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Crematory body count 'growing by the hour'

Found remains like '100 jigsaw puzzles'

aerial view
The bodies have been found in steel vaults and pits, authorities say.  

NOBLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Investigators searching for more bodies on the grounds of Tri-State Crematory in northwest Georgia discovered four new vaults filled with human remains Monday, in addition to one discovered earlier, a state official said.

"All of those are filled with human remains. I can't even begin to guess at how many bodies may be in those in total. It's just incomprehensible," said Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry.

Authorities found more than 20 corpses stuffed into the first vault, which was designed to hold a single casket.

"The volume of what we're finding is growing by the hour," Sperry said.

Authorities had recovered 139 sets of remains by mid-afternoon, said Sperry. Twenty-seven of those remains have been identified.

He said they expect to find as many as 200 bodies that have been left unburied and not cremated by the facility's operator.

Noble is a small town tucked into the extreme northwest corner of Georgia near the Tennessee and Alabama borders. It is about 85 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Operator charged with fraud

Authorities believe there may be up to 200 bodies left unburied at a crematory in northwest Georgia. CNN's Art Harris reports (February 18)

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A bond hearing scheduled Monday afternoon for Ray Brent Marsh, 28, was delayed indefinitely, said Buzz Franklin, district attorney for Walker County.

The delay of Monday's hearing will give Marsh an opportunity to obtain counsel, the prosecutor said.

Marsh is charged with 16 felony counts of theft by fraud, related to the first 16 bodies identified. The charges refer to the failure to perform cremations that were paid for. Marsh could be sentenced to one to 15 years if convicted, Franklin said.

Franklin said he expects more arrest warrants will be issued as more remains are found. Officials said no evidence of foul play had been found in any of the deaths.

Marsh, the son of the crematory's owners, was arrested Saturday. He told authorities the facility's incinerator had not worked for some time, said Walker County Sheriff Pete Wilson.

Efforts in recovering the remains were slow because many are in wooded areas and in inaccessible places, Sperry said. The goal is to keep remains intact, if possible.

Urns of powdered cement

Members of a federal disaster mortuary response team -- forensic anthropologists, forensic pathologists and other specialists -- were to arrive later Monday to assist. DNA specimens will be collected to aid in identification.

The response team will operate an 8,000-square-foot portable morgue shipped from Rockville, Maryland, Sperry said.

He said he didn't know how many bodies the team would be able to identify.

Local and state authorities converged on the scene. A federal mortuary team is expected late Monday.
Local and state authorities converged on the scene. A federal mortuary team is expected late Monday.  

"We do not know and may never find out the names of many of these people, only because families may never come forward. They have died, moved on, who knows what," he said.

In many cases, investigators are finding mere bones.

"It's like taking 100 jigsaw puzzles and pouring them out on the floor and putting them together upside down," Sperry said.

Teams also were evaluating cremated remains brought to them by families trying to confirm whether the ashes of their relatives sent to the crematory are of human origin.

Sperry said they have examined 51 sets of ashes so far. Of those, nine were not of human origin, he said; they were "powdered cement."

'Something you take to bed with you'

Marsh lives in a house near the crematory. His mother and father live on the crematory's grounds.

Marsh's father, who opened the business in the early 1970s, is bedridden; his son has been running the business since the mid-1990s, said Georgia Bureau of Investigations spokesman John Bankhead.

It appears the mishandling of corpses goes back more than a decade, indicating more than one person was involved, Sheriff Wilson said.

"This seems to be getting worse as the days go on," said Sperry. He said he has performed nearly 5,000 autopsies in his career and never come across a similar sight.

"It's something you take to bed with you at night," he said.

Some of the bodies have been there for years, he said. Some are so old they have become mummified.

Almost all the remains are of older adults who died natural deaths, although at least one is an infant, said Sperry.

The crematory is on 16 acres that includes a large lake and is surrounded by a residential neighborhood. It was built before the county passed zoning laws, said Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

State environmental officials will check the lake to determine whether it contains more bodies and is contaminated, said GEMA Director Gary W. McConnell. The lake drains into a reservoir,

Wells in the area also were being tested, but no contamination had been discovered so far, the agency said. Authorities were also checking other property owned by the family.

Ray Brent Marsh
Ray Brent Marsh  

Authorities were first alerted to unusual activity at the site last November by an anonymous tipster who called the federal Environmental Protection Agency office in Atlanta, Wilson said.

The tipster claimed to have stumbled across human bones on the property while walking the dog, he said.

The EPA called the sheriff's department, which contacted the Marshes, made an "initial, cursory inspection and found nothing unusual," Wilson said.

The inspection did not go into the wooded area. "We had no reason or authority to do so then," Wilson said.

A second complaint in recent days led to the discovery.

Tri-State Crematory was operating with a legal permit, authorities said.

Records provided by the Marshes indicate the crematory received more than 200 bodies since 1996, said Walker County Coroner Duane Wilson.

The most recent pickup was Valentine's Day.

The Marsh family has had no comment on the investigation.




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