Shroud of Sadness
Now the Crawfords realize that the shimmering dust was not Robert Crawford's remains at all but powdered cement the family had received in a box from the Tri-State Crematory, the Noble, Ga., facility authorities now say had been dumping and burying bodies on its property for years rather than cremating them. As the ghastly story unfolded and investigators turned up more than 330 corpses, families like the Crawfords were plunged into an emotional maelstrom. "We were upset, then sad. Now we're angry," says Melissa Crawford. "How could someone do this to us?"
On Feb. 16 police arrested Tommy Ray-Brent Marsh, 28, who had run the family business since 1996, charging him within days with 118 counts—a number likely to more than double—of theft by deception. (Georgia, like 23 other states, has lax laws covering cremations.) Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency, and teams of workers went about the harrowing task of removing and identifying bodies, which had been piled into vaults, dumped in shallow graves and strewn about the 25-acre property. "None of us has ever seen anything like this," says Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which is heading the cleanup. "It's like something out of a Stephen King novel."
The first hint of trouble was an anonymous November call to the Atlanta office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which alerted Walker County authorities. A deputy visited the property, where Brent and his parents, Ray, 75, and Clara, 69, live in two homes near the crematory, but found nothing unusual. After another call came on Feb. 14, two EPA staffers went the next morning to investigate. They found a human skull on the grounds and alerted the sheriff. Glenda Wilson, who runs four funeral homes in the area, recalls her son Dewayne, who happens to be the county coroner, calling later that morning. "Y'all are not going to believe this," he told her. "And I'm afraid it's going to get worse."
Within days, more than 400 state and county officials on the scene had found scores of corpses—some as fresh as two days old—some in body bags, some in burial shrouds, others in hospital gowns and street clothes. After investigators found remains in a three-acre pond on the property, authorities ordered it drained, which could take weeks. Neighbor John Favors, 26, remembers the Marshes being particular about the pond. "They didn't want nobody to fish down there—I wondered why they cared," he says. "I guess now I know."
Yet nobody could explain what had gone wrong at the Tri-State Crematory, which Ray Marsh—who had been digging graves and septic tanks with a backhoe for decades—opened in 1982. One of the first such facilities in the state outside of Atlanta, it drew more and more business as cremation, once rare in the South, grew in popularity. With wife Clara, who taught special-education at the local high school until about two years ago, Marsh raised two children, Brent, and daughter Rhames LaShea, 31. Clara once chaired the county Democratic party, and in 1995 the county chamber of commerce named her Citizen of the Year. "They were highly respected people in the community," says Charles Corn well, 61, a local Baptist pastor.
After the senior Marsh had heart surgery and suffered a stroke in 1996, he informally turned the crematory over to his son Brent. "I asked [Brent] if he wanted to go into the business," says Glenda Wilson, who had done business with the family for decades. "His father said, 'Yes, he does.' I never got an answer from him."
Growing up in Noble, Brent Marsh was well-liked and a football standout. "He was the best friend you could ever have," says Christy Anderson, 29, who graduated from LaFayette High with him in 1991. The 6'2", 265-lb. Brent played middle linebacker on the football team at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he studied business (but did not graduate) and met Venessa Lynn Neal, 28, whom he married in 1997. (They had a daughter in February.) The couple settled back in Noble, where Brent gained his own reputation as a leader, in 1998 taking over his father's post on the county Department of Family and Children Services. He was also studying to become a church deacon and coached youth football and basketball. "He and his wife are just wonderful people," says Kim Galbreath, 35, whose son was on Marsh's basketball team.
Perhaps it was because of that public esteem that not many people took notice of what was, or wasn't, happening at the crematory. Jessica Johnson, 22, a cousin who has lived most of her life next door to the Marshes, grew accustomed to seeing hearses arrive a couple of times a week. "The only thing we realized," she says, "is that we haven't seen any smoke in a while." Authorities say the cremations may have ceased even before Brent took over his father's business, although so far no bodies of people who died before 1998 have been identified. Brent's uncle James, 80, a retired farmer and municipal worker who lives in nearby Chickamauga and says he hasn't spoken to the family in more than three years, is as bewildered as everyone else. "But I can tell you one thing," he says. "Brent didn't do this by himself. Only four people know what happened over there."
Whatever the explanation, the macabre news has left hundreds of families devastated. "I have never witnessed such sorrow, such deep, deep hurt," says Pastor Darrell Henry of Chickamauga's Oakwood Baptist Church. "My heart just breaks."
Despite the wide-scale shock and anger, theft is the only charge likely to be brought against Marsh, who faces up to 15 years in prison on each count. (He is in the Walker County Jail awaiting a bond hearing on the latest round of charges.) While Georgia's legislature considers a bill that would require inspections of all crematories and penalize abuse of human bodies and body parts, recovery workers continued to sift through the site, looking for bodies—and explanations. "None of this makes sense yet," says Kris Sperry, the state medical examiner. "Quite frankly, I don't 5 think that it ever will."
Meanwhile, families like the Crawfords grieve anew. For three years Robert gamely battled his cancer. He lived robustly, golfed often, even motorcycled in 1999 to Oklahoma to help tornado victims. "To think that he died with such dignity," says his is widow, Beverly, who received his bogus remains from Tri-State, "and then to think what they did over there. It was like his death all over again."
Steve Helling and Don Sider in Noble