On Wednesday July 8th, 2009, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department raided the historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. Six weeks earlier, the Sheriff’s Department began investigating unsettling and macabre allegations: the cemetery manager had allegedly been digging up graves and selling occupied plots to unsuspecting buyers. The scheme was targeted at poor African American families who paid for plots in cash with little evidence of the transaction apart from the cemetery's own records.
What the Sheriff’s Department found in its initial search of the grounds was an area towards the back of the cemetery, roughly the size of three football fields, where cemetery workers had been instructed to dump the remains of emptied graves. Bones had been crushed, scattered about, and in some instances discarded in piles behind dumpsters. Caskets had been smashed along with burial vaults and heaped in piles throughout the back of the cemetery. Sheriff’s officials estimated that as many as 300 bodies had been disinterred and left in this area.
Sheriff Tom Dart, in cooperation with the FBI, eventually shut down the entire cemetery and declared it the largest crime scene in Illinois history. During one of the multiple press conferences held during the week, Dart seemed visibly shaken as he described how his officers had been unable to locate the markers for an entire section of the cemetery known as "Baby Land". A spokeswoman for Dart later elaborated that “every family that came out to look for an infant in Baby Land was unable to find a headstone.”
Word spread to the community, and by mid-day Wednesday, family members who had buried loved ones in the cemetery started to gather outside the gates. On Thursday, approximately 450 people arrived at the cemetery, hoping to find headstones of relatives and loved ones. On Friday, July 10, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department estimated that 700 people visited the cemetery, looking for any indication that their loved ones still remained in their original gravesites.
The cemetery, which was Chicago’s first burial place for its African American residents, contains within its walls the final resting place of 1950’s lynching victim Emmett Till, jazz legends Dinah Washington and Willie Dixon, at least 15 Negro League Baseball players, as well as over 100,000 graves of local residents' grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. As of noon this past Monday, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office had reported over 12,000 requests filed in-person for information about the burial sites of loved ones, over 37,500 phone calls to hotlines, and approximately 4,000 emails from concerned family members.
Walking the grounds of the cemetery early that Friday were people clutching maps that had been provided by the Sheriff’s office, which outlined recorded burial plots. Others walked with family Bibles that contained detailed notes of burial locations, obituaries, and funeral cards—even hastily scratched lists of family & friends who had been buried in the cemetery. Another woman held a small piece of paper on which she had collected the names of relatives buried in the cemetery. Using a map provided by Cook County officials, she was sure that she was standing on the spot where she had buried her uncle some 10 years earlier. The headstone, however, stated that the occupant of the gravesite had been buried there only four years ago.
An elderly African-American woman, also holding a piece of paper containing names of family members, had written the word “okay” alongside each name on the top half of the list. The woman, who asked not to be photographed or identified, stated, “The bottom half is for later. I know that’s in a part where people aren’t being found.”
The Reverend Jesse Jackson was onsite throughout all of Thursday and Friday, walking the grounds with families, making phone calls and arrangements for people to be escorted to far-reaching areas of the cemetery, and in some instances, personally escorting families to the spots they thought their loved ones were buried. “There is a special place in hell for these graveyard robbers,” stated Jackson during a press conference.