Originally created 03/05/02

Tiny community rattled by grisly discoveries



NOBLE, Ga. -- It is hard to find anyone here who hasn't been around for two decades, or two generations, or a lifetime. Yet, this is a community of strangers.

The people of Noble - not so much a town as a 3 1/2 -mile strip of country highway, with J.J. Motors at one end and Dixie Towing at the other - bristle at being labeled a close-knit Southern crossroads.

The nation has focused on this place, where a man is accused of accepting scores of bodies for cremation and instead dumping them on his land, and asked: How could you not know?

But the first thing residents of Noble say about their community is that people here mind their own business. A prayer service held about two weeks after the first bodies were found drew nearly two dozen ministers from northwest Georgia - but only a handful of Noble residents.

"I've got neighbors behind me that I've never done anything but throw my hands up at them," said Maxine Hill, who has lived here most all her life. "We are not a nosy bunch of people. It takes something like this to really get our curiosity."

Technically, it isn't even a town, just an unincorporated township made up of scattered homes and small businesses. There are one or two churches, but the school is in nearby LaFayette.

Still, the gruesome discoveries at Tri-State Crematory, where searchers find more human remains almost daily, have deeply shaken people in the sparsely populated, rural area near Chattanooga, Tenn.

At Wanda's Restaurant and Smokey's Pit Cooked B-B-Q, the daily body count at Tri-State is tossed out by locals like a lottery number. It was 49 at first, then 149, then more than 300.

The subject of the crematory operator, 28-year-old Ray Brent Marsh, who is jailed on 118 felony counts, is debated at the counter of the corner store, which is called The Corner Store.

"People are mad," said Carolyn Tate. "I've never seen so many irate people in my life."

They are angry, in part, because the corpse-dumping at the crematory has brought a stampede of people who stare in horror.

International media showed up within days of the discovery of the first bodies on Feb. 15. Then came devastated families, - some of whom had sent their loved ones to Tri-State more than 10 years ago.

"The thing about it is, everybody here leaves everybody else alone," said B.J. Sherlin, who has lived here 47 years and runs a video store. "Once these people bury their dead a second time, they'll go away. We still have to live with it for the rest of our lives."

The crematory is marked by a weathered black sign that juts a bit over U.S. Highway 27, the main drag. It sits several hundred yards back on Center Point Road, past a Baptist church.

Within a week of the first finds, the body count surpassed Noble's living population of about 200.

"This is just such a shock," said Bebe Heiskell, who by herself constitutes the Walker County Commission. "Noble is just quiet, law-abiding people. And the Marshes were part of that community."

The tragedy of Tri-State has changed the community. People who never knew each other a month ago are now asking each other where they can take food, or how they can lend a hand.

"I've had people call me by my first name who never knew me before," county Sheriff Steve Wilson said.

Which is not to say the people of Noble won't be glad to see the storm of attention pass.

That probably will be awhile. Investigators say the full cleanup at Tri-State could last eight months and cost tens of millions of dollars.

So far, officials have found 339 corpses discarded on the crematory grounds, including a skull and torso found in a manmade lake that will be drained in the search. Of the bodies, 77 have been identified, dating back to deaths in 1997. Police say Marsh, the crematory operator, told them the incinerator was broken. He is due in court Monday for a bond hearing.

In the meantime, residents are trying to return to their own business.

"We come here and we stay here, but a lot of people don't know who their neighbors are," Sherlin said. "It's a place where you don't have to worry about what's in your back yard."

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On the Net:

Information for families: http://www.gema.state.ga.us

Georgia Bureau of Investigation: http://www.state.ga.us/gbi