updated 11/19/2004 4:07:18 PM ET 2004-11-19T21:07:18

Former crematory operator Ray Brent Marsh pleaded guilty Friday to dumping 334 bodies and giving the families of the deceased cement dust instead of ashes.

Marsh entered the pleas to 787 counts against him, including theft, abuse of a corpse, burial service fraud and making false statements.

“To those of you who may have come here today looking for answers, I cannot give you,” Marsh told the family members in the courtroom. “To those of you I have hurt, I apologize.”

A sentencing hearing was set for Jan. 31. In exchange for the guilty pleas, he is expected to receive a sentence that requires him to serve no more than 12 years in prison followed by probation.

Superior Court Judge James Bodiford said he will wait to officially accept the plea deal until after the sentencing hearing, which could take several days.

“I will keep an open mind,” Bodiford said.

Marsh, 31, allegedly stopped performing cremations at the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., in 1997, when he took over the family business. Based on an anonymous tip in 2002, authorities found more than 300 corpses on the property — scattered in the woods, in buildings and crammed into burial vaults and behind Marsh’s house.

His plea came as relatives of loved ones whose bodies were found discarded gathered outside the courthouse.

Some of the relatives who arrived Friday morning displayed photos to passers-by.

Separate Tennessee case
Relatives have settled an $80 million lawsuit against Marsh, though it is unclear how much will 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.

Several dozen relatives have already told the prosecutor’s office they are interested in speaking at the January sentencing hearing, and others plan to send letters to be entered in court.

Carol Bechtel of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, plans to send a letter. “The thing I wanted was accountability,” said Bechtel, whose parents were supposed to be cremated by Marsh. “If he does plead guilty, I’m OK with the Marsh family.”

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