Broken. Rusted. Battered. The image of a glass-covered casket with the body of Emmett Till was shown around the world in the 1950s. But on Thursday, as hundreds of African Americans searched frantically for the graves of love ones, the battered casket of Till was rusting in the back of a shack at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip.
The casket was surrounded by garbage and discarded headstones strewn about like litter.
"When we opened it up trying to find what we have, a family of possums ran out," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Cemetery workers had been cooperative and informed law enforcement officials that it was indeed Till's original casket.
"It sure looks like all of the photos I have ever seen," Dart said. "This is absolutely horrible."
In June 2005, Till's body was exhumed during an investigation of his death. As is customary, he was not reburied in the same casket.
The original casket was supposed to be part of a planned memorial for Till at Burr Oak Cemetery, but the donations for that memorial were allegedly pocketed by a woman who has been charged in this ghoulish scheme.
Till, 14, was kidnapped and murdered after he whistled at a white woman in 1955 in Mississippi. The lynching of the Chicago youth helped spark the civil rights movement. A picture of his severely mutilated face was shown around the world.
His original casket is symbolic of the condition of the battered condition of the cemetery.
Officers raided the cemetery at 4400 W. 127th St. in Alsip on Wednesday morning. (Source)
Charged with felony counts of dismembering bodies are former cemetery manager Carolyn Towns, 49, and gravediggers Keith Nicks, 45, Terrence Nicks, 39, and Maurice Dailey, 59. Each faces up to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors said in some cases the workers dug up the bodies and dumped them in a vacant part of the cemetery; in others they buried new caskets on top of older ones. They split as much as $300,000 from reselling the plots, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Dart said the scam lasted four years. The FBI said it will use electronic equipment to search for remains and will identify those that were moved. The process could take months.
"This is just heartbreaking," he said.
Illinois cemeteries that accept funds for perpetual care are licensed by the state comptroller and audited yearly, said Vickie Hand, treasurer of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association. Because this alleged scheme was done off the books, an audit would not have found it, she said.
Perpetua Inc., the Arizona company that owns the cemetery, alerted police to suspected financial misconduct. It said in a statement that it will "make every effort to insure and maintain the dignity of those that have been entrusted to our care."
Robert Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Home Association, said the only comparable case was the 2002 discovery of 339 corpses at a Noble, Ga., crematory. (Source)