DON BABWIN, Associated Press Writer
AP Photo/File

ALSIP, Illinois (AP) — Four former employees accused of digging up bodies and reselling plots at a historic black cemetery near Chicago made about $300,000 in a scheme believed to have stretched back at least four years, authorities said Friday.

Three gravediggers and a manager at the Burr Oak Cemetery are accused of unearthing hundreds of corpses and either dumping some in a weeded, desolate area near the cemetery or double-stacking others in graves. The cemetery is the burial place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington.

While Till’s grave site was not disturbed, Sheriff Tom Dart said investigators found his original iconic glass-topped casket rusting in a shack at the cemetery.

The 14-year-old Chicagoan was killed in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to his uncle’s house in Mississippi. Nearly 100,000 people visited the casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago, and images of his battered body helped spark the civil rights movement.

When Till was exhumed in 2005 during an investigation of his death, he was reburied in a new casket. The original casket was supposed to be kept for a planned memorial to Till.

Thousands of families have come to the cemetery since Thursday looking for answers about their loved ones, authorities said. Hundreds of relatives, some clutching maps of the 150-acre (60-hectare) site, were seen at the cemetery Friday.

Dart said officials have assisted the families in locating relatives’ plots, and family members have reported at least 30 cases of disturbed graves and missing headstones.

The Illinois official who regulates cemeteries said Friday that the process of revoking the cemetery’s license has been started.

The suspects, all of whom are black have been charged with one count of dismembering a human body, a felony.

Bond was set at $250,000 for the cemetery’s manager, and at $200,000 for the other three.

Authorities said the cemetery manager also pocketed donations she elicited for a Till memorial museum. She has not been charged in connection with those allegations. Court documents show she was fired from the cemetery in late May amid allegations of financial wrongdoing.

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