Even determining the sheer number of bodies that were left to rot outside the crematory is "an enormous problem," Sperry said, because of the helter-skelter way bones seem to have been discarded. "It's like taking 100 jigsaw puzzle pieces, and pouring them on the ground upside down," he said.
Confounding the investigation, investigators said, is that the crematory has no records before last October. The business, which apparently had no outside employees, was not licensed by the state. Former coroner Bill McGill filed a complaint in 1995 to state officials. Nothing came of it, McGill said Monday.
The crematory's troubles seemed to touch virtually everyone living in northern Georgia's Walker County.
Retired dairyman Willie Haslerig, 80, considers himself a good family friend. Just a couple of weeks ago--before all of this--he had stopped by the home to check on the elder Marsh. "They're a nice bunch of working people," he said.
Of the son: "He's a young fellow, quiet, but he was on his way up in the world. I respected him a whole lot, and I figured he was a clean businessman until this thing exploded. And now I'm caught up in the middle of this," Haslerig said. "My sister was cremated by him two years ago, and now hers might be one of the bodies."
Roger Neal, who serves with the younger Marsh on the board overseeing family and children's services for the county, said that all outward appearances suggested that the crematory was operating without problems.
"I'd be with him at least once a month, and everything seemed all right," Neal said. "He had good vehicles, dressed well. Things were going pretty good, apparently.
"So we're all stunned," Neal said. "We're having a hard time dealing with this."
McGill, who served as county coroner from 1977 to 2000, said despite his complaint he had no reason to suspect the crematory wasn't going about its business. He had visited the facility once, about 10 years ago.
McGill said he wasn't surprised that neighbors apparently detected no foul odors from the property. Most of the remains were underground, inside sealed vaults or inside the closed metal storage shed, and "you won't get much odor until you disturb them," he said.
The incinerators used by crematories cost upward of $30,000, said Jack Springer, spokesman for the Cremation Assn. of North America.
Tri-State Crematory, he said, is not among its 1,200 members.
"There are lots of people who can fix incinerators," he said. "If [the Marshes' incinerator] wasn't working, why did [Brent Marsh] accept bodies? I can't believe that, for all these years, the funeral homes that were sending him bodies didn't, at an unannounced time, check out his operation."