NOBLE, Ga. – The lawyer for a crematory operator accused of discarding hundreds of bodies on his property without cremating them obtained a gag order in the case Thursday, forcing Georgia's state medical examiner to stop speaking mid-sentence at a news conference.
Operator Ray Brent Marsh, 28, jailed since Sunday night, is to appear at a bond hearing Friday. He is facing 16 counts of theft by deception for allegedly accepting payment for cremations he did not intend to perform. More charges, including possible federal counts, are pending.
The gag order obtained by defense attorney Ken Poston covers witnesses, officials and investigators in the case. Georgia state medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry halted mid-sentence when the district attorney rushed into the news conference with copies of the order.
Before the interruption, Sperry said authorities since Friday have recovered 283 bodies from the grounds of the Tri-State Crematory and identified 54. Efforts to recover human remains from pits, sheds, metal vaults and even a shallow lake near the crematory continued Thursday.
Water from the 3-acre lake, which has already yielded two bodies, will be pumped out slowly to make sure no remains are lost. The lake will not be drained for several days, until investigators have finished their initial search of the property, said Vernon Keenan, of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The recovery effort could last at least eight months and cost far more than the estimated $10 million calculated this week.
"There's just no way to even guess at a cost until we stop finding bodies. And we're finding them everywhere," Georgia Emergency Management Director Gary McConnell said.
The state has set up a temporary morgue costing $500,000 a week staffed by 50 pathologists. McConnell said more than 10,000 pieces of human remains have been sent for DNA tests since Monday.
Gov. Roy Barnes requested federal disaster aid Thursday, calling the recovery effort complex and "very emotionally taxing on personnel." The request in a letter to President Bush is unusual because the operation does not stem from a natural disaster.
The number of state workers dedicated to the recovery effort has passed 500 and may eventually exceed 1,500, Barnes said.
Georgia lawmakers toured the crematory grounds Thursday. "We saw the pits, we saw the bodies removed. It's indescribable," said Rep. Barbara Massey Reece.
Added Rep. Chuck Sims, himself a funeral director: "These people probably all died of natural causes, but now it's almost like a trauma death. It's almost like they've been violated."
Coroner Dewayne Wilson said his office has been getting 800 to 900 phone calls a day from families as far away as Canada seeking answers about loved ones. Another 100 to 150 families have shown up in person.
Forensics experts testing the contents of urns returned to families and funeral homes by Tri-State have determined that roughly one in eight was filled with a mixture of dirt or cement dust.
The coroner said authorities know of more than 30 funeral homes within a 200-mile radius that sent bodies to the crematory.