Workers Made $300G in Gravedigging Scheme, Cops Say

Published July 10, 2009

Authorities say more than a dozen more cases of disturbed graves have turned up at a historic Black cemetery in Illinois where four people are accused of digging up bodies in a scheme to resell burial plots.

A Cook County sheriff’s spokesman said that the suspects made about $300,000 in the scheme believed to have stretched back at least four years.

"All of us who were working on this for the last week were pretty distraught," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. "You start with the premise of your own loved ones and how they are cared for after they are buried, but there is also a true significance to this particular cemetery."

The Burr Oak Cemetery is the final resting place of lynching victim Emmett Till, as well as blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington. Investigators found Till's original glass-topped casket rusting in a shack at the cemetery. The 14-year-old was killed in 1955 and his battered body helped spark the civil rights movement.

"For many years, this was the only cemetery where African Americans could be buried," said Spencer Leak Sr., president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home, noting that Burr Oak once was owned by Ebony Magazine publisher John Johnson.

Perpetua Holdings of Illinois, Inc., a subsidiary of a Tucson, Ariz.-based funeral home and cemetery development company, has owned the cemetery since 2001. A message seeking comment was left Wednesday for the company president, listed on corporation records as Melvin Bryant of Richardson, Texas.

Dart on Friday said about 2,000 families have come to the cemetery trying to determine the status of loved ones buried there. Dart says there are 30 more cases of disturbed graves.

Written by Associated Press

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