FORMER MANAGER OF BURR OAK
CEMETERY PLEADS GUILTY
Friday, July 8, 2011
—The former manager of historic Burr Oak Cemetery will spend 12 years in prison after she pled guilty to her lead role in a grave-desecration scheme that netted her more than $100,000 in cash, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced Friday.
Carolyn Towns, 51, plead guilty to six felony charges on Friday – exactly two years after she and three other Burr Oak employees were arrested for their roles in the crimes. Before Cook County Judge Frank Castiglione in the Bridgeview courthouse, Towns quietly admitted her guilt to charges of dismembering a human body and theft of $100,000 to $500,000 from a place of worship, both class X felonies – the highest criminal charge in Illinois. She also admitted to removing grave stones or markers from a cemetery, desecration of human remains, removal of human remains and conspiracy to dismember a human body.
Co-defendants Keith Nicks, 47, Terrance Nicks, 41, and Maurice Dailey, 61, continue to face charges.
“I’m pleased the ringleader of this scheme is being held accountable for her horrific actions,” Dart said. “The damage done to the families who had loved ones buried at Burr Oak is unforgivable. This also reinforces why the changes we fought to bring to cemetery oversight in Illinois are so important. We can never let the cemetery industry slip into anonymity again.”
Burr Oak is a historic cemetery in Alsip where thousands of African-Americans have been buried for decades – including civil rights inspiration Emmett Till, jazz singer Dinah Washington and numerous Negro League baseball players.
In 2009, Cook County Sheriff’s investigators uncovered a scheme Towns had led since at least 2003 where cemetery workers would unearth bodies in graves without headstones – or simply destroy the headstones – to make room for new burials. Towns would collect cash from families that would then pay for that burial spot and she gave some of that cash to her co-defendants. Nicks, Nicks and Dailey are accused of actually exhuming the coffins and bodies and dumping the remains in two separate areas of the cemetery.
Since then, Sheriff Dart advocated for substantial changes to the way cemeteries are regulated. Previously, there was virtually no oversight for their operations. Though Gov. Pat Quinn signed those changes into law, the Illinois legislature has seen recent movement to undo many of the changes made to protect families and their loved ones.
In court on Friday, Judge Castiglione called Towns’ actions “unconscionable,” adding that they caused “irreparable emotional and psychological harm,” particularly since the scheme was “calculated and conspiratorial and intentional.”
“There is no way to repair the harm done to those grieving family members and friends,” he told Towns.
Towns blamed her actions on a gambling addiction and the easy access she had to cash from families seeking burial plots in the historic cemetery.
Dart thanked Assistant State’s Attorneys Nicholas Trutenko and John Carey for their work with detectives to secure a conviction.
The other defendants in the case remain free on bond and each face class X felonies, among other charges, for their roles. Towns will remain free until Oct. 31, allowing her time to make arrangements for her elderly mother, for whom she is the primary caregiver. On Oct. 31, she must report to the Illinois Department of Corrections to begin her sentence, which will be followed by three years of supervised release.