Ex-cemetery operator pleads guilty to dumping 334 bodies

November 20, 2004|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - To the families hoping to learn why Brent Marsh left hundreds of human bodies to rot on his property instead of cremating them, he gave a flat answer yesterday: There was no reason.

In a plea deal that will mean 12 years in prison, Marsh admitted to dumping 334 bodies. He also will write individual letters of apology to the survivors of each corpse found at his Tri-State Crematory. Had the case gone to trial, he faced the possibility of 8,000 years behind bars.

In February 2002, an anonymous tip led federal authorities to the property in Noble, Ga., where they found bodies stacked in vaults, dumped in pits and entangled with garbage and underbrush. The crematory, it turned out, had been distributing sand, concrete dust and random human ashes to families in place of their loved one's remains.

Friends and neighbors were astonished by the arrest of Marsh - who came from a prominent and well-respected family - and have spent years now wondering why he did it.

Holding a Bible, Marsh yesterday faced a glaring and teary-eyed crowd whose relatives' bodies were found at the site.

"The answers that many of you have come here today to hear I cannot give you. Not for lack of desire to give those answers, but for lack of the answer," Marsh said evenly. "To those individuals who were genuinely harmed emotionally as a result of my actions, I apologize."

One woman twisted around in her seat, refusing to watch Marsh apologize; a man got up and left the courtroom. In the rain outside, family members criticized the plea bargain, complaining that prosecutors didn't take the case to trial simply to save money.

Since the first bodies were discovered in February 2002, a picture has emerged of Marsh as an ambivalent heir to the family business.

His father, who operated the crematory, suffered a stroke, and Brent was "morally obligated or asked" to come back home, said his attorney, McCracken Poston.

The crematory business, which offered pickup and delivery services to a variety of local funeral homes, may have been more than he could handle on his own, said Robert Smalley, who represented 1,600 family members in a civil suit against the crematory.

State investigators have estimated that between 1997 and 2002, more than 900 bodies were given to Marsh to cremate.

"I think he just got behind and it snowballed," Smalley said. "Think about your desk at work - things start to stack up."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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