Investigators scouring the woods behind a crematory in rural Georgia found scores of decomposing corpses yesterday, including at least 93 intact bodies and other remains scattered along the ground.
"You'd walk an area and see a skull here, a leg bone there, a ribcage over there. It was very gruesome," said John Bankhead, spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Brent Marsh, operator of Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., was arrested in Walker County, about 85 miles northwest of Atlanta. He was charged with theft by deception. Authorities allege that he contracted with funeral homes in three states to cremate bodies but instead dumped the corpses in the crematory, in storage sheds or in the woods on his 16-acre property.
Authorities expect to find hundreds more bodies. They broke off the search last night. More than 100 planned to resume it today.
When investigators asked the 28-year-old why the bodies weren't cremated, he told them the crematory incinerator wasn't working, Bankhead said.
Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Chris Sperry said authorities suspect he may have provided ashes from wood chips to clients who asked for their loved ones' ashes.
Marsh had been running the crematory for several years on behalf of his parents, who are prominent civic activists in the small community.
Some of the bodies apparently had arrived within the past few weeks; they were clad in hospital gowns, with identification tags around their toes. Others had clearly been there for years.
One man, so decomposed that he looked like a mummy, was laid out in his blue funeral suit in the box used for cremation. Other corpses were in their caskets, apparently unopened since they had been delivered. A few had been buried on the grounds.
"The worst horror movie you've ever seen - imagine that 10 times worse," county Coroner Dewayne Wilson told the local media. "That's what I'm dealing with."
The scene was so overwhelming that Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in Walker County and sent in dozens of state investigators. By late yesterday, they had identified 13 corpses, discovered 80 others intact and collected uncounted numbers of bones.
"And this is just what they can see," said Lisa Ray of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "They haven't even started excavating."
Grief counselors waited in a church to counsel families whose loved ones had been sent to the crematory.
Frantic to learn the fate of their relatives, family members bombarded funeral homes with questions, venting fury and horror.
Tim Mason of La Fayette, the county seat, said his father, who died in December, was the first body to be identified. The body has been sent to a funeral home for cremation, he said.
"I just can't imagine," said Mason, 53. "I mean, I can see ... getting a few days behind, [but] months, years? I just can't imagine anyone doing that. I'm real disappointed, that's for sure."
Mason said his mother died in 1995, and her body was sent to Tri-State. He hopes her body was cremated and will not be discovered.
Although several of the corpses were identified from toe tags, many more were decomposed to bare bones. Authorities said they have no reason to suspect homicide in any case; they believe all of the remains come from bodies brought to the site for cremation. But there is no chance they will be able to identify them all.
The investigation of Tri-State, which serves northwest Georgia and southeast Alabama and Tennessee, began Friday, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta received an anonymous call complaining about the stench from the property. EPA investigators visited the site and found a human skull. They then called in local investigators, who found body after body, working by flashlight late into the evening.
Ray and Clara Marsh, who have owned Tri-State for about 30 years, are respected in the community, which one local resident described as "like every other small Southern town" - quiet, slow-paced and friendly, "with everything as it was a long time ago."
Clara Marsh, a retired teacher, is well-known for her work combating drug abuse in the schools. Earlier this year, Ray Marsh served on a panel of the region's most prominent citizens.
Authorities said the Marshes, who are in their 60s, turned management of the crematory over to their son about 1996. That is when the corpses allegedly began to pile up, Bankhead said.
But Bill McGill, a former county coroner, suggested that problems with the crematory stretch back even earlier. He said he repeatedly complained to state officials in the early 1990s that Tri-State was not licensed and did not have a state-licensed funeral director on the premises, as required.
Authorities said Brent Marsh has been cooperating with the investigation. If convicted, he could face up to five years behind bars for each count of theft by deception, a felony. He has been charged with five counts.
A call to the crematory yesterday was not immediately returned. A recording directed callers to the Walker County sheriff's office.
Stephanie Simon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company. The Associated Press also contributed to this article.