The original casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy whose 1955 murder helped put the civil rights movement on a national stage, was found discarded during an investigation into a scheme at an Illinois cemetery.
Till remains buried at Oak Burr Cemetery in Chicago, a historically Black gravesite. But, the original casket in which he was buried was founding rusting in a dilapidated shack at the cemetery by investigators looking into reports of missing headstones.
According the Chicago Sun Times, a manager of the cemetery and three others last week were accused of dismembering human bodies. Investigators said that the group may have pocketed as much as $300,000 from the scheme.
The four removed caskets from certain plots, and the empty graves were resold off the books to unsuspecting families for cash. As many as 300 graves may have been desecrated and the bodies dumped into a mass grave, police said, but Till's was not among them.
The cemetery is owned by Tucson, Arizona-based Perpetua Inc. The scheme unraveled after authorities received a tip from a cemetery worker who was not involved.
"All of us who were working on this for the last week were pretty distraught," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dat said. "You start with the premise of your own loved ones and how they are cared for after they are buried, but there is also a true significance to this particular cemetery."
A lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the families seeks appropriate reburial and damages for emotional distress.
"There should be ... a special place in hell for these graveyard thieves," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who appeared with authorities at a press conference at the cemetery Thursday.
Till, a Chicago native, was kidnapped and murdered after he allegedly flirted with a White woman during a summer visit to Mississippi. Till's mother famously insisted on an open casket funeral to display her son's mutilated face.
Simeon Wright, a cousin of the slain teenager, said his family learned recently that the casket that once held their late relative had been discarded and neglected at the cemetery.
The casket that originally held Till's body was replaced after his body was exhumed in 2005 as part of an investigation his death. As is customary following exhumation, the body was placed in another coffin for reburial.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Till's relatives want a civil rights museum to take possession of the casket to keep it properly preserved.
In addition to Till, others buried at Burr Oak include jazz legend Dinah Washington, blues producer Willie Dixon and pianist Otis Spann.