The final body count is expected to exceed 200, officials said.
By late Monday, 27 bodies had been “conclusively” identified, officials said.
“In 26 years of law enforcement I’ve seen a lot of death and been to a lot of homicide scenes,” Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said, “but a lot of what I’ve seen in the past few days is disturbing. We’ve barely skimmed the surface.
“This seems to be getting worse as the days go on now,” Sheriff Wilson said. “It’s something you take to bed with you at night.”
The crematory lies in Noble, about five miles north of downtown LaFayette on U.S. 27, about 90 miles northwest of Atlanta, and about 20 miles south of Chattanooga.
“There is no logical explanation for having vaults with bodies piled to the top of them,” said Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s chief medical examiner.
“I’ve performed more than 5,000 autopsies in my career and seen more than 30,000 dead people,” Sperry said, “but here is no rational or reasonable explanation for what we’re seeing.
On Sunday, investigators reported opening a burial vault.
“It was filled to the top with decomposing remains,” Sperry said. “I would estimate as many as 20, maybe more, in there.
“They just piled them on top and then piled more on top,” Sperry said. “And then they just left them. I wish I had a good explanation for this, but we don’t.”
Additional vaults were opened Monday.
Last delivery was
on Valentine’s Day
Some of the bodies appear to have been discarded at least 10 years ago, and possibly as long as 20 years ago, officials said.
The crematory accepted its last delivery of bodies on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, officials said.
Some bodies appeared to have been discarded as recently as last week.
Bodies have been discovered in the woods and in buildings on the property. Officials also discovered an infant in a wooden box. Some bodies appeared to have been embalmed and mummified. A number of coffins that appeared to have been buried were found on the ground.
Some bodies were found in rusty coffins that had evidently been buried and later dug up, said John Bankhead, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s public affairs office.
“At one time they apparently were buried in the ground in some other cemetery and were dug up and taken to the crematory,” Bankhead said. “We don’t know why that is.”
faces fraud charges
The crematory’s operator, T. Ray Brent Marsh, 28, was charged on Saturday with five felony counts of theft by deception, or fraud, for taking payments for cremations he did not perform.
Bond for Brent Marsh was set at $25,000 bond Sunday morning in county magistrate court. He was released the same day after posting bail.
On Monday, he was charged with 11 additional counts, returned to the Walker County jail, where he remained Monday night.
Marsh has been operating the crematory since 1996, when he took it over from his father, Rhames “Ray” Marsh, who officials say is bedridden. He is still listed as the crematory’s chief executive officer, while his wife, Clara, is listed as the chief financial officer and Brent Marsh is listed as secretary.
The family lives in a house next to the crematory and has owned the facility for 30 years.
The family has an attorney and is no longer talking to law enforcement, said Herbert “Buzz” Franklin, district attorney for Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.
Water being tested
Gary McConnell, director of Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said the environmental officials will visit the site to test wells and a small lake nearby to determine if the decomposing bodies polluted the environment.
They will also create a plan on how to clean up the area once it has been cleared by investigators.
Officials have talked of draining the lake.
The property includes the crematory, several buildings or storage sheds, and a small lake.
A refrigerated tractor-trailer left the wooded crime scene around noon Sunday carrying the remains of victims.
Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson said the bodies were being taken to an undisclosed location “to guarantee the utmost respect of the remains.”
Officials say there are no state laws directly prohibiting the desecration of corpses. Because no legal precedent exists for such an incident, the magistrate had no choice but to release Marsh, Franklin said.
The state has more than 700 crematories and two inspectors, McConnell said. Only those that deal directly with the public have to be inspected, he said. Tri-State apparently has not been inspected, he said. The Tri-State Crematory worked with funeral homes only.
Brent Marsh has told authorities the crematory’s incinerator has worked, off and on, since he took over.
They have turned over records to the authorities but much of the information has been sketchy or poorly documented. Records show that since October the crematory has received about 70-80 bodies for cremation.
Legal experts within the GBI are studying records to determine if the family owned any other property where bodies might be stashed away.
Every funeral home within 100 miles has done business with Tri-State, some officials said. Bankhead said 25-30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama routinely sent bodies to Tri-State for cremation.
led to investigation
Officials were tipped off to the site Friday morning when a woman walking her dog in the woods discovered a skull and she anonymously reported it to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta. The investigation was launched Friday afternoon.
As of Saturday, more than 100 local and state investigators had been called to the scene.
The first body to be identified was Luther P. Mason, who died Dec. 19. Relatives said he was supposed to be cremated and his ashes buried at LaFayette Memory Gardens, which lies just south of the crematory on U.S. 27 in Noble.
A makeshift morgue was set up the crematory site Saturday.
In November, a person found a body part and reported it to the EPA. Walker County Sheriff Wilson said his department investigated the incident but did not search the woods and did not find anything suspicious.
Gov. Roy Barnes has declared the crematory site a state of emergency, meaning Walker County can call on the state for virtually unlimited equipment, manpower and funds to investigate the incident.
Barnes, who arrived by helicopter Sunday afternoon at the crematory and at Walker Civic Center, visited first with families.
“We intend to first try to identify the remains and at the same time keep the investigation going on,” Barnes said, “and then to fully investigate what went wrong, who’s responsible and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
“They are mad, they are angry,” Barnes said of the families. “I would be upset too. They thought they had closure on the death of a loved one and they did not.”
On Saturday, relatives gathered at Center Point Baptist Church, near the crematory. By Sunday, they had moved to the Walker County Civic Center, where a counseling center was set up.
Relatives and others brought anything that might help — photographs, urns containing ashes, dentists with dental records — to the center to assist with determining if a family members was to be cremated at the facility. Inside, they completed Red Cross paperwork.
Authorities believe the crematory gave families burned wood rather than human ashes. Some of the ashes also appeared to contain dirt, they said.
Many of the remains may never be identified. Authorities will undoubtedly use DNA tests to help.
The GBI medical examiner said ashes can sometimes be identified if fragments of bone and teeth are found inside. But DNA analysis of ashes is impossible.
“If the body has been incinerated,” he said, “the protein that makes up DNA is cooked beyond recognition.”
DNA samples are being taken from each body and will be used to link them with surviving family members, Sperry said.
Families that confirm their funeral home used the crematory are advised to contact the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs at (888) 887-1845, a toll-free number.
Families seeking help can contact Carolyn Jacobi of Eternal Justice Inc., a non-profit organization which aids families, at (301) 617-5777. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Walker County Messenger reporter Eric Beavers, (706) 638-1859, email@example.com
Rome News-Tribune reporter Chris Fincher, (706) 290-5272, cfincher@RN-T.co