Unearthing A Grim Tale: The Woods of North Georgia Hid a Terrible Secret: A Family Business Devoted to Cremating the Dead Was Not Doing Its Job. A Haunted Community Wonders Why

Article excerpt

Byline: Dirk Johnson and Vern E. Smith

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 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.

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 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. …