ALSIP, Ill. – Distraught families hoping to determine whether loved ones' final resting places at a historic black cemetery near Chicago were desecrated in a gravedigging scandal were met with more gruesome discoveries: additional human bones strewn about the grounds.
Thousands have flooded Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, the burial place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singer Dinah Washington, since four former workers were accused earlier this week of dumping hundreds of unearthed corpses in a scheme to resell plots.
Each was charged with one count of dismembering a body.
But after both law enforcement and visitors came across more remains while seeking answers, authorities closed the cemetery Friday and labeled it an expanding crime scene.
"I found bones out there, I found individuals wandering aimlessly around" who also found bones and other things, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. He did not offer details.
Families still would be able file inquires at the cemetery Saturday, when an exhumation officials said was planned before the current investigation also was to take place. Dart said he hoped Burr Oak would reopen to visitors within a week.
Shareese McLemore, 36, of Kankakee, Ill., was able to visit before the cemetery closed Friday and said she fears her mother's grave was disturbed after she found grass around the plot damaged and burnt.
"I feel betrayed by the people who worked there," McLemore said.
About 5,000 grave sites were being investigated, but Dart acknowledged difficulty in evaluating the number because cemetery records either don't exist or have been altered or destroyed.
"We can't get our arms around how many people are supposedly, allegedly, buried here," Dart said.
Dart's office has received more than 1,350 complaints — up to 30 percent of which allege loved ones have been relocated.
While Till's grave site was not disturbed, police said investigators found his original iconic glass-topped casket rusting in a shack at the cemetery. The inside of the casket was shredded by wild animals living in it, police said.
Till was killed in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to his uncle's house in Mississippi. Nearly 100,000 people visited the casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago, and images of the 14-year-old's battered body helped spark the civil rights movement.
When Till was exhumed in 2005 during an investigation of his death, he was reburied in a new casket. The original casket was supposed to be kept for a planned memorial.
One of Till's cousin's said she was appalled the casket was found in such poor condition.
"It's part of history, it's part of our trying to put a family to rest," Ollie Gordon said Friday during a visit to the cemetery.
Authorities said three former gravediggers and a former cemetery manager made about $300,000 in the scheme that stretched back at least four years. The four sold existing deeds and plots to unsuspecting customers, authorities said. They then allegedly dug up hundreds of corpses and either dumped them in a weeded, vacant area of the cemetery — which authorities labeled the original crime scene — or double-stacked them in graves.
Dart said long before the most recent scandal, one grieving relative launched a one-man crusade against Burr Oak conditions, claiming one of his parents' coffins was too close to the surface. Alsip officials investigated, agreed, and are allowing the man to remove his loved one's remains Saturday.
While the exhumation is not connected to this week's charges, Dart noted the coffin's proximity to the surface raises the possibility the remains were stacked.
Hundreds of relatives, some clutching maps of the 150-acre site, walked through rows of graves on Friday. Dart said closing the cemetery was necessary because it would be irresponsible to continue letting families wander around "to find nothing more than tears."
The sheriff said one family sought 10 grave sites and found none. And although Burr Oak plans indicate a designated area for infants called "Baby Land," none of those grave sites could be found, Dart said.
"More people have not found relatives than have found them," he said.
The suspects, who were being held on bond, were former cemetery manager Carolyn Towns, 49; Keith Nicks, 45; Terrence Nicks, 39; and Maurice Dailey, 61.
A spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney's office said Towns is being represented by a private attorney, but she didn't know the name. The Cook County public defender's office said it was representing the three other defendants but did not have attorneys' names. Attempts to reach family members were unsuccessful.
The cemetery's Arizona-based owner, Perpetua Inc., is cooperating with authorities.