ATLANTA – Even after the criminal case against crematory operator Ray Brent Marsh (search) comes to an end, the victims' relatives are likely to be left wondering why 334 bodies were dumped and cement dust was passed off as their ashes.
Marsh was expected to plead guilty Friday to theft and abuse of corpse charges as part of a plea deal in which he will serve no more than 12 years in prison. A source close to the case told The Associated Press that the sentence, which covers all 787 counts against Marsh, will be followed by a probation that would effectively last the rest of his life.
"You're not ever going to learn what occurred and what motivated it unless sometime down into the future Mr. Marsh will speak up," U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy told victims' families at a hearing last month where a class-action civil lawsuit against Marsh was settled.
One of Marsh's lawyers, Ron Cordova, says it's unlikely Marsh will make a statement at his court appearance beyond entering his plea.
However, Cordova and Marsh's aunt said Wednesday that psychological problems may have contributed to what happened.
A linebacker on the football team at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Marsh left school early in the mid-1990s to help run his ailing father's Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga. Marsh would later take over the family business, something relatives say was not his first choice.
"I feel something went wrong with his mind because he was up and bold and popular on the campus and then pulled away from an institution and then got into an occupation that was solitary and depressing," said his 79-year-old aunt, Lorene Marsh.
Robert Smalley, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, said money could have been a motive as well. He said his investigation found that not enough propane was purchased to run the crematory machine even though Marsh had been paid. Cordova denied a financial motive.
Marsh was by no means living luxuriously. At the time of his arrest, he was living with his wife and newborn girl in a one-story stone house near the crematory. These days, out on bail and under house arrest, Marsh is staying with his mother, Clara.
Reached at home Wednesday, Clara Marsh said her son was not available. Asked about her feelings in the wake of her son's expected guilty plea, she turned to her faith. "Whatever is going on in the world out there as far as I'm concerned is all in God's hands and he will handle it however he chooses to," she said.
Marsh allegedly stopped performing cremations in 1997, when he took over the family business that served funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. After an anonymous tip in February 2002, investigators found bodies scattered on the crematory property — in the woods, in buildings and crammed into burial vaults and behind Marsh's house.
Marsh also is charged in Tennessee with six felony counts of abuse of a corpse. Tennessee prosecutor Shari Young said Wednesday that Marsh is expected to plead guilty to the Bradley County charges by the end of the year. As part of his agreement in Georgia, the two prison sentences will run concurrently.
Marsh and dozens of funeral homes that sent bodies to the crematory already have settled a civil lawsuit for $80 million.
Many of the victims' families are still searching for answers, but Carol Bechtel of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, said she didn't need them.
"There was a time when I couldn't say that," Bechtel said. "But I have made peace with that."