Inside a Funeral Home of Horrors

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, February 18, 2002. Click here to order last night's entire transcript.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Joining me now is Milton Nix, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Nicks, thanks for joining us.

Mr. Nix, first of all, how did this happen that this went undetected for so long?

MILTON NIX, GA. BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION DIR.: That's the question that I've been asking all day. It's just hard to understand how a scene of this magnitude could have existed for so long without someone discovering it. I just don't have an answer for you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Nix, I read that there were two complaints to — at least to the EPA — the United States department, the EPA, and one is one in November — and that deputies went out there and they didn't see anything unusual. Do you know anything about this?

NIX: No, ma'am, I don't. I'm aware that that information has been made public, but I don't know any of the details.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there any sort of regulation or inspection of crematoriums in your state?

NIX: Greta, I'm not very familiar with all the regulatory responsibilities. I just arrived on the scene today and I've primarily been dealing with resource issues, meeting with members of the disaster mortuary recovery team, the demort team, ensuring that we have adequate resources on the scene to deal with the families, to interview the families and to work with them through this difficult situation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Indeed it's difficult. Mr. Nix, thank you very much for joining us this evening.

We're going to go to New York, where we're joined by forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who was former chief medical examiner for New York City. Dr. Baden, thank you for joining us. Let me ask the first simple question. With all those bodies, wasn't there at least an odor for others in the area to have noticed something funny?

DR. MICHAEL BADEN, DEAD RECKONING: There probably was an odor, but I don't know how many people were in the area. The family lived nearby who was involved with the crematorium. And depends, if the bodies were in a vault, then the odors would not get out of the vault very easily.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dr. Baden, take me back through the steps of doing this — at least from my perspective — very gruesome job of trying to identify the bodies. What does a medical examiner do?

BADEN: The first thing, the medical examiner gets the bodies out as intact as possible. As Dr. Sperry said, many of them come in body bags. All those bodies were brought there by funeral directors in some kind of a shroud or body bag. And the more fresher bodies, the bodies that are there from the past few months, are going to be very easy to identify, from the clothing, from the identifications on the body that come with the body.

The bodies that were there five, 10 years, those will be more difficult to identify, because of decomposition. But in the meantime, all the families should be asked to bring in dental records, medical records, as to any operations that the individuals have had.

And the bodies should be able to be identified pretty quickly. That's the immediate problem. And that should take a shorter period of time than getting the bodies together.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about D.N.A.? At what point do you have to rely on D.N.A.?

BADEN: If the bodies cannot be identified by the clothing on the bodies, by name tags, by dental records, or even by fingerprints in some, then D.N.A. can always be used. And D.N.A. will work, no matter how long those bodies have been there. Because they have a very limited number of people who are relatives. By taking D.N.A. samples from the relatives and comparing it to the body parts, that should easily be done. That will be the longest process.

The other types of identification, by medical records, dental records, by clothing, tags on the body, that will come along very quickly.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Is there anything in nature that would obliterate your ability to identify a body?

BADEN: No. You remember the 5,000-year-old man that was found atop the Austrian Alps? After 5,000 years, they could still extract usable D.N.A. And one thing that the public should realize is decomposing bodies that have been left like this do not pose a health hazard. There may be odors that offend people in various degrees, but there's no disease processes that are spawned by these bodies being where they were.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why isn't that? I mean, you always hear these sort of horrible stories, at least the layperson does, that there is some sort of disease, or at least bacteria. And nothing at all?

BADEN: Nothing at all, except in the old days, if lots of rats came there, rats came and ate things and got a lot of bacteria, and then bit human beings, living human beings, then one could spread diseases that way. But in general, unless one cuts oneself on the body, as in doing an autopsy occasionally, then one can spread bacteria or viruses into the living human being.

But just breathing in things from bodies that have been laying in an area for a long period of time does not pose a health hazard.

VAN SUSTEREN: If indeed the reports are correct, Dr. Baden — and this is the early stage of the investigation — but that deputies went out in response to a complaint in November. Would you have expected there to be some sort of signs or odor, or something to tip these deputies off?

BADEN: Well, if they inspected the grounds and went to the various places where the bodies were kept — if they went and looked at the furnaces, and seen that they haven't been used for years. They had furnaces there, the furnace hadn't been used for years. That's the first thing that inspectors should look at, because there is always a concern about co-mingling of bodies.

The usual problem with crematoria is that ashes get co-mingled. In this instance, there had been no flame, no fire. They should have been able to figure that out right away. And cremations are now more than 25 percent of all deaths in the United States. This is a huge area, crematoria and cremations, and there should be some kind of knowledgeable investigation as to whether everything is going properly.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dr. Baden, always nice to see you.

BADEN: Greta, good to talk to you again.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining me now from Noble, Georgia, is Rock Thomas, whose mother Frances died in January. Her remains were just identified hours ago. Rock, thank you for joining me this evening. What have you learned about the remains of your mother?

ROCK THOMAS, MOTHER SENT FOR CREMATION: Haven't learned anything specific about the remains, except that, thankfully, they were quickly and easily identified. There have been about 35 bodies, I understand, have been identified, and I'm glad we may be near the end of this for my family.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rock, your mother died in January. Did you deal with a funeral home, or did you directly with the owner of the crematorium?

THOMAS: No, we dealt with a funeral home. The funeral home man came by. We unloaded personally the body onto the van, and then from that point we assumed it would be taken and disposed of in a dignified, respectable way.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you know which crematorium the body would be taken to?

THOMAS: I think, yeah. I think that at the time there was in the contract, although I wasn't privy to it. But I think it was stated that it would be going there, but we had no reason to suspect it would be a problem.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you actually get some ashes back from the funeral home?

THOMAS: We did. And I brought them in this afternoon and they have turned out to be nonhuman substance. We don't know what it is exactly.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Rock, thank you very much for joining me this evening.

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