there should be no bail for them, there should be really a special place in hell for
these graveyard thieves who have done so much, hurt these families," he said.
By late afternoon, orange flags marking grave sites that might have been disturbed could be seen
throughout the 150-acre cemetery, where as many as 1,000 burials are held a year. Officials took
phone numbers and told family members they would call within 72 hours. Dart said FBI agents would
help sort through evidence and identify bodies and that it could be months before investigators fully
understand what took place.
"I feel betrayed and violated," said Gregory Mannie, 54, a Chicagoan with four relatives buried at
Burr Oak. Mannie was particularly worried about his grandmother, whose grave is in a more
secluded area he did not visit as often as the others. He grew suspicious when he saw it Thursday —
it seemed too clean.
"It's almost like killing them all over again," Mannie said.
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 an Emmett 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.
Cook County state's attorney's office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said Towns is being
represented by a private attorney, but Simonton did not know the attorney's name. The Cook County
public defender's office said it had not yet assigned attorneys to the other three cases.
The investigation was prompted in May, when a groundskeeper discovered skeletal remains in the
part of the cemetery that wasn't supposed to be used, and cemetery officials notified Alsip police.
Around the same time, the cemetery's Arizona-based owner, Perpetua Inc., called Cook County
authorities to report the alleged financial wrongdoing.
Towns allegedly took cash for new graves, then instructed the three gravediggers to empty existing
plots and move the remains inside to an unused part of the cemetery covered with chest-high grass
and dotted with trees.
Perpetua Inc., said in a statement Thursday that the company is cooperating with investigators.
"We will make every attempt to insure and maintain the dignity of those that have been entrusted to
our care," the company said.
It's the second time in recent years that Burr Oak has been at the center of an investigation. In 2005,
the body of the 14-year-old Till, whose slaying in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white
woman helped galvanize the civil rights movement, was exhumed as part of a reopened investigation
of his death.
Dart said Till's grave was not disturbed in the alleged plot-selling scheme, but he did not have
information about the graves of Washington and others.
Associated Press Writers Don Babwin and Karen Hawkins contributed to this report from Chicago.