Authorities return to search crematory grounds for bodies

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

NOBLE, Ga. -- Grim-faced investigators on Monday unearthed dozens more corpses scattered around a northwest Georgia crematory, finding skeletons sealed in vaults and bodies that had been dragged into a shed. The count rose to 139.

Forensics teams said they had identified 27 bodies, and agents warned they expected to find many more. "I can't even begin to guess" what the total will be, said Dr. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner.

Ray Brent Marsh, operator of Tri-State Crematory in this rural town 20 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn., was arrested for a second time and authorities filed 11 new theft-by-deception charges against him, bringing the total to 16.

Marsh, 28, had been arrested Saturday and was released from jail Sunday on $25,000 bond. He was back in Walker County jail Monday. A bond hearing had not been scheduled because Marsh does not have an attorney, chief magistrate Jerry Day said.

Calls to Marsh's home and the crematory went unanswered Monday.

As investigators combed the grounds, grief-stricken families arrived with urns of ashes, wondering whether loved ones they thought had been cremated were instead among the corpses.

Marlene Elsass arrived Monday from her home in Birchwood, Tenn., about 50 miles from Noble, determined to find out whether the urn she buried more than a year ago actually contained the ashes of her husband, Richard.

"We thought we had put my husband to rest," said Elsass, who paid a funeral home $1,363 to cremate and bury her husband's remains.

Powdered cement

Forensics experts studied 51 urns, and said nine likely contained powdered cement rather than human remains, Sperry said. The other 42 appeared to be human remains, but it was not clear whose, he said.

"By the hour, this is getting bigger and bigger and bigger," the medical examiner said. "That's the toughest part. We do not know, and may never find out, the names of many of these people."

Walker County officials said they were calling in federal disaster mortuary teams to help erect a mass morgue to sort the bodies. More than 400 people were involved in the investigation.

The new body count of 139 was up from 97 a day earlier. The total doesn't include remains found late Sunday in five concrete vaults and two pits, Sperry said.

"The skeletons are all intermingled together," Sperry said.

The bodies have been discovered in varying conditions, some estimated to be weeks old and some decayed for more than a decade. Handlers had been "just merely dragging them out there or dropping them out there," Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said.

Examining records

As the body count rose, agents said they had begun examining the records of Marsh and his parents, Ray and Clara Marsh, who turned the business over to their son in 1996. The elder Marshes have not been charged. But authorities said it was clear that bodies were being dumped before the son took over.

"As far as the criminal investigation goes, we have to question everybody who was involved in the operation and that's being done," said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.

Clara Marsh, who taught high school for more than 30 years, appears not to have been involved in day-to-day operations at the crematory, Wilson said.

In almost all cases, Tri-State Crematory had picked up the bodies from funeral homes and delivered ashes later in return, said Walker County coroner Dewayne Wilson, who is not related to the sheriff.

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