LAFAYETTE, Ga. -- A former crematory operator pleaded guilty yesterday to dumping more than 330 corpses on his property and giving the relatives of the dead cement dust instead of ashes.
Under a deal with prosecutors, Ray Brent Marsh could get up to 12 years in prison.
Authorities set aside half the courtroom for the relatives of the dead, who were horrified to find out two years ago that Marsh let 334 bodies pile up on his property -- behind his house, in the woods, in buildings, and crammed into burial vaults.
''He has a sentence of 12 years," said Teri Crawford, whose brother was supposed to have been cremated in 2001 after dying of cancer. ''I will be tormented for the rest of my life wondering what happened to my brother."
Marsh, 31, apologized to the families as he pleaded guilty to 787 counts, including theft, abuse of a corpse, burial service fraud, and making false statements.
''The answers that many of you have come here today to hear I cannot give you," Marsh told the family members. ''To those individuals who were genuinely harmed emotionally as a result of my actions, I apologize."
Security at the hearing was tight as plainclothes police officers surrounded Marsh, who has received numerous death threats since he was charged. Afterward, they escorted him through a throng of victims' relatives to a car.
A sentencing hearing was set for Jan. 31 and could take several days. Several dozen relatives have told the prosecutor's office they want to speak at the hearing, and others plan to send letters.
Relatives have reached an $80 million settlement with Marsh, although it is unclear how much of that will ever be paid. A lawsuit against funeral homes that sent bodies to Marsh's crematory was settled for $36 million, and much of that has been paid.
Marsh also is expected to plead guilty to corpse abuse in Tennessee, where some funeral homes that sent bodies to his crematory were located.
That prison sentence would be served at the same time as the one he receives in Georgia.
Marsh allegedly stopped performing cremations at the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., in 1997, when he took over the family business. Authorities discovered the ghastly scene on his property after receiving an anonymous tip.
After the hearing yesterday, defense attorney McCracken Poston said he could offer little insight into Marsh's motives. ''Some things are perhaps beyond explanation," he said.
That did not satisfy Rusty Cash, 33, whose mother-in-law, Norma Jean Hutton, was supposed to have been cremated.
''He doesn't have a clue what he put my wife through," Cash said. ''All we want to know is why."