February 19, 2002 Posted: 5:10 AM EST (1010 GMT)
NOBLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Investigators searching for bodies Monday on the grounds of Tri-State Crematory in northwest Georgia discovered four more steel vaults packed with human remains, bringing the estimated total of corpses to more than 200, a state official said.
The number of bodies identified had risen to 27 by Monday evening, when Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry said authorities had recovered 139 sets of remains.
Another vault stuffed with rotting corpses had been discovered Saturday.
"All of those are filled with human remains. I can't even begin to guess at how many bodies may in those in total. It's just incomprehensible," Sperry told reporters.
Authorities found more than 20 corpses stuffed into the first vault. Approximately 7 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall, each vault is designed to hold a single casket.
The bodies are simply stacked: "body bags, clothing, sheets, hospital gowns and just decomposed en masse," Sperry said.
"None of this makes sense yet," he said. "I don't think, frankly, it ever will."
A bond hearing scheduled for Monday afternoon for suspect Ray Brent Marsh, 28, was delayed indefinitely, said Buzz Franklin, district attorney for Walker County. Marsh is charged with 16 felony counts of deception by fraud, one count for each of the bodies identified at the time he was charged.
The delay will give Marsh, son of the crematory's owners, an opportunity to obtain counsel, the prosecutor said. The charges refer to the failure to perform the cremations that were purchased. Each charge carries a potential prison sentence of one to 15 years.
Others may be charged, too, said Walker County Sheriff Pete Wilson. "Certainly, we've got to take a look at the father, there's no doubt about that," he said.
But the elder Marsh is confined to a hospital bed, Wilson said. "His health issues would have to be taken into account."
Officials said no evidence of foul play had been found in any of the deaths.
Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson, who is not related to the sheriff, said his office was trying to contact family members of the identified bodies. Eight or nine of the bodies have already been released to family members, he said.
Three area crematories have offered to cremate the bodies found on the property free of charge, he said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has brought in additional agents to help interview family members, said Vernon Keenan, assistant director of the GBI.
"We have been overwhelmed with the number of family members who have responded to the news about the situation here," he said.
In addition, the Georgia Department of Corrections sent 24 probation officers and correctional officers Monday to join search teams scouring the area to recover remains.
The state's Department of Natural Resources is checking the water quality in a lake on the crematory's property to determine whether it is safe for divers, said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
DNR is checking the feasibility of draining the lake, he said, and officials may use an underwater camera, too, authorities said.
Gov. Roy Barnes is checking into the possibility of drafting legislation that would "close some of the obvious loopholes regarding facilities of this type," said Weiss.
Area funeral homes have told authorities that, from 1996 until February 15, 2002, about 350 bodies were sent to the crematory, the coroner said.
Hundreds of families have brought in pictures and identification in attempts to find out whether the bodies of their relatives were cremated, he said.
Efforts to recover the remains were slow because many are in wooded areas and inaccessible places, Sperry said. The goal is to keep remains intact, where possible.
"The volume of what we're finding is growing by the hour," Sperry added. "There are dozens of bodies massed together."
Authorities say the investigation is just beginning, and more bodies may be found. They have identified other parcels of land owned by the family and may search them, too.
Sperry and other officials met Monday afternoon with families whose loved ones may have been handled by the crematory. Grief counselors are working with families and emergency workers, officials said.
Members of a federal disaster mortuary response team -- forensic anthropologists, forensic pathologists and other specialists -- were to begin helping Tuesday. DNA specimens will be collected to aid in identification.
The team will staff an 8,000-square-foot portable morgue shipped from Rockville, Maryland, Sperry said.
Teams also are evaluating cremated remains brought to them by families whose loved ones were sent to the crematory and are trying to confirm whether the ashes are of human origin.
Sperry said investigators have examined 51 urns of ashes. Of those, nine contained nothing more than powdered cement.
Marsh was arrested Saturday. He told authorities the facility's incinerator had not worked for some time, Sheriff Wilson said.
Marsh lives in a house near the crematory, while his mother and father live on the crematory's grounds. Marsh's father opened the business in the early 1970s, and his son has been running it since the mid-1990s.
Authorities were first alerted to unusual activity at the site last November, when an anonymous tipster called the EPA office in Atlanta, 85 miles away, claiming to have stumbled across human bones on the property while walking a dog, Wilson said.
Authorities met with the Marshes but did not search the property and found nothing. A second complaint in recent days led to the grisly discovery.
Tri-State Crematory was operating with a legal permit, authorities said.
The Marsh family has had no comment on the investigation.
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