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I See Dead People

Explaining the unthinkable won't be easy in Noble, Georgia


You know a situation has spiraled out of control when even the most conservative attempt to put things in perspective can sound irrelevant next to the kind of emotional hyperbole that has been flowing out of tiny Noble, GA, over the past couple of weeks. The gruesome spectacle at the Tri-State Crematory has been compared to the carnage of a plane crash or a battlefield; it was likened to war-torn Bosnia by no less than US Sen. and Vietnam vet Max Cleland. Georgia State Rep. Doug Teper, D-DeKalb, describes it as "a scene out of Stephen King, or worse."

So defense attorney Ken Poston had his work cut out for him in trying to win bond for his new client, accused corpse mishandler Brent Marsh.

"With due respect to concerns [of families of the mishandled], nobody got killed up at the Tri-State Crematory," Poston offered somewhat hesitantly to Magistrate Judge Jerry Day. Poston appeared understandably chagrined at needing to mention this detail.

Frankly, what else is there to say at this point? "Hey, it's not like he killed anybody" may seem a feeble defense (it wouldn't be much help to the Enron gang, for instance), but it'll have to do for now as Walker County, GA and the civilized world attempt to wrap its collective mind around what has taken place on the Marsh family's 16-acre homestead.

And, as speculation and anger surge through this rural community on the outskirts of LaFayette, it's important for Poston to keep people focused on the facts ­ which are easily as bizarre as any, more sinister, exaggeration of Marsh's misdeeds.

The horrific discovery came February 15, after a woman walking her dog called state authorities to report finding a human skull on the crematorium property, Teper says he was told by county Coroner Dewayne Wilson. (Wilson, along with other investigators, has been muffled by a gag order.)

Lodged inside the throat of the skull was a piece of plastic that Wilson recognized as a plug commonly used by undertakers to prevent leakage of embalming fluid.

The coroner brought two deputies along that weekend when he visited Tri-State to ask Marsh if they could inspect the premises. Sure thing, Marsh replied. They asked to look inside a nearby shed; again, no problem, Marsh told them.

The door was jammed and, once they had forced it open, they found out why. "It was piled four feet deep with bodies," Teper recounts Wilson as saying.

"What is all this?" a horrified Wilson asked.

Marsh began making introductions, which went something like, "Well, this is Mrs. Smith who passed about three years back and right there is old Mr. Jones from over Dalton way. . .," according to Teper.

"At that point, they think it finally dawned on Marsh that the game was up," Teper says. "He said, 'Well, if you need me for anything else, I'll be up at the house,' and walked away."

Perhaps it was the alarmed reaction of his visitors that first tipped off the otherwise oddly relaxed Marsh that there might be something actually wrong with stacking bodies like cordwood.

Teper was among a handful of legislators from the Georgia House Appropriations Committee who toured the Tri-State property to aid lawmakers in determining how much state money should be set aside to help fund a massive cleanup effort that could take the rest of the year.

"Literally, every place they're digging they're finding bodies, so every inch of those 16 acres is a potential crime scene," Teper says.

Last week, the sound of heavy equipment and earth-movers resonated across the Tri-State property, which sits at the crest of a small rise on a short residential lane about 500 yards off US 27 just north of the outskirts of LaFayette, the county seat. A backhoe was busy digging up the yard behind Marsh's modest brick bungalow, two houses down from the crematorium entrance.

A small army of reporters and photographers from Chattanooga and surrounding counties, and as far away as Los Angeles and London, streamed back and forth between the caravan of news vans parked along the highway and the street frontage along the Tri-State site.

Every few minutes, a dump truck carrying gravel would rumble up the street or an unmarked, windowless van driven by men dressed in white jumpsuits would pull away, carrying its grisly cargo to the undisclosed location where the county has set up what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation terms its "temporary morgue."

There, inside two large, air-conditioned tents, is a virtual assembly line for corpse identification: the remains are catalogued and examined by one of 14 full-time pathologists; fingerprints are taken from the freshly dead and DNA is extracted from the majority that are in advanced decay; an anthropologist studies loose bones to determine age and gender; finally, the bodies are bagged and stacked until a positive ID can be made.

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