Georgia community struggles with task of identifying bodies from rural crematory
NOBLE, Ga. (AP) — Distraught families began the wrenching task of trying to identify loved ones Sunday in this rural community where dozens of decomposing corpses were discovered in the woods and in sheds behind a crematory.
People completed Red Cross paperwork to help identify the bodies, and several dentists opened their offices to make dental records available.
Pat Higdon of Chattanooga, Tenn., made the drive to fill out paperwork for her husband, Tommy Higdon, who died of lung cancer last fall. She said she chose to cremate his body because she couldn’t afford a burial.
“He looked like a corpse for two months before he died. He just laid there with his mouth open and his eyes open,” Higdon said. “I can’t bear to think he still looks like that, only he’s lying in a shed or a creek somewhere.”
The crematory’s operator, Ray Brent Marsh, 28, was charged with five counts of theft by deception, a felony, for allegedly taking payment for cremations he didn’t perform. Walker County and state authorities said other charges are likely against Marsh.
A magistrate released Marsh on Sunday after he posted a $25,000 bond.
At least 80 bodies have been found in storage sheds and scattered in woods behind Tri-State Crematory in this hamlet about 25 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn. Of those, 13 have been identified. The discoveries began Friday when a woman walking her dog found a skull.
Officials said they will also search Marsh’s entire 16-acre property and a small adjoining lake. Officials, who have set up a morgue at the site, say the property could yield several hundred bodies.
“They’ve found so many other partial skeletal remains and evidence of graves, we don’t know how many more are out there,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said late Saturday.
When asked why the bodies had not been cremated, Marsh said the crematory incinerator was not working, Bankhead said.
Stanley Payne of Chattanooga said he believed the Marshs’ crematory would properly handle the remains of his mother, who died two years ago.
“We were childhood friends growing up together,” Payne said of the Marsh family. “We trusted them. Everybody trusts everybody here.”
Rusty Cash, of East Ridge, Tenn., said he considers himself one of the lucky ones — authorities told him Sunday they had identified the body of his mother, Norma Hutton. After the call, Cash opened the urn he had received from the crematory.
“It looked like burnt wood chips as far as I could tell,” Cash said.
Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, said authorities suspect Marsh may have provided ashes from wood chips to clients as the remains of loved ones. Authorities have asked families to return ashes for examination and have established an information center.
The crematory owners, Ray and Clara Marsh, turned the business over to their son in 1996. The couple has turned over company records to authorities and were cooperating, Walker County chief deputy Hill Morrison said.
Thomas Ware, who has been living for about six years in a nearby house he rents from the Marsh family, said he never noticed any smells or other signs that bodies were not being handled properly.
His uncle died about two years ago and was sent to Tri-State for cremation. Now he and his family are afraid the cremation never took place.
Between 25 and 30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama routinely sent bodies to Tri-State for cremation, Bankhead said.
Some of the bodies had been delivered to the Tri-State Crematory within the last few days, and some bore hospital toe tags, Bankhead said. Others had apparently been there for three years or more, authorities said.
Some bodies were found in rusty coffins, some as much as 10 years old, that had evidently been buried and then later disinterred, Bankhead said.
“At one time they apparently were buried in the ground in some other cemetery and were dug up and taken to the crematory,” he said. “We don’t know why that is.”
Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in Walker County to make state assistance available to local authorities for the cost of the operation.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division began testing well water from the area for contaminants on Saturday but results were not yet available.