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Body Count Mounts in Gruesome Georgia Crematory Investigation

By Edith Stanley and Tom Gorman

The ghoulish discoveries at a rural crematory worsened Monday when incredulous investigators opened four metal boxes packed with more bodies.

By nightfall Monday, the remains of 139 bodies had been collected, and investigators feared that more than 200 might be unaccounted for.

Because some of remains appear between 10 and 20 years old, authorities said Monday they need to speak with Ray Marsh, who started the business about 27 years ago before turning it over to his son in 1996. But Marsh’s health is too poor at this time to withstand questioning, they said.

The macabre mystery is all the more stunning for residents in this everyone-knows-everybody burg because the Marsh family was well-regarded in the community.

The elder Marsh is known here as a successful entrepreneur who once operated a heavy equipment business and lumber mill. He got into the business of death about 30 years ago because he had a back-hoe, and a friend asked him to dig some graves.

Marsh became a professional grave digger, and began constructing metal vaults to protect interred caskets. Then he opened Tri-State Crematory, charging funeral homes between $200 and $300 to incinerate bodies. A few years ago, he opened a cemetery, Marsh Memorial Gardens, just down the street.

On corporate papers, Ray Marsh’s wife Clara is listed as secretary-treasurer, but investigators said Monday they don’t believe she was involved in the daily operations of the family business.

Until her retirement, Clara Marsh was a life-long local teacher, loved by the community. In 1995 she was named the Walker County Citizen of the Year. She helped conduct school-based drug programs for the local sheriff’s department, and served in governing positions for the county and state associations of educators.

Detectives want to interrogate the couple’s 28-year-old son, Brent, who took over the crematory in 1996 after his father fell ill.

The younger Marsh, who initially cooperated with investigators, is being held without bail in the county jail. He might be arraigned as early as Tuesday on 17 felony counts of theft by fraud -- for allegedly taking 17 bodies for incineration, but not performing the service. Each count carries a one-to-15 year prison sentence upon conviction.

The Marshes’ reputation began unraveling Friday with the discovery of a skull on the property behind the crematory.

Investigators said Monday they had no idea how many bodies, intended for cremation, had ended up instead in the vaults, a metal storage shed and in two large pits that were discovered earlier in the day.

They had collected the remains of 139 bodies, of which 27 had been identified. Earlier estimates put the number of discarded bodies at 200, but authorities now fear the number might be much greater. Just since 1996, 350 bodies had been delivered to Tri-State Crematory, according to records shared with investigators by funeral homes in northern Georgia, southern Tennessee and eastern Alabama.

Investigators are asking the funeral homes to search records prior to 1996.

At a news conference Monday, Dr. Kris Sperry, the state’s chief medical examiner, said that all five vaults on the property were filled to the brim with human remains.