LAFAYETTE, GA — Kicking back in Smokey's, a roadhouse barbecue joint, Brent Marsh flipped through pictures of his new baby daughter, born on Super Bowl Sunday. The owner of the place, Mike Worthington, marveled at Marsh's charmed life. He was a local football hero who went on to play for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the biggest school around. Now, at just 28, he was running his family's successful business — Tri-State Crematory — and serving on several civic boards. He had married a strikingly pretty young woman, Vanessa, celebrating their wedding with a stylish bash on the family's 16-acre wooded spread, where guests frolicked along a private lake.

On that very same lake, authorities last week found a skull and a torso floating in the water. Marsh has been jailed, accused of one of the creepiest crimes in Georgia history. Investigators have found nearly 300 corpses at the family property, some stacked in piles — bodies that were supposed to have

Marsh explained the crematory broke down and the family never got around to fixing it.
been cremated by Tri-State. With some of the remains dating back 15 years, officials expect to make many more ghoulish discoveries in a search expected to last eight months, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. "So far," said state medical examiner Kris Sperry, "we've only gone 50 yards from the crematory."

According to police, Marsh has offered but one explanation: the cremation machine broke down sometime over the years. A new device costs about $40,000. Evidently, the family never got around to fixing it.

Georgia has no law forbidding the mistreatment of bodies by a crematory.

To their horror, family members of the deceased have learned that ashes returned by Tri-State did not contain the remains of a loved one; an analysis of the contents of one urn revealed potting soil. Shock has turned to anger for people like Colleen
Blankenship, who thought she had buried the cremated remains of her parents, Orville and Doris Mae Tierney, in a family plot in Wisconsin. "It brings back all the feelings you went through when you lost them," said Blankenship, whose family has filed a class-action lawsuit against Tri-State and the funeral home that sent the bodies to the crematory, one of several such suits. "And now I don't even know where they are."

Astonishingly, there appears to be no Georgia law that forbids the discarding or mistreatment of bodies by a crematory. For now Marsh has simply been charged with 16 counts of theft by deceptive practices — taking money, usually $200, for cremation services not rendered. At a bond hearing on Friday, Marsh appeared in Walker County Superior Court

Citing death threats, Marsh appeared in Superior Court wearing a bulletproof vest.
wearing a bulletproof vest, as authorities cited death threats against the man. District Attorney Herbert Franklin argued against releasing Marsh, saying his life would be at risk. Marsh's lawyer, Ken Poston, called for perspective on the misdeeds. "With all due respect to the families," Poston said, "nobody was killed up there at Tri-State." Judge Ralph Hill, who has issued a gag order on all parties to the case, said he would mull the bond issue "for a few days" and make a decision on Monday.

Marsh had taken over the family business in 1996 after his father, Ray Marsh, suffered a stroke. Eddie Upshaw, who has known the family for years, said he believed the young man had other dreams. "He talked about teaching and coaching," said Upshaw. "But this was laid in his hand after his dad got sick. And he wasn't going to turn his back on his family." In this red-clay country of northwest Georgia, the Marshes had won an uncommon measure of esteem over the years, especially for a black family in overwhelmingly white Walker County. Ray Marsh, who is now bedridden, once ran for county coroner, nearly unseating the white incumbent. His wife, Clara, was an English teacher and a leader in the county Democratic Party. The Chamber of Commerce in 1995 named her the Walker County Woman of the Year. Authorities have given no indication that they intend to file charges against the elder Marshes.

Lawmakers in several states are now rushing to craft laws to cover crematories.

The bizarre case has sent lawmakers in Georgia, and several other states, rushing to craft laws to cover crematories. The National Funeral Directors Association last week urged funeral parlors to make frequent, unannounced checks on crematories. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said he is considering hearings in
Congress, as early as this week, to address what he called "death care." Some 23 states lack comprehensive regulations on cremations, according to Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, based in Chicago. Cremation is now conducted in 25 percent of deaths in America, Springer said, up from 12 to 15 percent a decade ago. The practice has become more common as religious objections have diminished. "But the biggest reason is that we're dying older and we're dying far from home," said Springer, noting the high incidence of cremation in retirement states like Nevada and Florida.

More than 30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama customarily sent bodies to Tri-State. Greg Rush, the director of Buckner-Rush Funeral Home in Cleveland, Tenn., which has been named in a suit, never saw a reason to suspect foul play. "We were duped," said Rush. "They were nice, upstanding people. And the service was great." The Marshes were always willing to pick up the bodies from funeral homes, and then return the ashes. Some funeral directors said they simply believed the Marshes were being hospitable.

Just a few miles from Tri-State Crematory is the famous Chickamauga Civil War Battlefield, where thousands of troops were killed in a two-day period in 1863. Local lore has it that ghosts still haunt those fields. These days, as bodies turn up behind trees and beneath shallow graves, they say they cannot help but feel a bit spooked by the notions of lost souls.

Like many of the locals, Todd Greene, 38, who owns Lefty's Auto Clean-Up, has often gone fishing at the lake near the crematory. The Marshes would charge him $3. He would fish for crappie and bass, then throw them back and relax as he gazed across the tranquil waters. Little could he have known what might have been beneath the surface, or back in the woods. "I was laying there in bed on Saturday night, trying to sleep, but I couldn't," Greene said. "I just kept having pictures in my mind about what's down there. I just lay there awake." For the people of Walker County, it might be a while before anyone has peaceful dreams.


In January 2005 Marsh pleaded guilty Friday to Tennessee charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Tennessee charges included abuse of corpses, theft of services and criminal simulation for failing to perform cremations. In Georgia, he pleaded guilty in November to 787 counts of theft, abuse of a corpse, burial service fraud and making false statements.

Relatives reached an $80 million civil settlement with Marsh, but how much of it will ever be paid is unclear.

The Tennessee sentence is to be served simultaneously with the same recommended sentence in Georgia, followed by a lengthy probation.

Bradley County District Attorney Jerry Estes said if Marsh is paroled in Georgia he would be transferred to the custody of Tennessee officials.

Marsh is eligible for parole in four years, but Estes said he would oppose parole "as long as I'm around."

Marsh's plea deal prohibits him from getting any financial benefit from any book or movie deal.

While relatives have reached an $80 million civil settlement with Marsh, it is unclear how much of that will ever be paid. A lawsuit against funeral homes that sent bodies to Marsh's crematory was settled for $36 million, and much of that has been paid.

from Associated Press sources