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Archaeologists Find Layers of Bodies Buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip

Tue March 22 2011 7:45 pm
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Survey helps find pieces of skulls, leg bones, burned caskets buried deep

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 office of Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart.

“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.

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“In every stage of this investigation human remains and related grave materials were encountered,” the report from ARI’s 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 tasked with determining whether it would be feasible for the 5.9 acres known as “Crime Scene A” to ever 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 touted as an area that could be used for new burials, since it was 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 the initial report delivered last week supports Sheriff Dart’s 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,” Dart said. “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.”

As part of the exploratory effort associated with the potential sale, ARI conducted a series of surveys with the assistance of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police detectives.
Simply walking the area resulted in finding several human remains and grave debris which have washed to the surface since the crime scene was cleared in August 2009. Archaeologists then cultivated the area and found even more locations thick with remains.

Finally, radar work done by Global GPR Services found additional locations with deeply buried objects, some of which were substantial in size. That led to digging as far as eight feet deep and more remains being found at every level. A final walk-through by detectives found even more human bones, wood coffins and concrete vaults at the surface.

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.

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