Someone out walking their dog discovered the first clue – a white skull, only partly concealed, lying in the grounds of a Georgia crematorium.
By last night, police had found more than 120 skeletons and rotting corpses, some of which have been lying in the sheds and outbuildings of Tri-State Crematory in Noble for more than a decade. Hundreds more could be found, said officials.
The bodies had apparently been sent to the crematorium but not cremated. They were apparently hidden all over the crematorium, forming bizarre and grisly stacks. In the nearby woods, bleached human bones lay scattered among the leaves and the body of an infant was discovered in a wooden box lying in the back of a rusting hearse. Some bodies had even mummified: officials said those corpses might have been there for 20 years.
"It's unbelievable," one local resident, Neva Mason, said yesterday morning. She was one of several who said the scene resembled something from a Stephen King novel.
Mrs Mason has a personal interest in the scandal unfolding yesterday in the small Georgia town of Noble, 70 miles north of Atlanta. The body of her recently deceased father-in-law, Luther, had been taken to the crematorium only two months ago.
On Friday night – when that first skull was found and an investigation was launched – his body was discovered, stacked with other corpses in a small shed in the grounds.
"We don't know if he was stacked on top of people or with people stacked on top of him," she said. "We don't know if he was wearing clothes."
Speaking of her shock, she said: "He had been ill for some time – we prepared ourselves for [his death]. We are Christians and we knew he was with God but nothing can prepare you for this. We are numb."
Mrs Mason and her husband, Tim, both accountants, now face another dilemma that officials say many local families are having to confront.
In 1995 they took Luther's deceased wife to the crematorium and came away with a box of ashes that they buried. "We are now going to have to exhume it to see if it's human ashes," she said.
As shocking as the discovery is, almost equally unbelievable is the explanation given by the crematorium's current operator, 28-year-old Ray Brent Marsh. He told police he was forced to stack up the bodies because the furnace had broken down. He has been charged with five counts of theft and fraud and was released on $25,000 bail last night. Authorities are considering further charges.
His parents, Ray and Clara – who ran the crematorium for decades but handed over control to Ray in 1996 – have not been charged. Those involved in the investigation, professionals used to dealing with crime scenes and the bodies of murder victims, were staggered at what they found. Some of the corpses still bore toe tags, placed on them at local hospitals or the many funeral homes in the area that sent bodies to the crematorium. Some embalmed bodies had been pulled from their coffins and left to the elements.
Dewayne Wilson, the county coroner, said: '"The worst horror movie you've ever seen? Imagine that 10 times worse. That is what I'm dealing with.''
Dr Kris Sperry, Georgia's chief medical examiner, said: "I have to say the utter lack of respect in which they were piled on top of one another was very disturbing."
Locals say they knew the Marsh family well. Mrs Mason said: "We were friends of them. We thought he could not do that to us. I have known them all my life. My brother graduated [from] college with Brent. They're wonderful people. Mrs Marsh was a local schoolteacher and president of a local education committee. She helped hundreds of kids."
People living close to the 12-acre crematorium say they never suspected a thing. Thomas Ware, who has lived next door for six years in a house he rents from the Marsh family, said he never noticed any smells or other evidence of mistreatment. His uncle's body was sent there for cremation two years ago.
"Somebody better be going to jail," said Mr Ware's girlfriend, Britt Simmons. "You just would never think something like this could happen here. It's a little bitty town. But anywhere this happened it would be horrible."
Investigators are now trying to identify the corpses and arrange for reburial, helped by the crematorium's records that the Marsh family have handed over. By last night, 13 of the bodies had been positively identified and more are expected.
Officials say that, because some of the remains are only partial, the task of identifying each body is going to be a long and arduous one.
Vernon Keenan, assistant director of the state's bureau of investigation, told The New York Times: "There were bodies piled like cordwood, just discarded and thrown in a pile. After 30 years in law enforcement, you think you have seen everything. And then you see something like this that you can't even imagine."Reuse content