Initial hours of Feb. 15
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson was a mere month into his second term on Feb. 15, 2002, when the first bodies were discovered.
In less than 12 hours that day, Wilson’s responsibilities had changed from judging a chili cook-off at lunch to ending the day with a CNN interview after the initial phase of discoveries at Tri-State.
“Little did I know that CNN, FOX, the BBC, the Singapore Press and the South African Gazette, along with everyone else, would be here in a few days,” Wilson said.
The investigation began when federal Environmental Protection Agency officials visited the Marsh property. They were seeking any evidence of inappropriate handling of human bodies. Two complaints had been previously registered by a propane delivery person.
A deputy was sent to the property in November 2001, with the complaint stating that a dog had dragged a human bone, according to Wilson. Nothing was found at that time.
“A cursory walk by (a deputy) without training in recognizing skeletal remains would have had a hard time recognizing it as a crime scene,” said Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Greg Ramey, one of a handful of officials at the crematory in the first few hours of Feb. 15.
The team entered the rear of the property and after a few hours discovered a “human skull of unknown origin,” which prompted the 911 call for Walker County Sheriff’s Office investigators.
Detectives Walt Hensley and Mason Brewer were first called to the scene as EPA officials had videotaped a skull found in the wooded southeastern area of the Marshes’ 18-acre property, according to Wilson.
The two investigators met EPA officials in the parking lot and viewed the three-minute video. Hensley relayed what he saw on the video to Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson.
After the coroner arrived and the GBI had been notified, Brewer and Hensley then proceeded back to where the skull was found, along with EPA officials.
“Initially walking through the grounds there was really no odor (of decomposition),” Wilson said about the most frequently asked question he has received in the years following the case. Some of the mass burials were in a pine forest on the property.
“Everything looked perfectly normal,” Dewayne Wilson said. “You couldn’t see anything obvious at all.”
The decomposition odor was limited to a few feet away from the metal vaults, according to Ramey.