The former director of a historic black cemetery in the South suburbs was convicted Friday in a money-making scheme that involved digging up bodies and reselling plots, a development that left still-bitter relatives reliving the grief of not knowing their loved ones' final resting place.
Carolyn Towns, 51, of Blue Island, pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, according to the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Towns was director of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip -- the burial site of lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington -- when prosecutors say she and three workers desecrated hundreds of graves.
Till's grave wasn't harmed, but his original glass-topped casket -- a symbol of the civil rights movement because it was designed to show the world his mutilated body -- was discovered in a garbage-strewn storage shed during the investigation. It has since been donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Prosecutors say Towns stole more than $100,000 from the corporation that owned Burr Oak by keeping the payments for burials and having workers stack bodies or dump remains in unmarked mass graves.
Columbus McDonald, 71, of Lansing, whose parents are buried at Burr Oak, said he's satisfied with Towns' sentence.
"I'm a Christian. I believe you forgive," McDonald said. "I'm through with it."
But Louella Johnson of Chicago said 12 years isn't enough for Towns. She has numerous relatives buried at Burr Oak, including her mother, grandparents, a brother and a daughter. The 67-year-old retired postal worker hasn't been able to find many of her relatives' graves.
"That was not enough time for the stuff she did and the money she stole from people," Johnson said.
Towns pleaded guilty to all the counts she was indicted on, including dismembering a human body, theft from a place of worship, damaging 10 or more gravestones, desecration of human remains and conspiracy to dismember multiple human bodies.
Three other former Burr Oak workers have been charged and are scheduled to appear in court next week.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he's happy this phase of the criminal proceedings has ended. He called Towns "the mastermind" of the scheme uncovered by the sheriff's department in 2009.
The sheriff said Towns' conviction won't bring closure for families with relatives buried at Burr Oak. Since human remains were scattered over a wide area and crushed into the ground, it's impossible for many to know where their loved ones are, Dart said.
"It's an open wound for everybody involved," he said.