Tri-State Crematory disaster,
The 10th anniversary
The 10th anniversary
Ten years have passed since the Noble community in Walker County was thrust into the international spotlight as the Tri-State Crematory catastrophe unfolded. The attention that catapulted the community into headlines has faded. But those who coordinated the search effort haven’t forgotten the traumatic events or the massive operation, especially the first two days.
Initial hours of Feb. 15
Walker County sheriff Steve Wilson was a mere month into his second term on Feb. 15, 2002, when the first bodies were discovered.
In less than 12 hours that day, Wilson’s responsibilities had changed from judging a chili cook-off at lunch to ending the day with a CNN interview after the initial phase of discoveries at Tri-State.
“Little did I know that CNN, Fox, the BBC, the Singapore Press and the South African Gazette, along with everyone else, would be here in a few days.” Wilson said.
The investigation began when federal Environmental Protection Agency officials visited the Marsh property. They were seeking any evidence of inappropriate handling of human bodies.
Two complaints had been previously registered by a propane delivery person.
A deputy was sent to the property in November 2001, with the complaint stating that a dog had dragged a human bone, according to Wilson. Nothing was found at that time.
“A cursory walk by (a deputy) without training in recognizing skeletal remains would have had a hard time recognizing it as a crime scene,” said Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Greg Ramey, one of a handful of officials at the crematory in the first few hours of Feb. 15.
The team entered the rear of the property and after a few hours discovered a “human skull of unknown origin,” which prompted the 911 call for Walker County Sheriff’s Office investigators.
Walker County sheriff’s detectives Walk Hensley and Mason Brewer were first called to the scene as EPA officials had videotaped a skull found in the wooded southeastern area of the Marshes’ 18-acre property, according to Wilson.
The two investigators met EPA officials in the parking lot and viewed the three-minute video. Hensley relayed what he saw on the video to Walker County coroner Dewayne Wilson.
After the coroner arrived and the GBI had been notified, Brewer and Hensley then proceeded back to where the skull was found, along with EPA officials.
“Initially walking through the grounds there was really no odor (of decomposition),” Wilson said about the most frequently asked question he has received in years following the case. Some of the mass burials were in a pine forest on the property.
“Everything looked perfectly normal,” Dewayne Wilson said. “You couldn’t see anything obvious at all.”
The decomposition odor was limited a few feet away from the metal vaults, according to Ramey.
Several law enforcement and governmental officials’ accounts of the property recall that initial glances of the property didn’t have signs of the despicable deception buried beneath.
Consent to search
Walker County sheriff’s Maj. Mike Freeman, a captain in 2002, met with Brent Marsh, who operated the crematory, and requested permission to search the property, which was granted by his Brent’s mother Clara. Freeman recalls Brent saying, “Mom says to cooperate, so whatever y’all need.”
“At any point and time (Brent), or the other Marshes, could have rescinded their consent to be on the property. We were still searching for a law that he had broken, to be able to get a search warrant and be able to stay.” Hensley said.
No immediate law had been found to be violated, which actually could have resulted in the Marsh family rescinding the permission extended to law enforcement officials, sheriff Wilson acknowledged.
“When he (Brent) initially talked to me, he basically said that a lot of the stuff we were seeing back there was stuff that his daddy (Ray) had done,” Wilson said.
It was a statement that would ultimately be proven to have been a lie by Marsh, as none of the bodies were linked to Ray Marsh’s operation of the crematory, according to officials.
Later that day, Brent Marsh said to investigators, “I will tell you about what is in front of the fence, but not what is behind it,” Hensley recalled.
While the larger team had investigated the skull, Freeman, Ramey and coroner Wilson discovered a shipping crate for bodies alongside a building. Wilson opened the container to find remains of an elderly black man in a suit, the first body to be discovered on the property.
Brent Marsh’s demeanor is described as “dumbfounded” and “calm” as he followed along with Freeman. Marsh casually answered investigators’ questions in a cooperative manner, according to Wilson.
Broken-down vehicles and heavy equipment were found around the property, including a hearse that contained another body. However, the cremation chamber were determined to have been operational following a test by state officials.
Wilson met with Ray Brent, the bed-ridden father, in 2002, but was unable to question him due to the severity of his medical condition.
“If you’re asking me, ‘Do I think that they (Clara Marsh, Brent’s mother, and Lashae Marsh, his sister) knew about it based on what was all over the place there,” Ashburn said, “there is no way they couldn’t have.”
He cited the casket in Brent’s backyard as one of several items the family couldn’t overlook.
The grueling work became even more difficult as night descended.
Officials secured the site with posted law enforcement and began planning for what was ahead.
Other responding agencies on the first day included Georgia Emergency Management Agency; the board of Pardons and Paroles, which took family members’ phone calls; and the State Patrol, which secured the perimeter.
Recovery and identification process
Officials refined the search process during the second day. Four teams of at least six individuals were assigned to an area of the property, according to Hensley.
All of those who worked at the site volunteered, beginning with a 4 a.m. arrival at the crematory and working until dark.
County road workers operated backhoes that slowly removed the top layers of soil. Investigators wearing veterinary gloves used gardening shovels to free the bodies.
Each discovery was photographed and documented, for a total process with each body that lasted several hours for those bodies buried in the woods or in several mass graves that Marsh created.
Medical devices like hip replacements were helpful in identifying some of the bodies.
A unique difficulty in this case was that medical records for deceased people were discarded in some cases, making for a more challenging identification.
Bodies were sent to a pre-morgue operated by Dr. Kris Sperry, the state’s medical examiner.
There were a total of 226 persons identified in the case, a numbering system identified each remain that was discovered. In a small percentage of those identified. Multiple numbers corresponded to the same person, meaning separate portions of the same remains had been scattered, according to Ramey.
In cases of families that brought cremains to officials, identifying those cremains to a specific person was not possible. Several families had been told that they had been given cremains, only to have a loved one identified later at the crematory.
Several of the bodies discovered were embalmed by funeral homes, which prevents a DNA identification and rendered some among those as unidentified.
As of February 2003, 112 remains had never been identified. Characteristics of those individuals have remained on a GBI website that is still active.
It is suspected that a number of those remains are cadavers from medical colleges that have records stating they were sent to Noble, according to Walker County coroner Dewayne Wilson.
Families received information several times per day in the weeks that followed.
The wide range of emotions from different family members became the most difficult aspect to contend with, sheriff Wilson and agent Ramey recalled. This heinous act was unlike any they had previously encountered.
Marsh's methods of disposal varied unexplainably, changing several times over the years.
The cremation chamber had broken down a few times. Marsh had a large pile of ashes (predominantly from medical universities) and would send other person’s cremains as funeral homes sought to know when he was going to provide results, according to David Ashburn, Walker County coordinator.
“When he’d get it fixed, he started cremating again, and when it would break down he would send stuff while he was waiting to get it fixed,” Ashburn said.
It could not be determined how many cremations Marsh had actually done while he buried others on the property or within vaults.
He initially began by burying the earlier bodies in the mass graves. Sixty-seven of the more recent bodies were found in six vaults placed inside a building.
All of the recovered bodies that were identified had arrived at the crematory starting in 1997 and ending with the last arriving the day before the discovery was made.
Initial speculation and circumstances lead investigators to state that the recovered bodies could date back 20 years.
One such circumstance was with the remains identified as having been at the crematory the longest. It was a man who died in 1992. His wife disinterred the casket and had him cremated by Marsh in 1997, prior to moving to the Midwest, according to Ramey.
GBI investigators made contact with numerous families identified in records. For varying reasons some families declined learning further information, not wanting to know or deal with the possibility that their loved one had been involved in the crematory case.
Several of the Marsh properties elsewhere within Walker County were aerially searched with infrared technology and subsequently searched by individuals on the ground with probes, according to Ramey.
“Based on where we identified, we never found anybody officially that was there during the point that (Brent’s) dad was involved in,” Ashburn said.
They searched records two years prior to anybody to have been found on the property, according to Ashburn.
The team that rotated between disasters
An initial first-day request sheds light on how quickly officials understood the magnitude of the situation and how federal agencies would be necessary in the days and weeks that followed.
A call to the federal Department of Health and Human Services resulted in 26 personnel of Region 3 DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) arriving two days after the discovery. It is a regional group of a national team called in times of national and international catastrophe.
The team worked a two-week rotation at the scene, flying back to work the largest American disaster the team has encountered: the recovery of more than 2,800 remains of people killed at the World Trade Center in New York City during the Sept. 11 attacks.
They also deployed to Somerset, Penn., recovering 44 remains from the United flight 93, including the four al-Qaeda terrorists.
Members of the Region 3 DMORT team have been busy in the decade that followed the crematory case, recovering 2,500 bodies during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and 212,000 bodies in Haiti during 2010.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation developed its own mass body recovery team following the Marsh case, which responded during Hurricane Katrina and the April 27 tornadoes in Ringgold.