BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) — Two brothers accused of digging up graves, dumping human remains and reselling plots at a suburban Chicago cemetery went on trial Wednesday in Cook County Circuit Court.
Prosecutors alleged that cemetery employees Keith Nicks, 51, and Terrence Nicks, 44, engaged in the "cold and callous" acts between 2003 and 2009 at the historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The graveyard contains the burial site of lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington.
Prosecutors say the scheme was masterminded by the cemetery's then-director, Carolyn Towns, and was prompted by the belief the facility was becoming overcrowded.
The "rogue crew began to break open graves, crush caskets, scoop human remains and dump them in the back of the cemetery with the rest of the garbage," Assistant State's Attorney Eric Leafblad said of the defendants.
The men took advantage of the unmarked graves in the cemetery, according to prosecutors. The defendants often "double stacked" graves on top of each other without telling the families of those burying their loved ones.
Prosecutors allege the scheme netted the participants $300,000. A fund set up in 2005 to build a memorial to the 14-year-old Till, whose 1954 murder became a key event in the civil rights movement, was also looted, authorities say.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said at the time the defendants were charged that Till's grave was not disturbed but that he did not have information about the graves of Washington and others.
Defense attorneys argued Wednesday that it was illogical for prosecutors to suggest the brothers engaged in the scheme due to the scarcity of graves, because the cemetery is still operating.
Keith Nicks never benefited financially and those expected to testify against him were "troubled" workers, defense attorney Tony Peraica said.
James Freyman, who is representing Terrence Nicks, said his client has family members buried in the cemetery.
Towns, 51, pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy, theft and desecration of human remains charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison. A fourth person, backhoe operator Maurice Dailey, 64, is awaiting trial.
As a result of the actions at Burr Oak, the Illinois Legislature in 2010 passed the Cemetery Oversight Act, which created a regulatory and oversight structure for the state's funeral and cemetery industries.