Every spring when my sedum forces its way out of the ground, I think about Helen McKin. She didn’t have much, yet she was the richest woman I’ve ever known of.
“We lived in a three-room house in the middle of a junkyard,” her daughter Leatha Shropshire once told me. “On the weekends, Dad would go to car sales. He’d tell her, ‘Mama, don’t you drive one of these cars. I haven’t checked them over yet to see which ones are good.’ “
“We had one aunt who was real good at siphoning gas,” Shropshire said.
McKin died Jan. 30, 2002 at 69 from Parkinson’s disease, and her daughters knew something was wrong the day they scattered her ashes. They found painted fingernails and three dental crowns. McKin did not paint her nails and wore false teeth.
It turned out hers was one of 334 corpses discovered that year at Tri-State Crematory in the Noble community in north Georgia. Ray Brent Marsh, who pleaded guilty to 787 counts of theft, abuse of a corpse, burial service fraud and making false statements, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2004. He walked out of the Central State Prison in Bibb County on Wednesday.
“This just opened up wounds that weren’t healed,” McKin’s granddaughter Veronica Lively said on Wednesday. “My Nanny taught us respect. She taught us to respect the elderly, babies, animals, anything that can’t protect itself. Obviously (Marsh) wasn’t taught that. There will never be closure.”
Acting on a tip, investigators discovered the ghastly scene of bodies buried, stacked and strewn about. The case made international news, inspired a film and sent me to north Georgia to tell the stories of the deceased. In those pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, dawn-of-the-intenet days, my research involved hours of scrolling through microfiche at the Chattanooga Public Library. I wanted Tri-State coverage to focus not just on the accused, but on his victims.
People like Norma Hutton, who won a bet with her son-in-law and named her granddaughter Brenda Lee, after the country singer. And David Horton, who welded and delivered papers to help his divorced mother raise a houseful of kids. And Clinton Walls Jr., who brought neighborhood crack addicts onto his payroll and into his heart, urging them to trade their crude pipes for a cleaner life. A careful organizer, Walls wanted his remains cremated when the time came. No one imagined how badly that plan would go.
Shropshire was one of my more memorable interviews. She walked on a cane then, and would spend hours in a recliner with a fluffy cat at her side. Her mom had prized hard work, her biscuits near about floated right out of the oven and she loved flowers. Shropshire moved into her mother’s LaFayette home and told me at the time she was determined to fill the entire yard with blooms.
“I begged my mother to move,” Lively said on Wednesday. “She wouldn’t leave my grandmother’s house.”
Shropshire died in December. All those years ago, she gave me a sprig from her mother’s garden. I stuck it in the ground and it’s thrived and multiplied. On the day Ray Brent Marsh left prison, it was just about to bloom.