Several weeks ago we profiled a piece of land in Noble being rezoned for development into an industrial park. The 400+ acres were purchased by the county for some $4 million with stated intentions to attract new industrial facilities (and jobs) into the area. Specific plans were not known at the time, but last week Commissioner Heiskell revealed one thing she’s working on for the site:
From WQCH, 06/30/2010:
- AT LAST WEEK’S COMMISSIONER’S MEETING, BEBE HEISKELL SAID SHE HAS HER EYE ON A SPOT WITHIN THAT 500 ACRE TRACT FOR A FUTURE MEMORIAL. THE STATE LEGISLATURE APPROPRIATED 45-THOUSAND DOLLARS TO BUILD A MEMORIAL SITE FOR FAMILIES WHOSE LOVED-ONES WERE SENT TO THE TRI-STATE CREMATORY. HUNDREDS OF BODIES WERE RECOVERED FROM THAT PROPERTY, UN-CREMATED… SOME BODIES WERE NEVER IDENTIFIED… AND MANY FAMILIES RECEIVED CONCRETE DUST INSTEAD OF ACTUAL CREMATED REMAINS. THE COMMISSIONER SAID THERE IS A “QUIET SPOT” ON THE PROPERTY THAT WOULD BE PERFECT FOR THE MEMORIAL.
Now that Walker County owns the land, the first matter of business is apparently setting up a memorial to Brent Marsh’s victims in “a quiet spot” within the industrial park – some eight years and two months after state funding for such a memorial was first approved.
The first of 339 bodies were uncovered behind Tri-State Crematory in Noble during February 2002. By April of the same year then-State Representative Mike Snow (responsible for blocking a state investigation of the site years earlier) had added to the state budget $45,000 for building a victims’ memorial. Collections to build a memorial were also taken at the time by various groups and encouraged by Commissioner Heiskell.
Investigation of the incident ended, and in 2004 Marsh was put on trial. He quickly pled guilty and accepted a light sentence of 4.5-12 years in jail and life on parole instead of risking the 8,000 year sentence he was eligible for if convicted by a jury. The Marsh family’s insurance company then settled claims made against the family in civil court for $3.5 million. As part of those plea and settlement agreements, the Marshes also agreed to tear down all crematory-related buildings on their land and return the property to a natural state, putting it into a trust where it could serve as a “secluded memorial.”
In 2004 all remaining unidentified bodies were interred in a mass grave in Rossville. That plot and a marble marker at the site were both generously donated by the owners of Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park with no state money involved. Years passed and families began to heal, but still nothing was done to build a permanent memorial at or near the site where the atrocities actually happened.
Today 25 acres of land along Center Point Rd. where the crematory once stood sits cleared and vacant, but – despite the family’s settlement agreement – remains deeded to Clara Marsh.
In 2002, even before the full extent of Brent Marsh’s crimes had been uncovered and years ahead of any settlement deals, many expected a crematory memorial to be constructed at the scene of the crime. That idea was quickly rejected by the commissioner, who commented in an interview how “the crematory site is an unlikely location for a memorial because it will be tied up in court and could be spooky for visitors.”
In the time since that statement was made, Walker County has sued the Marsh family in an attempt to recover some of the $2 million spent to clean up their property. That lawsuit was rejected in court and is still being appealed, but the county has yet to make a similar (or any) effort towards taking the Noble property that hasn’t been “tied up in court” since settlement papers were signed.
The property in question might be “spooky” as a memorial site, but no more than it is now with no monument or placard posted. Many families of crematory victims have visited the site to pay their respects to loved ones who have no known burial place, and erecting a monument or quiet park there would be an appropriate way to accommodate mourners while honoring those who were abused on the property.
(County officials might be unwilling to use the Marsh property at this point because members of the Marsh family – including Clara and eventually Brent when his sentence expires – still live nearby. Conflict between the Marsh family and victim families could be negated if the county simply did what it should have done in 2004: take all the Marshes’ land and run them out of town.)
Notwithstanding arguments about the suitability of that property for a memorial, the county has other appropriate sites where something could have been set up long ago. For some victim families Walker County Civic Center in Rock Spring is almost as meaningful as the crematory site itself; The Civic Center and Agricultural Building served as headquarters for the crematory investigation and was a gathering place for families, law enforcement, reporters, politicians, and curious onlookers. That complex still has plenty of empty space and is a highly visible site where some kind of memorial could have been erected in 2003 or 2004.
We’ll concede that the industrial park property is directly across the highway from Center Point Rd. and closer to the former crematory than the Civic Center, but that’s still no excuse to wait six long years to do anything (even temporarily) – and even a close site is less desirable than a memorial located where the incident actually occurred.
Families whose loved ones were involved in the horrible crime, themselves victims of the Marsh family’s incomprehensible behavior, have publicly requested a monument time and time again, but no official response or explanation for the delay has ever been provided by Bebe Heiskell or anyone else within the county – until last week, when the commissioner announced her intentions to erect the monument somewhere within the county’s new industrial park.
So we must ask: why now, and why there?
Heiskell may be motivated as much by political timing as anything else. A memorial opening sometime in late 2011 or early 2012 would still be remembered by her next election in July 2012, and might help erase bitter memories of how quickly she helped residents after last year’s floods. (Public ceremonies opening the new industrial park are likely to be held around the same time for a similar purpose.)
There’s also a possibility memorial funds will expire and revert back to Georgia’s general fund if they aren’t spent within a certain period of time. Most grants and designated monies expire after a set period, and April 2012 marks ten years since crematory memorial funds were first designated. Heiskell would certainly take heat in that year’s election for letting the money go away without using it.
The Commissioner’s statement didn’t specify exactly where on the 416-acre property this memorial might be constructed. Her unidentified “quiet spot” might well be on the back side of the former Swanson farm, necessitating a road be built to access it. A portion of the designated memorial funds could be used to construct such a road, or even to add utilities if any were needed – and as a side benefit offset some costs Walker County’s government might encounter as part of developing the property for industrial use. This might explain why setting up the memorial is a greater priority than setting up the site for industrial use, because doing the former accomplishes the latter.
Whatever her motivation, the Commissioner’s announcement of a memorial site (and so far it’s only an announcement so don’t get too excited) is a half-decade overdue. Heiskell has had ample opportunity to do something before now, and her lack of action reveals a lack of true concern for those who are still dealing with the emotional and psychological aftermath of what happened in Noble.