Attorney Says Brent Marsh Committed "Perhaps Greatest Deception Ever"

Tri-State Crematory Trial Starts At Rome, Ga.

  • Friday, March 5, 2004

Tri-State Crematory operator Brent Marsh committed "perhaps the greatest deception ever," an attorney told a federal jury at Rome, Ga., Friday morning.

Andy Davis of Rome said funeral homes who sent bodies to the crematory at Noble, Ga., had no idea the bodies were not being cremated and should not be held liable.

But Katherine Barnett, attorney for families who sent bodies to the facility, said the families trusted the funeral homes to handle the bodies of their loved ones properly.

She said, "The families trusted the funeral homes in their hour of darkest need. The funeral home operators looked them in the eye and said they would make sure it was done right."

Authorities in mid-February 2002 found 334 uncremated bodies at Tri-State Crematory. Brent Marsh now faces 787 felony counts.

Attorney Davis said the Marshes were "pillars of the community" in Walker County, "and everybody was shocked beyond belief when the bodies were found."

He said, "What was Brent Marsh thinking? I hope we get some answers during this trial."

Attorney Barnett said, "The only living person who could tell what happened is Brent Marsh, and he won't say."

Attorney Frank Jenkins of Cartersville, one of the lawyers for the Marshes, said Brent Marsh will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights when he takes the witness stand because of his upcoming criminal trial.

Attorney Ken Poston, who represents Brent Marsh in the criminal proceedings, said afterwards that Marsh will tell his story at some point.

After the opening statements, Judge Harold Murphy sent the jury home until testimony begins on Monday at 9:30 a.m.

The jury is only deciding liability. Judge Murphy said if liability is found that a later jury or juries would decide amounts of damages.

A number of funeral homes have entered into settlements totaling millions of dollars with families. Several settlements were reached since the jury was empaneled.

Remaining defendants include Brent Marsh and his mother, Clara Marsh, representing the estate of the late Ray Marsh, who founded the crematory in 1982. Ray Marsh died last summer.

Funeral homes still in the case are Wann Funeral Home, Turner Funeral Home, Covenant Funeral Home and Family Mortuary - all of Chattanooga, and the House of Overstreet.

There are eight family members as plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, which covers the time period 1988-February 2002.

The trial is expected to last about three weeks.

The plaintiffs charge breach of contract against the funeral homes and negligence and mishandling of a corpse against all defendants.

Attorney Barnett said, "I am nervous because I have never tried a case that meant so much to so many people. It is very difficult to hear and it's even worse to see. But it's important that this story be told."

She said the bodies were found "in vaults, stacked in buildings, strewn across the ground and in mass graves."

Saying the Marshes were "unlicensed, untrained and unsupervised," she said, "How could this have gone on for so many years?"

She said Turner Funeral Home sent over 200 bodies to Tri-State beginning when the crematory opened. She cited one case where the family was charged $955 for the cremation. She said the Marshes were paid $200-$250 by the funeral homes.

She said, "The only contact the funeral homes had was when Brent Marsh came to pick up the bodies in his old pickup truck."

Attorney Barnett listed a case where Wann Funeral Home charged a family $1,485 for cremation. She said Wann owner John Hargis knew the Marshes were not licensed and knew there had been problems with crematories elsewhere.

She said there is "a culture in this family (Marsh) of disrespect for the dead." She said a witness will testify that the father, Ray Marsh, in 1988 was talking about disposing of a heavy body and commented, "I think I'll just cut the body up."

She said, "The only time Brent Marsh ever talked about what happened is when he told Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson his father was responsible."

Attorney Barnett said Georgia Chief Medical Director Dr. Kris Sperry found evidence of bodies dating back "well before 1997." She said Dr. Sperry has been attacked by some, but she said "his efforts were heroic."

"With buckets and buckets of uncremated remains we will never know" how far back they go, she told the jury.

Attorney Davis said Brent Marsh fooled everyone, including the people of Walker County and the delivery people who often showed up at the property at Center Point Road.

He said the state did inspect the crematory in 1983 and found that the incinerator was practically new. He said Ray Marsh in 1986 was asked to serve on a committee on regulation of crematories. He said he ran for coroner in 1992 and got 46 percent of the vote and he said Walker County declared a day in 1996 as Ray Marsh Day. He said Clara Marsh was teacher of the year and county citizen of the year. He said, "The Marshes had an outstanding reputation with the public and with the funeral homes."

Attorney Davis said when Ray Marsh became ill in 1996 that Brent Marsh left UTC, where he was in his third year and was on a football scholarship, to come operate the business. He said Brent Marsh was in the LaFayette Rotary Club, on the board of the Walker County Department of Children's Services, and a leader in his church.

He said, "Nobody had any suspicion that anything was going wrong at the Tri-State Crematory."

Attorney Davis, of problems at the crematory, said, "Nothing was out in the open. It was all behind locked doors or fences."

He said a complaint was made by the Walker County coroner about the crematory, and the state decided that no license was required since it was not open to the public.

Attorney Davis said in December 2001 when the wife of John Oden died that Mr. Oden requested Anita Taylor of Taylor Funeral Home to go to the crematory along with the body. He said Mrs. Taylor saw the body of Mrs. Oden placed in the retort, saw Brent Marsh turn the switch and heard the machine turn on. She then left. He said her husband, City Councilman John Taylor, went down the next day to pick up the ashes of Mrs. Oden. He said on Feb. 15, 2002, "to the amazement of the Taylors" the body of Mrs. Oden was found on the crematory grounds.

He said Walter Crox of Covenant Funeral Home visited the creamatory several times, including once unannounced, and never saw any problems.

Attorney Doug Campbell of Chattanooga, representing Wann Funeral Home, said Wann formerly sent bodies to the Atlanta Crematory, but started using Tri-State Crematory because it was closer. He said Ray Marsh spent $90,000 on his crematory and assured Mr. Hargis he was licensed.

He said R.C. Thompson would often deliver bodies to the crematory, and he saw nothing amiss. He said Mr. Thompson's uncle was sent there as was Mr. Hargis' brother.

Attorney Campbell said about 50 of the bodies sent to the crematory later had the ashes spread at a memorial garden at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Lookout Mountain. He said the Rev. John Talbird would put the ashes in a special container, and he never mentioned noticing anything unusual about the cremains.

He said Capt. Mark Stanfield of the Walker County Sheriff's office inspected the grounds and found no problems. He said a body was finally spotted by Gerald Cook, a gas company worker, when he went into an area "where no funeral director would have gone."

Attorney Campbell said all the bodies found were either buried or behind fences or locked doors except a body in a hearse, a body in a truck and a body in a shipping container.

He said GBI Agent Gerald Ramey, who found the bodies, "was dumbfounded and astounded." He said he is from LaFayette and had planned to be cremated himself at Tri-State.

Attorney Jenkins said there is no evidence the bodies date prior to 1997, and he said Dr. Sperry early on made an "unfortunate statement" that they appeared to go back 20 years. He said Dr. Sperry later said it did not go beyond 1997. He said the earlier statement was apparently due to the fact that a body was found that had been buried for many years, then was dug up to be cremated at Tri-State.

He said it was not unusual for cement or other debris to be intermixed with cremains, and he said in raking the cremains out there might be material from a previous cremation that might get mixed in.

Attorney Jenkins said by May of 1996 Ray Marsh was having difficulty getting around due to a variety of health problems, including strokes, severe diabetes and dementia. He said by October of that year a report says he was stumbling a lot. He said after Brent Marsh took over the operation that Ray and Clara Marsh had no part in it at all.

He said there was "a media frenzy" after the bodies were found and all the Marshes were arrested. He said Ray Marsh was brought in his wheelchair to be booked.

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