FBI Sets Up Command Center At Burr Oak
Investigators gather at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip Monday, July 13, 2009. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)
The FBI set up a mobile command center truck at the Alsip cemetery this morning. About 20 FBI agents and 10 investigators from the Cook County sheriff's office began combing the area which they termed a crime scene, FBI Spokesman Ross Rice said at a press conference held outside of the cemetery gates.
Unlike previous disasters where names and identities of survivors were available to compare DNA samples from bodies, at Burr Oak the cemetery records are in such disarray they don't know who was buried there, Rice said.
"It may not be possible to identify the remains, in a perfect world yes we would like to identify every remain and bring closure to the family, " said Rice. "Here we don't know who's been unearthed and who was buried here based on the records.''
Among the FBI Investigators is a forensic anthropologist from the FBI's lab at Quantico, Virginia. Investigators began cataloging the remains found in a 1,600 square foot by 1,200 square foot area of the cemetery. They began by breaking down the area into different grids, removing debris and weeds from the area.
No remains have been moved yet, but remains are scattered throughout the area, some visible to the naked eye, Rice said. He said the role of the FBI is to catalog the information to be used by prosecutors in a criminal proceedings.
"It's going to take a long time,'' Rice said.
As authorities begin the painstaking job of mapping Burr Oak Cemetery and tracking down desecrated graves, the FBI truck and a Cook County Highway Department truck with a load of gravel pulled into the cemetery this morning.
They were flanked by dozens of unmarked cars, along with a Cook County Forest Preserve District truck, around 8 a.m.
Sheriff's officials say the cemetery will be closed to the public for at least the end of the week and could reopen next week.
Detectives believe at least 300 bodies were illegally exhumed and dumped in a mass grave so their plots could be resold, but thousands of dead remain unaccounted for by their families because records have been destroyed.
Authorities say they are trying to identify more than 100,000 graves.
Relatives of more than 7,000 people buried in Burr Oak are trying to find out whether the graves of their loved ones are among those desecrated, authorities said Sunday.
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is waiting for the thumbs up from the state emergency management director to declare Burr Oaks a disaster area, Stroger spokesman James Ramos said this morning.
That would help bring in more aid to help Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart investigate, Dart spokesman Bill Cunningham said.
The number of angry mourners grew over the weekend as investigators locked the gates of the cemetery near Alsip and Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes vowed to have the cemetery seized from owners.
On Sunday alone, 1,000 relatives filled out forms with their buried family members' details at a drop-in center set up by the Cook County sheriff's department.
"We opened at 9 a.m., but there were people here waiting at 7 a.m.," said Willie Winters, who was running the drop-in center at Eisenhower High School.
Around him, dozens of middle-age and elderly African-Americans sat at desks lining the school's corridors, clutching photocopied obituaries and other documents as they completed the paperwork.