Chicago politicians used to live and die by the graveyard vote, but the dead no longer get much respect in the Land of Lincoln.
Hundreds of grieving and outraged families are being represented in class action lawsuits against an Illinois cemetery accused of illegally interring remains and altering grave sites in the name of profit.
Employees of the Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago allegedly stacked and disposed of bodies in an attempt to create space at the graveyard in order to maximize their income. They also allegedly desecrated and destroyed bodies in order to resell the plots on which they were buried.
Between 200 and 300 grave sites are believed to have been disturbed. Additional remains were found on Friday, prompting Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to declare the entire cemetery a crime scene. Dart predicted that the crime scene is going to continue to grow, adding that, we do not have an end in sight.
The alleged ringleader of the scheme, Carolyn Towns, previously served as the cemetery's manager. Neighbors and friends expressed the requisite shock and disbelief that she could be involved in such a heinous plot.
At least six lawsuits have been filed since the gruesome discovery.
A representative action, filed by Kevin Majors and Edward Strickland, charges Burr Oak with breach of contract, fraud, and breach of contract. At least one suit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, a relatively rare cause of action.
To prevail on this allegation, a plaintiff must show that the defendant's conduct was either intentional or reckless, and that it was extreme and outrageous. The plaintiff must also show severe emotional distress, and a causal link between such distress and the defendant's conduct. Intentional infliction of emotional distress is generally a difficult allegation to prove; in this case, however, Burr Oak's purported actions are so egregious that the plaintiffs likely have at least a fighting chance.
The sheer size of the cemetery presents investigators with a daunting challenge. The graveyard spans 150 acres and includes over 100,000 grave sites. Dart said that examining the entire property is like trying to read hieroglyphics.
Towns's financial history indicates that she was having financial trouble. She has filed for bankruptcy twice since 2001, and has several tax liens against her. Those close to her told local media outlets that her husband has held several jobs in the past few years.
Towns and three other employees are being held at the Cook County jail, each charged with one felony count of dismembering a body.
Burr Oak was the Midwest's first African-American cemetery, and is the final resting place of Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 helped accelerate the civil rights movement. Even Till's memory wasn't spared from the scheme; his original casket, which was supposed to be preserved for a memorial, was found rusted out in a cemetery shack.
Other notables at Burr Oak include musicians Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington, and Otis Spann; and Negro Leagues Baseball players Jimmie Crutchfield and John Donaldson, according to Graveyards.com.
The incident is the latest reminder that scandal and greed can affect even the most sacred contracts. In 2002, over 200 bodies were found at a Georgia crematorium, shocking families who thought the bodies had long ago been cremated. In 2006, six funeral homes in Brooklyn were found to be illegally harvesting organs from bodies stored at the facilities.
Because the crime scene in Chicago is rapidly expanding, family members will have to wait until at least Thursday to enter the cemetery grounds. Those with questions can contact the Cook County sheriff at 800-942-1950.