I finally got a big career-making news story last Mother’s Day. “50 visitors locked inside cemetery for 3.5 hours,” said the Sun-Times. I just had to get to the bottom of the story of the prisoners of Forest Home.
The article did have one obvious hole, though. The detainees were reportedly locked in at 4:15 p.m. and freed at 6:08 p.m., which is a 1.5 hour incarceration. The Sun-Times ran a correction the next day.
Still, I raced to the cemetery and grilled the staff. General Manager Jim Peters told me that Mother’s Day is one of their busiest days.
Some of the visitors who were later trapped were barbecuing and possibly consuming alcoholic beverages, they said. At about 4:00 p.m., cemetery workers advised visitors that the gates were closing at 4:30.
Some visitors responded to this announcement with profanity and hostility, Peters said.
Nevertheless, the 1st Avenue gate was locked at 4:10 p.m., cutting off escape to the west. The cemetery workers again warned the visitors of the 4:30 closure of the Des Plaines Avenue gate and pointed to the sign that spelled it out.
Finally, at 4:45 p.m., workers locked the last gate and went home.
Last year, a motorist was locked in Forest Home and drove through the Des Plaines gate. Not much is known about this person, except they were driving a red car.
A sign at the gate says: If you’re locked in, call the Forest Park Police. They have the keys. The Mother’s Day visitors called the police but their key didn’t fit.
Peter’s first knowledge of the ill-fitting key came at about 5:30 p.m. He called a cemetery worker at home to have her return and open the gate. The worker was instructed by police not to have any contact with the angry detainees until officers were present. She unlocked the gate in police presence and the visitors left.
But the media damage had already been done. One of the visitors had called Sun-Times reporter Gary Wisby on a cell phone from the cemetery.
Wisby later told me that the call came in and other visitors chimed in on the same cell phone. Wisby, unfortunately, did not get the cell number or any contact information. He said he reported what the visitors told him but did make a slight mistake in the math.
I next interviewed investigating officer Sgt. Dan Harder. He also didn’t have any contact information on the victims, because no police report was made. Harder questioned the Sun-Times estimate of 50 detainees. He said there were only 9-10 cars and doubted each one had five occupants.
I desperately wanted the visitors’ side of the story. I used my confidential databases and sources to try and locate them. I found people with the same names but they denied being trapped in Forest Home on Mother’s Day.
In a way, though, the visitors had already had their say in the Sun-Times. As for the cemetery, swift action was taken. The Forest Park Police now have ten workable keys.
But Peters still doesn’t know what to do about visitors who won’t leave on time. As you can see, this enormous story doesn’t end here, not with Memorial Day coming up.