CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The legal fallout is spreading from the discovery of hundreds of bodies on a crematory's grounds, with judges being asked to distance themselves from the case, a flurry of lawsuits and more charges possible.
The operator of the Tri-State Crematory, Ray Brent Marsh, is in custody in Walker County, Ga., charged with 174 counts of theft by deception.
On Friday, Marsh's parents and sister were arrested, each charged with misrepresenting themselves as licensed funeral directors by signing death certificates. They were released on bail.
A Walker County prosecutor said Friday that additional charges are possible.
Across the state line at Cleveland, Tenn., authorities said they planned to announce charges against Marsh, 28, on Monday. Records show that at least 250 bodies sent to the crematory since 1998 were from Tennessee.
Investigators said the 339 bodies recovered since Feb. 15 were likely all the human remains that were discarded on the 16-acre property in Noble, Ga. During the search, they clear-cut trees, scraped the grounds, and have started draining a small lake. So far, 109 bodies have been identified.
Marsh's lawyer, McCracken "Ken" Poston, asked all four judges in the rural Georgia judicial district to recuse themselves from the case because of family connections.
Judge William Ralph Hill Jr., who had presided at a hearing on a gag order he issued for investigators, bowed out Thursday, saying his lawyer son is involved in a lawsuit against the crematory.
Two other judges are considering recusal because they have relatives whose bodies may have been sent to the crematory. The fourth judge is the father of a lawyer handling a lawsuit against the crematory.
Dozens of lawsuits seek damages from Marsh and his father, Ray Marsh, 76, who opened the crematory in 1982. Some are also seeking damages against funeral directors who used Tri-State.
The Wann Funeral Home in Chattanooga faces a few lawsuits, funeral director John Hargis said. The home sent about 200 bodies to the crematory, including Hargis' own brother.
He said he "had no second thoughts at all" about dealing with Tri-State or Brent Marsh, who took over the family business in 1996.
"I met him through his daddy and he played football at UTC (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). He was a very nice fellow then," Hargis said.
Hargis said he may never know what happened to his brother's body. The remains that were returned to his family were sprinkled "in a trout stream in North Carolina."
Some lawyers have taken out newspaper ads offering their services.
"The lawyers were standing there waiting to talk to the families," said Glenda Wilson, a Rossville, Ga., funeral director who used the crematory before 1998. "They might call the funeral directors vultures, but they were there."
The Coppedge & Leman law firm in Dalton, Ga., started a Web site to help families, said attorney Jesse Vaughn. He said about 20 people who paid $500 to $1,200 for cremations have contacted the law firm about seeking damages from the crematory and dozens of funeral homes.
"We don't even know how to begin to put a price on the heinous damage done to these families," Vaughn said.