CHICAGO — The former manager of historic black cemetery, Burr Oak 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.
Thousands of blacks have been buried at Burr Oak 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 Carolyn 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, Terrence Nicks and Maurice 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.
Local sources confirm, Towns, 51, plead guilty to six felony charges – 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.”