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Ex-Burr Oak Cemetery director Carolyn Towns pleads guilty, gets 12 years

Carolyn Towns

Carolyn Towns

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Updated: July 9, 2011 6:07AM



Carolyn Towns, who for years consoled grieving families as manager of the Burr Oak cemetery, herself wept Friday as she admitted her role in a grave reselling scandal at the historic black burial grounds.

Two years to the day after the scandal blew open, Towns, 51, blamed a gambling addiction, told a judge how sorry she was for the families pained by the scheme she oversaw, and accepted a 12-year prison sentence.

“I am very sorry for this situation and how it has affected my family and the families of the Burr Oak cemetery,” she said quietly. “It was always my goal to treat them with dignity and respect.”

On July 8, 2009, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that Towns and three other cemetery workers had been digging up graves at the iconic cemetery, dumping the bodies and reselling the plots for cash since at least 2003. Thousands of relatives clamored to the gates, looking for their loved ones’ plots, until Dart declared the 150-acre campus a crime scene.

Lawsuits that ensued against Towns and the cemetery’s parent company resulted in bankruptcy reorganization. A new trustee was appointed in June to restore and run the cemetery where civil rights icon Emmett Till, jazz singer Dinah Washington and many Negro league baseball players are buried.

Towns pleaded guilty to six of the seven original felony counts against her, including dismembering a human body and theft from a place of worship. Investigators said she took some $300,000 over several years.

Judge Frank Castiglione berated her for betraying the trust of the families who sought Towns’ help at a such a vulnerable time.

“The victims in this case are essentially the public,” he said. “The defendant’s actions in these crimes caused ­­— while not physical harm ­— I believe irreparable emotional and psychological harm.

“There is no way to repair the harm done to those grieving families and friends.”

Towns’ attorney Richard S. Kling said the money she stole fed a terrible gambling addiction, and blinded her sense of what she knew was right.

When the hearing was over, she sat with her husband in the courtroom and cried.

Then she put on sunglasses and, without commenting, walked out with her attorney to a car waiting for her.

Towns will turn herself in on Oct. 31. Castiglione told her he only granted her the delay so she can make arrangements for the care of her elderly mother.

Towns’ former crew and codefendants, foreman Keith Nicks, 47, of Chicago; backhoe operator Maurice “Bear” Dailey, 61, of Robbins; and grave digger Terrence Nicks, 41, of Chicago, still await trial on the same charges.

Prosecutors said Towns would accept cash payments from families of the recently deceased, pocket the money and direct the gravediggers to bury the bodies in graves that already were occupied.

The crew would crush the vaults and caskets in the graves, dump the human remains in the part of the cemetery where they threw garbage and dirt, they said. And they would “double stack” graves to create “bogus graves,” they said.

The case made headlines and led TV newscasts, with revelations about shocking conditions at the cemetery, where investigators found bones and caskets dumped in piles after they’d been dug up so burial plots could be resold and reused. In some cases, several bodies were buried in single graves.

And record-keeping was so bad — with records having disintegrated or vanished — that authorities couldn’t tell who was supposed to be buried in each grave.

The scandal prompted a law, passed last year by the Illinois Legislature, requiring cemeteries to provide information to a central database on graves, and establishing a “Consumer Bill of Rights” telling families their options, costs and exactly where their loved one will be buried.

But the Senate has voted 54-2 to eliminate the gravesite database, as well as background checks for cemetery employees, which the law also requires. The former director of a historic south suburban cemetery at the center of a grave-reselling scandal pleaded guilty Friday to criminal charges including dismemberment of a human body and theft and was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison.

Carolyn Towns, 51, of Blue Island, who formerly oversaw the operation of Burr Oak Cemetery near Alsip, won’t have to report to prison until Oct. 31, a judge in Bridgeview said, so she can make arrangements for the care of her elderly mother.

Towns was convicted of crimes that included stealing more than $100,000 from the company that operated Burr Oak.

Three other former Burr Oak employees still face charges in the scandal, uncovered by the Cook County sheriff’s department in July 2009, that involved digging up graves and reselling burial plots.

Towns’ guilty plea Friday to charges of dismembering a human body, theft from a place of worship, damaging 10 or more gravestones, desecration of human remains, removal of human remains of multiple deceased human beings from a burial ground and conspiracy to dismember multiple human bodies came exactly two years after the charges were filed against her and the others — gravediggers Maurice Dailey, 61, of Robbins, Keith Nicks, 47, of Chicago, and Terrence Nicks, 41, of Chicago.

Prosecutors said she accepted cash payments from families of the recently deceased. She would pocket the money then direct the gravediggers to bury the bodies in graves that were already occupied.

“In many instances, the gravediggers would crush the vaults and caskets in the graves and then dump the human remains in another area of the cemetery which was generally used for dumping garbage and dirt,” prosecutors said.

“In other instances, they would ‘double-stack’ graves — a practice referred by Burr Oak employees as creating ‘bogus graves.’ “

The case made headlines and led TV newscasts, with revelations about shocking conditions at the cemetery, where investigators found bones and caskets dumped in piles after they’d been dug up so burial plots could be resold and reused. In some cases, several bodies were buried in single graves.

And record-keeping was so bad — with records having disintegrated or vanished — that authorities couldn’t tell who was supposed to be buried in each grave.

The scandal prompted a law, passed last year by the Illinois Legislature, requiring cemeteries to provide information to a central database on graves, and establishing a “Consumer Bill of Rights” telling families their options, costs and exactly where their loved one will be buried.

But the the Senate has voted 54-2 to eliminate the gravesite database, as well as background checks for cemetery employees, which the law also requires.



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