CHICAGO – Four former cemetery workers pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges accusing them of digging up bodies at a historic suburban Chicago graveyard in order to resell the burial plots.
During a brief hearing, attorneys for the four defendants entered the pleas. All four indicated that they understood the charges against them. They are Carolyn Towns, 49, Keith Nicks, 45, and Terrence Nicks, 39 — all from Chicago, and all in custody. The fourth defendant, Maurice Dailey, 59, of Robbins, is out on bail.
Cook County Judge Frank Castiglione scheduled their next hearing for Sept. 25.
The four face several felony charges, including desecration of human remains, conspiracy to dismember human bodies and theft. The most serious charge — dismembering a human body — carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Authorities have also said they made more than $300,000 reselling the plots.
Authorities raided Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, which is the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans, in July.
The arrests made international headlines and prompted thousands of people to visit the historic black cemetery to try to determine if their loved ones were among those graves that were disturbed.
Authorities estimate that 300 graves were dug up. But they acknowledge they may never know how many graves were involved, saying that shoddy record-keeping and in some cases records that have literally disintegrated make it impossible to say exactly how many corpses were dug up or the identities of all those whose remains were moved.
Investigators found chunks of burial vaults, pieces of pine boxes that had been used as caskets decades ago, and even a skeleton wearing a suit and tie inside an empty burial vault, with no casket in sight.
They have said they found evidence of corpses that were dug up and the plots resold, as well as caskets stacked on top of each other in the ground. Officials said they had found more than 1,100 human bones, some tossed on the ground and covered with dirt and others strewn amid overgrown weeks, before they stopped searching early last month.
The former workers were slated to be arraigned last week, but that was delayed while a lawyer was appointed for one defendant and as attorneys discussed objections to various judges before settling on Castiglione.
At Tuesday's hearing, Castiglione said he saw no reason to recuse himself over his brother's brief involvement in the case.
His brother, an assistant state's attorney in Cook County, played a minor role at one hearing related to a civil lawsuit stemming from the case, the judge revealed Tuesday. He said they never discussed the case in detail and that his brother has since been taken off the case.
Castiglione invited attorneys, however, to file motions if they wanted him removed. Thomas Needham, an attorney for suspect Maurice Dailey, said he doesn't plan on doing so. Other attorneys didn't immediately address the matter.
The three defendants still in custody wore in jail-issued jumpsuits at Tuesday's hearing, but were not wearing handcuffs or shackles as they had last week, when a judge agreed with one of the attorneys that such precautions were not necessary.
After the hearing, Needham said that given the case involved multiple defendants and because there remained thousands of pages of documents defense attorneys needed to read, he didn't expect the case to go to trial for about a year.