Search for bodies at crematory may take months
NOBLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Investigators searching the grounds of a northwest Georgia crematory said Wednesday that it could take eight months to find and recover all the bodies that were dumped instead of cremated.
Authorities have found at least 206 decomposing bodies at the Tri-State Crematory and the nearby house of its operator, Ray Brent Marsh, since Saturday, said Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Thirty-five of the bodies have been positively identified.
"We're finding bodies faster than we can recover them," Georgia Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director Vernon Keenan said.
Marsh, 28, is under close watch in the Walker County Jail. He faces 16 felony counts of theft by deception -- one count for each of the bodies identified at the time he was charged. The charges refer to the failure to perform the cremations that families had paid Tri-State Crematory to perform. Marsh also could face federal charges, officials said, and at least one class-action lawsuit already has been filed.
When he was arrested Saturday, Marsh told authorities the facility's incinerator had not worked for some time, Wilson said.
A bond hearing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed until Marsh hires an attorney, said Walker County Chief Magistrate William J. Day.
At least six or seven parcels of land -- including some with rental properties leased out by Marsh -- will be searched in addition to the crematory, Marsh's house and the lake behind the house, Wilson said.
Investigators concentrated Wednesday on searching through six vaults filled with human remains and recovering remains found earlier and marked with small plastic flags.
The vaults -- meant to hold a single body -- could hold 20 to 40 bodies apiece, investigators said. The search through the vaults could be finished by the end of the day Wednesday, Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry said, "contingent on what we find and the difficulty of recovering the remains."
Many of the bodies were so decomposed, that they had turned into "a biological soup," GBI forensic biologist Ted Staples said.
"Even with DNA, it's impossible to identify an individual from soft tissue like that from different bodies decomposed together," Staples said, adding that the best samples come from bone and bone marrow.
Using underwater radar and infrared cameras, investigators Wednesday found a human skull and torso in the lake. Authorities said the lake likely will be drained but not until environmental officials complete tests to make sure it is safe. No contaminants have been found in the lake so far, said Georgia Emergency Management Agency Director Steve McConnell.
Eight to 10 bodies may be buried in a pit next to the lake, Wilson said.
Investigators also are looking into reports that Marsh bought several septic tanks that could have been used to store bodies.
A relative who lived down the street from Marsh's house said Marsh recently had dug up a septic tank at a rental house across the street from her house after a tenant complained it didn't work.
"You seen him digging behind the house," said Barbara Brown. "He said something's wrong with the septic tank, but the neighbor had so much trouble with it, so they came about six months ago when [Marsh] came over and dug it up."
Marsh's mother and father live in another house on the crematory's grounds, but Wilson said they are staying elsewhere. Marsh's father, Rhames Marsh, opened Tri-State in the early 1970s, and his son has been running the crematory since the mid-1990s. Rhames Marsh continues to be listed as the company's chief executive officer on the Georgia secretary of state's Web site.
Familes who used funeral homes that subcontracted with Tri-State are being asked to call their funeral home. Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson said more than 100 family members are registering daily and about 600 people have called a hotline set up to help people find out if the funeral homes they used contracted with Tri-State.
If their relatives' remains were sent to Tri-State, the families have been asked to give authorities DNA samples of their deceased relatives and bring the cremated remains to Walker County Civic Center to see if they are ashes or some other substance.
Twelve of the 81 sets of cremated remains brought in for testing over the past 24 hours were found to be contaminated, mostly with concrete or cement powder, Sperry said.
McConnell said he is working with state officials to make sure investigators have everything they need for their search. They are considering asking for federal disaster relief, he said, noting the first five days of the search already had cost $5 million.
"The cost will be staggering, [but] certainly not to what it is to the families who have lost loved ones," he said.
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