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Authorities in suburban Chicago say workers at a historically black cemetery dug up hundreds of graves and resold the burial plots. It was all part of an elaborate scheme to collect money from the unsuspecting bereaved. Four cemetery workers have now been charged and the investigation continues.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Burr Oak Cemetery is the final resting place for many famous African-Americans, including lynching victim Emmett Till. His death in 1955 stoked the Civil Rights Movement. But today, a line of regular folks like Joyce Harris(ph), walked through the iron gates here to check on the gravesites of their relatives. Harris buried her son her at Burr Oak Cemetery in 2000.

Mr. JOYCE HARRIS: I was very, very disturbed to think that my son's resting plot was now no longer there, and that's very heartbreaking. It's absolutely heartbreaking to think that the loved ones they just tossed like that.

CORLEY: About 300 graves were desecrated. Harris said, ultimately, she found her son's grave had not been disturbed, and she's thankful. Thirty-four-year-old Antanio Gutierrez(ph), who had a map showing the burial sites for seven family members, said he was dumbfounded by the grave-robbing scheme.

Mr. ANTANIO GUTIERREZ: It's one of the most deplorable things you can do to someone, you know, especially someone who can't - these are our family members, they're in graves, they can't defend themselves. And these people are just allowed to do whatever they want just to pocket some money, it's not worth it.

CORLEY: Here's how the scheme allegedly worked. A group of four cemetery employees, an office manager and three gravediggers had an arrangement in which the manager would take cash and give a deed for a burial plot. When the customer left, the gravediggers would take a body from a grave and dump it in the back of the cemetery and reuse the grave. Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart says many of the bodies have been reduced to a pile of bones.

Sheriff TOM DART (Cook County, Illinois): One individual, who was the office manager here, was the individual who was at sort of the center of this operation. She was the one that was taking the payments. She was the one that was directing individuals to dig, and this was not done in a very, very delicate way, folks.

CORLEY: Dart says this was not removing graves or replacing graves, it was dumping bodies, and records were destroyed to cover up the scheme. The sheriff says there should be state laws requiring cross-referencing of cemetery documents. He says right now there are no regulations whatsoever.

Sheriff DART: If you get your haircut, you are more - a barber is more highly regulated than the people who operate cemeteries.

CORLEY: The cemetery scheme allegedly went on for about four years. It was six weeks ago that the Arizona-based owner of Burr Oak contacted authorities about financial irregularities. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez says now all four of the cemetery workers have been formally charged.

Ms. ANITA ALVAREZ (Cook County State's Attorney): The charges, in fact, were dismembering a human body. Each one of the four individuals have been, in fact, charged with that particular crime. This is a class F felony. The sentence range on a class F felony is 6 to 30 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

CORLEY: Investigators are now mapping the gravesites using thermal imaging to determine whether any other bodies have been stacked. Many people here say they will be back tomorrow to make sure that their loved one's gravesite is intact. Meantime, investigators say it will take months to finish this investigation.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Alsip, Illinois.

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