updated 11/16/2004 2:29:47 PM ET 2004-11-16T19:29:47

A former crematory operator accused of dumping 334 bodies on his property and passing off cement dust as ashes has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges, prosecutors said in a letter to families of the deceased.

The letter dated Nov. 10 does not give details of the plea agreement with Ray Brent Marsh. However, a source with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity that Marsh will be sentenced to 12 years in prison with credit for the roughly seven months he already has served while awaiting trial.

The sentence, which covers all 787 criminal charges of theft and abuse of a corpse, will be followed by a lengthy probation period, the source said.

If Marsh were to go to trial and be convicted on all charges, he could be sentenced to more than 8,000 years in prison.

Marsh allegedly stopped performing cremations at the Tri-State Crematory in Noble in 1997, when he took over the family business from his father. In 2002, hundreds of decomposing corpses were found stacked in storage sheds and scattered in woods outside the crematory in rural northwest Georgia.

Walker County District Attorney Herbert E. Franklin, whose office sent the letter, and defense lawyer Ken Poston refused to comment.

Hearing set for Friday
A hearing to discuss the deal was set for Friday. Leanne Dolin, a clerk to Judge James Bodiford, who has been overseeing the case, also refused to comment.

“I’m sure a lot of families are going to be verbal at the hearing,” said Teri Crawford, whose brother was supposed to have been cremated after he died of cancer in 2001. The family received fake cremated remains and does not know what happened to their loved one.

Anthony Schuchman, 86, of Pittsburgh, whose son’s body was supposed to be cremated at Marsh’s facility, said he has mixed feelings about the prospect of a guilty plea. The family buried what they believed were Gilbert Schuchman’s ashes, but later tests could not determine if the ashes were Schuchman’s remains.

“We’ll never have no closure because we don’t know if this is him or not,” Schuchman said.

Civil suit settled for $80 million
Marsh and dozens of funeral homes that sent bodies to the crematory already have settled a civil lawsuit for $80 million.

Attorneys for Marsh had asked Judge Bodiford to throw out the theft charges, arguing that the corpses did not constitute property. The judge refused, prompting defense lawyers to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The appeal, which is still pending, will be dropped when Marsh enters his guilty plea, according to the prosecutor’s letter.

If Marsh follows through and pleads guilty, the letter says, a sentencing hearing will be held Jan. 31.

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