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Cook County Board votes to sue Burr Oak owners
Sheriff's office has spent $326,000 so far on cemetery probe

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Dan P. Blake and Jeff Coen

Cook County Board members Tuesday voted to sue the owners of the troubled Burr Oak Cemetery to try to recoup costs incurred by a sheriff's police investigation into an alleged scheme by employees to dig up graves and resell the plots.

Sheriff Tom Dart told commissioners that so far the sheriff's office has racked up $326,000 during its investigation, primarily in overtime costs and materials.

Separately, the board approved a resolution to waive the county portion of the county clerk's death records fee for family members who are trying to find out about relatives who are buried at Burr Oak.

Also Tuesday, the head of the FBI in Chicago said investigators have recovered about 200 bones and bone fragments during their search at the cemetery since early last week.

"This was basically digging up and dropping," Robert Grant, special agent-in-charge of the FBI in Chicago, said of the gravediggers who allegedly excavated remains from old graves, dumped them in a secluded section of the cemetery and resold the plots.

Investigators are working to recover remains in two main sections, officials said. "We have to literally go through the site by hand," Grant said.

Also, the man appointed by a judge to run the cemetery isn't ready to reopen it by Aug. 1 as originally planned, his attorney said Tuesday.

Investigators have kept the cemetery gates locked since July 12, meaning thousands of desperate families can't find out whether their loved ones' graves are among those affected.

After his appointment last week, Roman Szabelski said he expected that the families would be allowed access to the cemetery by the end of the month. But his attorney, Jim Geoly, said Szabelski needs "another week" after reviewing the condition of cemetery records.

Dart pleaded for patience from the public, saying that to open the gates now would lead to a crush of upset visitors. The sheriff's office soon will offer an online site with photos of all the headstones in the cemetery -- including those undisturbed -- to help give families answers.

The Burr Oak worker who blew the whistle on the alleged scandal was identified Tuesday as Willie Esper, 26, of Chicago, the Associated Press reported.

Court papers referred to the whistleblower as "Employee A," and the AP reported that a person close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, confirmed that Esper is Employee A.

Esper unearthed bones when he was practicing digging holes. Hesitant to alert officials because he feared losing his job, he talked about the situation close enough so that a colleague would overhear him and report it to authorities, the report stated.

"I ain't a hero," Esper told the Associated Press. "I had my mouth closed too long."

Tribune reporter Kim Janssen contributed to this report.

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