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Thursday, July 16, 2009 02:55 am

The plot sickens

Former SPD cop learns her mother’s Burr Oak­­­ grave was likely plundered, resold

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Inset left to right: Former cemetery manager Carolyn Towns, grounds foreman Keith Nicks, dump truck operator Terrence Nicks, and backhoe operator Maurice Dailey have been arrested in connection with a gruesome grave recycling scheme at a historically blac
MAIN PHOTO BY ZBIGNIEW BZDAK/MCT

The first time Renatta Frazier heard about massive grave robbing at an Alsip cemetery, she didn’t give it a second thought. A tiny village on the southwestern tip of Chicagoland, Alsip held no special meaning. It wasn’t until a childhood friend mentioned Burr Oak Cemetery that Frazier snapped.

Burr Oak is one of a dozen cemeteries in the area. In fact, Alsip incorporated in 1926 specifically because residents feared their village would be engulfed by graveyards. Created in an era when segregation was enforced into perpetuity, several of these cemeteries are African-American. Frazier, who grew up on the west side of Chicago, has six close relatives buried at Burr Oak, including her mother, who died when Frazier was 4, and her great-grandparents, who became her legal guardians upon her mother’s death.

When I first met Frazier in 2002 — when she got kicked off the Springfield Police Department on charges that (as I later discovered) were false — she told me these relatives had nurtured her dream to become a cop, ensuring that she grew up squeaky clean, with no alcohol, no drugs, no unplanned pregnancies. Last week, after a few frantic calls to the hotline established by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Frazier’s worst fears were confirmed: Based on dates of burial and economic circumstances, investigators told Frazier that her ancestors’ graves were undoubtedly among the hundreds plundered.

“It’s like our family members didn’t matter. They were discarded, like pieces of trash, like they’re not important to anyone,” Frazier says.

The magnitude of the sacrilege still unfolding at Burr Oak is simply stunning. Once owned by John Johnson (publisher of Ebony magazine), the 164-acre cemetery is the final resting place of musicians Dinah Washington and Willie Dixon, boxer Ezzard Charles, at least 15 Negro League baseball players, and Emmit Till — the 14-year-old son of Chicago whose grisly 1955 lynching in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement. Carolyn Towns, former manager of the cemetery, even used Till as a marketing gimmick, at one point planning to sell nearby plots for premium prices, and collecting donations for an Emmit Till museum that was never built.

By 2001, the memorial park had been acquired by Arizona-based Perpetua, Inc., and in March the company fired Towns for allegedly stealing approximately $8,500. At Perpetua’s request, the sheriff’s office on June 3 sent a detective to investigate this theft. A newly-hired backhoe operator — dubbed by Sheriff Tom Dart as “an employee with a conscience” — took the detective to the far north end of the cemetery where, in a weedy, rock-strewn “dump,” lay a human jawbone, complete with teeth. By day’s end, a preliminary search of the dump revealed 29 human bone specimens.

On July 8, Dart arrested Towns and three current employees, charging each with one count of dismembering a human body. This week, sheriff’s spokesman Steve Patterson confirmed that those charges are likely just the beginning. “Just when you think you’ve got your arms around this, the next day you find something new,” he says.

Towns is the alleged mastermind of a macabre scheme that dates back four years: At her direction, a grounds foreman and a backhoe operator would smash concrete grave liners, coffins and their contents, load it onto a truck and haul it to the cemetery’s back lot. In this way, they made room for fresh plots, which Towns sold to unsuspecting customers.

Investigators first said “more than 100” graves had been desecrated, but soon tripled that estimate. As hundreds of grieving relatives descended upon the cemetery to check on their loved ones’ graves — many realizing the search was futile — investigators revised the estimate upward. Graves had been robbed throughout the cemetery. Relatives discovered that an entire section called Babyland had apparently disappeared.

Patterson, who has been spending 12 to 16 hours a day answering media questions about the cemetery, sounds astonished that this horror continues to mushroom. “I have told all of my family that I want to be cremated,” he says.

Towns is currently incarcerated in the psychiatric unit at Cermak Hospital; her three alleged accomplices are in Cook County’s maximum security facility. The entire cemetery has been closed and declared a crime scene. This week, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes initiated legal steps to freeze $6 million in trust funds controlled by Perpetua Holdings and an-nounced a legislative initiative that would beef up the state’s oversight of all cemeteries.

The enormity of the desecration has, however, apparently discouraged talk of DNA testing. Families like Frazier’s are being told that they may never be able to reclaim their relatives’ remains. “So imagine that,” she says. “It’s horrendous that you expect people to live with the fact that their loved ones cannot be put to rest.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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