A former crematory operator accused of dumping 334 bodies and passing off cement dust as ashes has agreed to a plea deal requiring him to serve no more than 12 years in prison, the Associated Press learned Tuesday.

Ray Brent Marsh, who is to enter the plea Friday, had faced a sentence of as many as 8,000 years in prison in a case that shocked the nation two years ago when investigators found hundreds of rotting corpses stacked in storage sheds and scattered in woods outside his rural northwest Georgia crematory.

In a letter to victims' families dated Nov. 10 and obtained by the AP, the prosecutor's office describes Marsh's intent to plead guilty. The letter does not give details of the plea agreement, but a source with knowledge of the deal said that Marsh, 31, will plead guilty to theft and abuse of corpse charges, and be sentenced to 12 years in prison with credit for the seven months he has served while awaiting trial.

The sentence, which covers all 787 counts against Marsh, will be followed by a long probation period that would last the rest of his life, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Walker County District Attorney Herbert E. (Buzz) Franklin, whose office sent the letter, and defense lawyer McCracken Poston declined to comment. A judge must approve any deal worked out by the two sides.

Marsh allegedly stopped performing cremations at the Tri-State Crematory in Noble in 1997, when he took over a family business that dealt with funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

An anonymous tip in February 2002 led investigators to find bodies scattered in the woods, stored in buildings and crammed into burial vaults on the crematory property and behind Marsh's house. One corpse was found in a hearse, in a casket with a wilted spray of flowers still on top.

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

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 plea deal. After the bodies were found, authorities asked the family to dig up the ashes. Tests could not determine if the ashes were Schuchman's son.

"We'll never have . . . closure," Schuchman said, "because we don't know if this is him or not."

Body bags trail off into the woods as officials work on the Tri-State Crematory property, outside Noble, Ga.Ray Brent Marsh, who is charged with taking payment for cremations he did not perform, leaves court in Rome, Ga., with his mother, Clara.