On the day that his settlement check arrived, Charles Lewis paused for a moment and stared at the document.
It had been 25 years since he buried his 2-year-old daughter, Darlene, at Burr Oak Cemetery in Cook County, Ill., in an area reserved for juveniles who died too soon. And it had been three years of attending meetings, searching for death certificates and public records in an effort to sue the cemetery owners after a grave reselling scandal was discovered.
Lewis’ daughter’s grave was among those that could not be located, he said. And now, after years of complicated bankruptcy hearings, the case he and thousands others filed against the cemetery had been resolved.
As Lewis stared at his settlement check, disappointment and anger welled up in his chest, he said. He knew it would be modest, but after attorney’s fees and administrative costs, he was paid $50.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Lewis, whose father is also buried in the historic cemetery. “It’s disgusting. That grave site is my only connection to my (deceased) loved ones. Now it’s lost. And I get $50.”
It’s been three years since authorities learned four workers at the once illustrious Burr Oak Cemetery were allegedly digging up graves, dumping the remains in a lot and reselling the plots. In July 2009, the cemetery was shut down by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and four workers were arrested. Three of those cases remain in court; the alleged ring-leader was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year.
After the scandal became public, more than 5,000 people joined class-action lawsuits against the owners of the cemetery. Some hoped by financially crippling the cemetery, it would force a closure. Instead, most of those lawsuits resulted in small payments, about $100 to each family.
Earlier this month, the cemetery’s bankruptcy case officially closed. As the settlement checks have started to arrive, some families say the payments not only offer little closure, but have opened up old wounds.
Lorene Franklin’s family buried three relatives at Burr Oak, two sisters and a niece, Ruby Jean, who died as an infant. Over the years, when she visited their graves, Franklin said she suspected poor management. But she swallowed her concerns and kept quiet.
After the scandal surfaced, Franklin and her family couldn’t locate their niece’s burial plot. In addition to the alleged reselling of plots, the cemetery’s records were so poorly kept, many families were unable to determine where their loved ones were buried.
“We called a lawyer to investigate more,” said Franklin, 59, of Englewood, Ill. “It wasn’t about money. We wanted to know if our loved ones had been moved. We wanted to find out for sure ourselves.”
They were never able to locate their niece’s grave site, Franklin said. They didn’t follow the lawsuit closely or monitor the bankruptcy hearings. Franklin said they completed paperwork when they were told to, until a check arrived in the mail earlier this year.
“It’s almost an insult,” said Loretta Franklin, Lorene Franklin’s daughter. “It’s like $100 to shut you up and not talk or think about it anymore. We can’t have our relatives moved with that. If we wanted to appeal or fight, we’d have to pay a lawyer. It wasn’t just unfair to my family, it wasn’t fair to no one.”
The settlement check reminded Lorene Franklin of all the nights she spent sleepless at the possibility the remains of her relatives were disturbed.
“We paid for our people to be rested,” she said, her voice rising with frustration. “I haven’t erased them from my mind. I haven’t forgotten them. The spotlight is gone. The pressure is gone. But how do you fix this hurt?”
According to court records and documents, through Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings’ bankruptcy plan, about $2.3 million was earmarked to pay the cemetery’s creditors, which included the thousands of victims who filed suit. How court officials, lawyers and activists arrived at the settlement amount for victims is complicated.
According to the cemetery’s court-appointed trustee, Patricia Brown Holmes, because there were more than 5,000 litigants, the court decided that sending out modest payments was the fairest way to split the insurance money.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “Nobody is going to be happy. Who wants to know that their loved one’s grave was possibly desecrated? But I can guarantee you that not every grave out there was dug up. Most are still there. We decided to settle with everybody.”
The victims were divided into three categories, attorneys said. One class of litigants signed documents forfeiting any payment and devoted what would have been their money toward a fund to maintain the cemetery.
The largest class was made up of thousands of litigants who agreed to fill out paperwork, take a $100 payment and walk away. If they wanted to challenge the owners of the cemetery, they would have had to file individually, which likely would have been more expensive.
A third group of litigants, about 370 people, were those who could show evidence of significant harm, and were negotiated with individually, attorneys said. Their individual settlements were kept confidential, but the total payment to that group was about $1.2 million, Holmes said. While the settlements were not evenly split, that averages to about $3,300 per person.
“The compensation is highly inadequate,” said Tom Leahy, an attorney who represented 66 clients in a lawsuit that was folded into the bankruptcy settlement. “I can tell you, what happened at Burr Oak was an emotionally traumatic event. My clients are still having a hard time dealing with this.”
Leahy said his office decided to forgo charging their clients, each of whom accepted $100 settlements.
“We basically represented our clients pro bono,” he said. “The compensation was so inadequate, we felt it would be over-reaching on our part to take any money from that.”
Many families who accepted the $100 settlement said they spent more than that trying to prove their case. Lewis and his ex-wife Lisa Keys said they spent more than $200 obtaining death certificates and public records to prove they had loved ones buried in Burr Oak.
While the Lewis family started as Class 9 litigants - the group that claimed egregious harm - over time, they were persuaded by their attorney to transfer to the larger class of litigants. When their settlement check arrived, it was attached to an invoice from the family’s attorney, claiming half the money. The Franklin family’s attorney, David H. Charlip, did not return calls for comment.
“It’s just disrespectful and hurtful,” said Keys. “This was supposed to help, but it hurt even more. We can’t even go visit our daughter. We don’t know where she’s buried.”
Lewis said the scandal has given him nightmares and fears that his family members are no longer at peace.
“I keep thinking, when I go, will this happen to me?” he said. “A grave is supposed to be sacred. That was my baby. When you lay somebody down you expect them to stay laid down. You expect them to rest, then you can rest.”
For some families, the check represented yet one more injustice they had to face and, eventually, forget.
“That check brought back bad memories,” said Florine C. Brewer, 79, of Riverdale, Ill., who buried four family members at Burr Oak, but could not locate them after the scandal broke. But Brewer said she cashed her $50 check, then tried to tuck it all in the back of her mind.
“What has been done, has been done,” she said. “I just take it one day at a time and move on. I thought, with all that stuff carrying on there, and with so many hurt people, more would have come from this.”
Over the past three years, burials have resumed at Burr Oak - albeit at a much slower frequency.
The former director of the cemetery, Carolyn Towns, plead guilty to criminal charges connected to the case and was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year. Three other former cemetery workers - Maurice Dailey and Keith and Terrence Nicks await trail and are due in court later this month, officials with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said.
More than $2 million of insurance money was set aside to revamp the graveyard and clean it up. Some of that funding will also go toward constructing a monument to honor the dead whose graves were desecrated. The cemetery is now managed by a new staff.
“I tell people it’s going to take us a couple of years to get it where it needs to go,” said Holmes, the trustee who has been charged with overseeing the cemetery since September. “It’s a big job.”
On the day that his settlement check arrived, Charles Lewis paused for a moment and stared at the document.
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