The former director of historic Burr Oak Cemetery was sentenced to 12 years in prison Friday for her role in a macabre scheme reselling occupied burial plots and dumping their first human remains in a hidden field.
Carolyn Towns, 51, of Blue Island, pled guilty in a Bridgeview courtroom to six charges, including desecration of human remains, removal of the remains of multiple deceased people from a burial ground and conspiracy to dismember multiple human bodies.
She was one of four cemetery employees charged two years ago when the grave-digging scheme was exposed. Backhoe operator Maurice Dailey, 61, of Robbins; and foreman Keith Nicks, 47 and dump-truck operator Terrence Nicks, 41, both of Chicago, are scheduled to appear in court next week.
"I'm pleased the ringleader of this scheme is being held accountable for her horrific actions," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office first investigated the cemetery and made the arrests. "The damage done to the families who had loved ones buried at Burr Oak is unforgivable."
In July 2009, authorities revealed that workers at Burr Oak were reselling graves and dumping hundreds of old remains in an abandoned, weed-covered lot, Dart said.
The discovery shocked the region's black community because of the cemetery's special significance to African-Americans. Burr Oak was the area's first cemetery to allow blacks to be interred there, and countless African-American families would bury relatives there over the years. The cemetery is home to Emmett Till, singing icon Dinah Washington and boxing great Ezzard Charles.
Towns was accused of stealing more than $100,000 from the corporation that operated the cemetery, officials with the Cook County state's attorney's office said.
Prosecutors said Towns would accept cash payments from grieving families and keep the money. She would then instruct the gravediggers to bury the bodies in plots that were already occupied. In some cases, the diggers would stack new coffins on top of old ones, authorities said. Or they would remove the old remains and bury the new ones there.
News of Towns' sentence brought some relief to frustrated relatives such as Donetta Newman, of Alsip, who spent days searching the cemetery to locate her father's gravesite.
"I still don't know where the remains of my father are," Newman said. "When I pass the cemetery, I see funerals still taking place and it is so sad to me. I'm glad the justice system worked."