Scores of bodies stashed around crematorium

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A crematorium operator has been arrested by police investigating the discovery of scores of decomposing corpses which were stacked in sheds and scattered in woods near the facility.

Some of the bodies were in coffins that appeared to have been buried and disinterred, said police in the American town of Noble, Georgia.

When investigators asked 28-year-old Ray Brent Marsh, operator of the Tri-State Crematorium why the bodies had not been cremated, he told them the incinerator was not working, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said.

Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson said: "The worst horror movie you've ever seen - imagine that 10 times worse. That is what I'm dealing with."

Officials said there could be hundreds of corpses.

They broke off the search of the woods last night and planned to resume today.

Bankhead said: "All we know for sure right now are the 80 bodies, and 13 of those have been identified.

"But they've found so many other partial skeletal remains and evidence of graves, we don't know how many more are out there."

Some of the bodies were found in rusty coffins, some of which could be up to 10 years old, he went on.

"At one time they apparently were buried in the ground in some other cemetery and were dug up and taken to the crematory," he said. "We don't know why that is."

Some of the bodies had been delivered to the Tri-State Crematory within the last few days, and some still had hospital toe tags, Bankhead said.

Others had apparently been there for as long as three years.

Between 25 and 30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama routinely sent bodies to Tri-State for cremation, Bankhead said.

Brent Marsh was charged with theft by deception, a felony, because he allegedly charged relatives to cremate the bodies without doing so.

Walker County chief deputy Hill Morrison said crematorium owners Ray and Clara Marsh, left the business in the hands of their son in 1996. They had turned over their records to authorities and were cooperating with investigators.

Sheriff Steve Wilson said the owners told authorities the crematorium had not been in operation, but there was no word on how long.

Governor Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in Walker County, which is near the Alabama and Tennessee state lines. The state of emergency allows local authorities to use state resources.

Georgia chief medical examiner Chris Sperry said authorities suspected Brent Marsh may have provided ashes from wood chips to clients who asked for their loved ones' ashes.

Tim Mason said his father, who died in December, was the first body to be identified. The body has been sent to a funeral home for cremation, he said.

"I just can't imagine," said Mason, 53, of La Fayette. "I mean I can see ... getting a few days behind, but months, years? I just can't imagine anyone doing that. I'm real disappointed, that's for sure."

Mason said his mother died in 1995 and her body was sent to Tri-State Crematorium. Mason said he hoped her body was cremated and would not be discovered.

A call to the crematorium yesterday was not returned. A recording directed callers to the Walker County sheriff's office.

Authorities set up a morgue at the site and began work on sifting through the corpses and identifying them.

Bankhead said it might be impossible to identify some bodies.

The discoveries began Friday when a woman walking her dog found a skull.

Within hours, investigators had found three dozen corpses, some of them stacked next to tools in storage sheds.

In November, a resident reported finding a body part in woods nearby, the sheriff said. Deputies searched the area but found nothing suspicious.

Noble is about 85 miles northwest of Atlanta.