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Georgia Authorities Hold Press Conference on Discovered Bodies

Aired February 18, 2002 - 14:17   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: In the meantime, back to Georgia, Walker County. And again, police talking and investigators talking about what they have seen and done thus far over the past three days there in Noble, Georgia.


DR. KRIS SPERRY, CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER, GEORGIA: The response team is going to be arriving. There is a portable morgue that has been shipped from Rockville, Maryland. And that's about an 8,000- square foot facility. And that's going to be set up and specifically geared towards identifying all of the sets of remains that we have.

Additionally, through the demorgue team, we are having hopefully as many as four forensic pathologists, four forensic anthropologists, eight autopsy technicians and assistants and then multiple other staff members who work in the support area of this team. And they will all be serving basically under my supervision. So they will be doing what we instruct them to do in helping us and working through the identification issues and the recovery issues.

Also, this afternoon, we will have a forensic anthropologist from Atlanta, Dr. Mark Gilbow (ph), who should be arriving soon. And he is going to be detailed immediately to assist the agents in recovering the skeletal remains that are -- there are dozens of bodies massed together and the skeletons are all intermingled together. So this has slowed us down just because, again, the technical nature of this.

Now I can tell you, about 15 minutes ago, Dr. Kaponin (ph), who is my deputy chief, supervised the opening of the other four vaults that were found in the garage building. As I mentioned yesterday, we had opened one of the vaults and found that it was filled with human remains. The other four have been opened now for initial evaluation and all of those are filled with human remains. I have -- I can't even begin to guess at how many bodies may be in those in total. It's just incomprehensible. It just continues to go and go.

And finally, the last thing, beginning last evening, I and my staff, Dr. Kaponin, Dr. Rabell (ph) and Dewayne Wilson here, the coroner, begin evaluating cremains that had been brought to us by various family members and our goal was to determine whether these were of human origin or not human origin. We have examined 51 so far. And of those 51, we found nine that are not of human origin, and they appear to be, although we are going to have this analyzed, but just a preliminary appearance is that what was represented as being human remains is actually powdered cement.

And that's basically all that I have, at least is the update what we are doing. We are continuing to work. But I think as you can see and understand, the volume of what we are finding is just growing by the hour and so we are expanding the services that we are calling in and the resources that are available to us to fill the need. Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I have your title.

SPERRY: Chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia.

QUESTION: Thank you.

STEVE WILSON, SHERIFF, WALKER COUNTY, GEORGIA: OK. Next, we have Dewayne Wilson, the coroner for the county.

DEWAYNE WILSON, WALKER COUNTY CORONER: Just going to bring you briefly up to date how we are with the remains and how we are releasing them. As soon as we have positive identification, we're releasing them to the funeral homes of the family's choice only on written consent by the funeral home and by positive ID, where they can place them in a permanent burial site, whether its cremation or a burial from what they have had to go through.

The families are working with us very well on trying to identify, also the funeral homes that are involved. And we're working expeditiously, trying to notify them and verify who we have and get them released as soon as possible. Thank you.

S. WILSON: Thank you, Dewayne. Next, we will have Buzz Franklin, district attorney.

BUZZ FRANKLIN, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's just briefly I have to say I'm impressed with the way the gentlemen behind me have been handling this rather daunting task. My job is to look at the criminal charges which may be filed. At this point, there have been 16 warrants taken for one individual, Brent Marsh. He is currently in custody at the Walker County Sheriff's Office in the jail there. He had been scheduled for a bond hearing earlier today. The chief magistrate, Jerry Day (ph), spoke with him at the jail to determine if he wanted to go forward with the bond hearing. He didn't have counsel to represent him, so he requested that that bond hearing be delayed until he could secure counsel. So that bond hearing is delayed indefinitely. And we do expect as further remains are identified, that there will be further warrants taken.

S. WILSON: Thank you, Buzz. Mr. Nix, if you would address us from the GBI, please.

MILTON "BUDDY" NIX JR., DIRECTOR, GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Dr. Sperry talked briefly about the demorgue team. We have worked with the demorgue team before. We're used to working with them. Our first exposure to the demorgue team was in 1994 following the floods in southwest Georgia, when the two cemeteries were washed out there and we had similar type of situation that we dealt with. The demorgue team was active in working the World Trade Center disaster. The GBI had three members of our staff who participated in that team operation that assisted in New York.

And I tell you that to tell you that we don't have a situation where we are having to learn to work together. We have worked together successfully in the past. I am here to evaluate the resource requirements and to ensure that the resources that we have available to us that are needed up here are fully committed to the process. We have brought six additional agents up this morning. We're in the process of bringing others up and we will add to that on an as-needed basis.

We can't -- most of us can't possibly comprehend what the families are going through if we haven't been personally impacted by it. But I can -- I can assure you that the agents, the deputies, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency personnel, the firemen that are working through this are doing the very best job that they can under horrific circumstances. And for those of us that pay taxes that are citizens of this state, we've all got to be very proud of the work that is being done and the commitment to resolve it, resolving this situation.

S. WILSON: Thank you Mr. Nix. Vernon, David?

DAVID ASHBURN, EMERGENCY SERVICES DIRECTOR, WALKER COUNTY: Obviously, one of the major concerns or problems that we have in addition to the excavating of the site and those things is the support aspect of it. At this time, we have over 400 people involved in the operation from grief counselors to people contacting all the funeral homes to continuing communication, workers on the site, in addition to all the investigation -- investigators and things of that nature. And that is growing by leaps and bounds. And I apologize to you that we don't have a great facility for this number of press at this time. And we'll work to improve that for you. Again, we will do the scheduled press conferences and give that information out to you.

But it's a massive undertaking. And in Walker County, the facilities are being developed as we speak to meet more of these needs with the morgue lab and the other things associated with it. So we're moving and if you'll give us a little time, we will get caught up with the situation.

QUESTION: Can I have your last name?

ASHBURN: Ashburn.

QUESTION: And your title please?

ASHBURN: I'm the emergency service director for the county.

QUESTION: Thank you.

S. WILSON: We are going to try to stay on schedule and meet again at 5:30 this afternoon. I'm not sure we will have much update, but we promised you that and we will try to stick to that today. At this time we will open up for just a few questions. Remember, we need to get back to meet with the family members, so please limit your questions and please be respectful of us as we leave. We do not want to answer individual questions.

QUESTION: Yesterday, you said, at a minimum, there were 200 bodies out there. I want to know whether that has changed in any way, and then can you just give us a sense of what the most difficult part of the process (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

SPERRY: All right. Well, it was literally just about 20 minutes ago that I found out that all the vaults did contain bodies. And I've not been there to assess it. Doctor Kaponin (ph), who called me, we discussed this very briefly. And frankly, we have no way of even guessing at this point and time. I mean, we are -- I've said it a few days ago that I thought this may well run into the hundreds and I think I've been right so far.

But until -- realistically, until we're actually in there and able to remove the bodies, I won't have a much more accurate sense of what the numbers really are. And we are continuing to examine all of the wooded areas out behind. And the agents are going to great detail and we have not really begun seriously excavating certain areas that are of interest to us. So it's -- all I can do is offer guesses that I know are inaccurate because I suspect, quite clearly, there's going to be a lot more.

QUESTION: Can you tell us the most difficult part?

SPERRY: I think the most difficult part is really just adjusting to the fact that, almost by the hour, this is changing and growing and expanding. And I think by virtue of the fact of -- we have extremely excellent individuals. All those people behind me and all of the people out at the scene that you don't know and you haven't seen, all of these, all of the 400 people are committed professionals in every aspect that they're dealing with. And it's the concerted effort of all of us that is allowing us really to accommodate to the fact that -- like I said, by the hour, this is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and we are adjusting to that. And, you know, our approaches are evolving with the needs. But that's the toughest part.

QUESTION: Are there still plans to search the lake? And if so, how will you all go about doing that?

SPERRY: Yes, there are plans to do so. I -- that's more of an investigative aspect, but that is going to be done, as I understand, in the next several days. But, yes, this will be done.

QUESTION: What are the charges could this guy face in addition to the theft by deception charges?

FRANKLIN: At this point and time, I think it's inappropriate to comment on what charges potentially are out there. Once the warrant is taken and executed, it becomes public record and you can examine that once that's done. As I said, at this point and time, there are 16 warrants that have been taken for theft by deception, and that's all I feel I can comment on.


QUESTION: Is that a felony or a misdemeanor, and what are the penalties for it?

FRANKLIN: It is a felony. It is a range of punishment from one to 15 years.

QUESTION: Do you anticipate that other people will be charged?

FRANKLIN: Again, I think I would have to give the same answer. We can't tell you what we expect to happen, but once a warrant is taken and executed, that becomes public record and you can be notified of that at that time.

QUESTION: Could this possibly become a federal case concerning that it's actually upon the false (ph) state line?

FRANKLIN: That would be up to federal authorities.

QUESTION: Have they been contacted?

FRANKLIN: There are federal authorities who have been involved and have been looking at the situation.

QUESTION: Dr. Sperry, can I just ask you a question?


QUESTION: What is the reality of when all these bodies are totaled up, the percentage of bodies that you will or not will be able to identify? Is there a possibility a number of them won't be (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

SPERRY: Well, I have no idea how many we'll be able to identify because this is again not -- it's not like a plane crash, where there's 253 people onboard and we know the name of every single one of them. This is not like that at all. We do not know and may never find out the names of many of these people only because families may never come forward. They may have died, moved on -- who knows what? We have to have somebody to compare with in order to make identification.

So, yes, it's not only a probability. It is going to happen. When this finally over and done with, there will be a number, and -- you know, I can't even speculate what that may be. But it will never be identified.

QUESTION: Even if you had those records, are there some remains that are so badly decomposed that you would not be able to identify them?

SPERRY: Well, yes, there are some sets of skeletal remains that we are recovering that are only partial. There are some just skulls alone, with no teeth. Isolated bones that are not associated with other skeletal remains in the immediate area. This is an enormous problem, and it's like taking 100 jigsaw puzzles and pouring them out on the floor and putting them together upside down. That's basically about the best way I could try to compare it to.

QUESTION: What does it tell you, the fact that some of the remains that you have -- or the urns that you've have, turned out to be human remains? (OFF-MIKE)

SPERRY: Well, what it tells us, and what I've told the families, that at least the remains they were given are human in origin. I cannot tell, and it is not possible to tell if those remains, that they were given, actually came from the loved one that they entrusted for cremation. That's not possible to do. The high temperatures of the cremation incinerate all DNA, and so it is not possible to establish a biologic origin of those remains.

QUESTION: Do you have a better idea now of how far this dates? I've heard anywhere in the range between 10 to 20 years?

SPERRY: Nothing better than what I told you before. What we're still finding is still supporting what I told you -- that this easily could be in the 10-20 year range.

QUESTION: At the onset you were saying that the suspect was being cooperative. What, if anything, has he said since his last apprehension last night, and is he still continuing that cooperative vein?

S. WILSON: Since Saturday afternoon, he notified law enforcement that he had retained an attorney. At that point we ceased questioning him for constitutional reasons. We have not spoken to him since, I guess, late Friday night sometime. And he was cooperative on Friday, to a certain degree. But since then he has not.

QUESTION: Sir, information -- I know I asked you earlier (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Do we know the last time for sure that the crematory actually (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

WILSON: We hope to be able to ask him that question, if and when he is allowed to talk. If his attorney advises him to talk, that will be one of the questions that we ask. But we do not know at this time.

QUESTION: Do you know that he's (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

S. WILSON: We feel certain that it worked at some point. Yes, we do. I can't give you a date, but our gut feeling is that it did work at some point, yes.

QUESTION: Sir, there are certain words that are used in describing the scene, but people talk about bodies being dumped, and then some bodies being crammed into a vault. From what you have seen, how much effort does it seem the perpetrator of this took to put the bodies where they put them? They weren't just scattered around randomly...

S. WILSON: Varying degrees. We have talked about the vaults that were still shut, which took some work to complete that. And then we're seeing, on the flip side of that, we've seen bodies just lying out in the woods, which would have meant just dragging them out there or just dumping them out there.

So, we've really got two degrees here. At some point they put some effort into it. At some point they were very lax at it.

QUESTION: We notice, on the scene there, depending on which way the wind blows, there is a smell in the air. What have neighbors said? Why haven't any of them ever noticed that or anything?

S. WILSON: I am not aware of any neighbor at any time reporting any foul odors that could have possibly been these remains in the area.

QUESTION: Sheriff, do (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at some point to test the cremation equipment to see if it works?

S. WILSON: Certainly that would be part of the investigative process at some point. That's just not a priority right now. Again, as we've said earlier, the priority now is to locate those remains and to identify them and return them back to their loved ones. And that would be something that we'd do later down the road.

QUESTION: ... families to do who think that perhaps maybe there is a loved one? What strategy do you want them to follow?

S. WILSON: Good question. We've answered that the last couple of days, but it doesn't hurt to talk about it again.

QUESTION: What about people from other states, who are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) traveling. It could be a lot broader than we think it is.

S. WILSON: We are first asking the family members, the loved ones, to contact the funeral home that conducted the service, to find out what crematory did the service for them. If they said Tri-State Crematory, then the family needs to come here, fill out the paperwork, bring identification records. We have a 888 number that we've published to a lot of folks -- I down have it readily available right now. But they can call that number.

Those people with the governor's office of consumer affairs will be happy to assist them and tell them what to bring and how to do it. If they contact the funeral home, they said "John Smith's Mortuary and Crematorium in Cleveland" did it, then there's no need for them to be here. That's the simplest way to eliminate any thoughts, hopes.

QUESTION: Do you know if the funeral home brought the bodies to the crematorium, or did the crematorium come pick them up? What is the process involved?

S. WILSON: I'll let Dewayne answer that.

D. WILSON: Under our investigation, the first thing we did is notify the funeral homes that we knew were involved. And 99 percent of the time, the marshes went and picked up the remains, brought them to the location, and then returned the ashes back to the funeral home.

QUESTION: Dewayne, do you have any estimate on how much business they have had in taking the last few months, the last few years, or is that a little bit further down the line?

D. WILSON: We asked Friday night, we called an emergency meeting of the funeral homes involved, the ones we knew were directly involved. And then they knew of other funeral homes that had used the marshes periodically. We asked them for all their records up until '96 at first, because that's what we thought we went back to. And then since then, we have asked them of any records they have dealing with the marshes at all.


QUESTION: How many funeral homes in all around the area?

D. WILSON: The first meeting we had involved between 20 and 30 funeral homes. I don't have a list with me. And the numbers are still coming in, so I can't give you an exact number.

QUESTION: Did the marshes have any records of their own? And did (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

D. WILSON: The records that we obtained from the marshes were very vague, and the only records we had were from October until February the 14.

QUESTION: Nothing before that?


QUESTION: Can you say whether they were suffering any -- had any financial trouble at this point, or...

D. WILSON: That's in the investigation and I have no idea.

QUESTION: Is there any indication that any of these bodies is anything other than something that came from a funeral home? Is there any possibility of some kind of foul play with any of these deaths?

D. WILSON: No. About all the bodies involved are related to a funeral home.

QUESTION: Sheriff, are any of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

S. WILSON: I'm sorry, but I'd have to direct that question to the secretary of state's office that handles licensing and inspections. I understand there's about 750 funeral homes and crematoriums in the state with only two inspectors, and I just don't have those records. I will give you the 888 number. 888-887-1845, and that rings into our operation center up here. Nicki, do have a question?

QUESTION: How many urns and ashes have the officials -- are you guys testing? S. WILSON: I'll ask Dr. Sperry.

SPERRY: As of last evening, we have looked at 51. And I know there are many more that have been delivered today, and frankly, I don't have a number. I've not asked and no one has told me yet. But more are definitely coming in.

QUESTION: Do you have a number for today?

SPERRY: I have been too busy with all of this to ask, quite frankly. And that's just -- and something else that I'll do this evening, once we quit working during the day.

QUESTION: Dr. Sperry, is there any indication that anything was done with bodies, other than they were stacked or laid somewhere after you found them?

SPERRY: Nothing other than that gross neglect of the bodies, we have not found, I would say, any other evidence of dismemberment or things such as that, that, you know, would be really inappropriate. Nothing that is obvious. Bodies are basically intact.

QUESTION: Sheriff, one more question.

S. WILSON: We'll take one more question right here, then we're going to wrap up.

QUESTION: At one time you said you were checking to see if the marshes owned other property, and if so, have you checked into those properties?

S. WILSON: We have investigators looking at the tax records office today to see if there are other properties that they own. They will report back to the command post with that information so we can go further. Thank you very much. We'll see you at 5:30.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: This story continues to get worse by the day. In fact, if you've listened to some of the investigators there for state of Georgia in Walker County, it gets worse by the hour. We know at least 130 bodies right now have been recovered. And we've been reporting really that perhaps up to 200 may be found. But now it appears that number may go well above that, listening to the medical examiner say that one vault was open yesterday, on Sunday. All human remains found inside there.

And if you listened to him, it sounded like he said at least three more vaults still need to be open, sometime in the coming hours or days. And he says all appear to be full with human remains inside. He says he cannot begin to guess how many bodies my be located and found here. He says it's growing by the hour.

The owner and the operator of this entire ordeal here, Brent Marsh, had been arrested over the weekend. He met bond yesterday and was released, but now he is back behind bars. There was a bond hearing scheduled, that's been delayed. He is being charged, initially, anyway, with theft for this matter up in Noble, Georgia. Again, back in custody again. His fate quite clearly is up in the air.

And certainly for the countless families involved in this situation here, it is going to be a long and often difficult process right now going forward. Indications that some of these bodies may have been brought there to that crematory in northwest Georgia 15 years ago.

Holly Firfer is on the scene. We'll continue to watch it throughout the afternoon, here.




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