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Sheriff On Mass Child Graves: "This Could Not Be More Appalling"

Chicago Sun-Times via YellowBrix

February 18, 2011

COOK COUNTY, IL – Cook County Medical Examiners’ staff loaded as many as 26 fetuses and stillborn babies of Cook County moms who can’t afford a burial into a single pauper’s coffin — a decision Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Thursday called “horribly offensive.”

Calling for reforms of how the remains of the state’s poorest and most helpless residents are treated, Dart cited evidence that the indigent and unidentified dead are being stacked eight deep in taxpayer-funded plots.

The unmarked burial locations in a dirt field at Homewood Memorial Gardens — where almost all Cook County indigents have been buried since 1980 — are so vaguely recorded that bodies could never be found, he said, warning that the “morally reprehensible” practices his investigators uncovered risk hampering police investigations.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, we were disturbed,” Dart said of the discoveries, which came in the wake of his 2009 investigation of the Burr Oak grave desecration scandal. “From a human standpoint, we were absolutely appalled.”

But Dart’s complaints about the grisliest finds at the Homewood cemetery — involving more than two dozen fetuses and stillborn infants buried in a single coffin — have set him at odds with Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones.

Jones acknowledged in a statement that her staff “respectfully” placed multiple baby remains in a single adult coffin, but denied through a spokesman Dart’s claim that unidentified “mixed tissues” that may have included animal remains were placed in the same box. County spokeswoman Jessey Neves said the “remains were treated with respect and fit easily” into the casket.

Dart countered that he has worked closely with Jones and that he “in no way holds her responsible,” but added “I find it horribly offensive…these mothers signing their fetuses away for indigent burial weren’t properly informed.”

“This could not be more appalling if you wanted it to be,” he said. “Babies are buried 10-15 to a box. They are buried in there with animal remains. They are buried in there with arms and legs from body parts that they found during the course of the year. It is not anything that our county or society should ever sit there and say is acceptable.”

Both Jones and Dart agreed the cemetery has failed to live up to its contract with the county, which pays it $250 per burial and requires bodies to be buried side by side. On a visit to the cemetery during the Feb. 1 blizzard, Dart said he saw coffins stacked on top of each other in a hill in the corner of the cemetery.

The cemetery’s owner, Thomas Flynn, Thursday acknowledged stacking indigent coffins between layers of dirt, a process he said was “like layering a cake.”

He said the cemetery rents a U-Haul truck to pick up the boxes of bodies from the medical examiner’s office.

“I think putting 25 babies in a box is horrible, too,” he said. “The coroner’s office does what it has to do because they have a budget. It’s an unfortunate part of society that more dignity can’t be shown for people buried by the county. In the end it comes down to economics.”

He disputed Dart’s claim that the cemetery lists locations of graves by vague reference to trees planted nearby.

But Dart said “If a parent wanted to go and visit their child that died shortly after birth, once again, we couldn’t even direct them where to go.

“We could say go out there by that big tree somewhere. Some of them were even informed there was a special angel section out there. There is no such place. It does not exist.”

He added the county board should hold hearings before renewing Flynn’s contract, which Neves said earned the cemetery $42,000 for burying 175 indigents last year. No other cemetery has bid in a decade, likely “because they’re scared something like this would happen,” Flynn said.

Relatives of those buried at Homewood have long complained of gruesome finds, including a human hand sticking out of the ground and missing grave sites there, but Dart said the cemetery was able to get away with it because “nobody was watching.”

Dart said he believes there was “no criminal intent,” but that the problems highlight a lack of oversight, urging the state to adopt a bill sponsored by his former chief of staff, State Rep. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago).

The bill requires coroners and medical examiners to take a DNA sample from unidentified remains at the time of burial, then affix a metal tag to the body. A $1 fee would be added for copies of death certificates to cover costs. The bill would also limit how many bodies can be stacked atop one another and prohibit the burial of multiple bodies in one casket.

“If it means increasing the price we pay to $400 to see people buried decently, I think most people would agree that is the right thing to do,” Dart said.

He pointed to a 6-year-old cold case his investigators solved last year. Glenn Serratt, 49, of Justice, went missing in 2004, but was never reported missing. Because he was unidentified at the time of his death, he was set to be buried as an unknown indigent. But investigators stopped his burial and held his body while pursuing DNA matches. Last fall, a match was made and his family recovered his body for burial, Dart said.

Around 12 unidentified people are buried in Cook County every year. Taking a DNA sample — might help bring closure to the relatives of more than 100,000 people listed missing nationwide, Dart said.

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