Authorities Perplexed by Bizarre Georgia Crematory Case

The operator of a crematory who apparently tossed hundreds of dead bodies out on his property instead of incinerating them hasn't offered investigators any clues about his motive.

Ray Brent Marsh, who operated the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., just south of Chattanooga, Tenn., is still behind bars after opting to continue his bond hearing, authorities told a news conference Tuesday.

Though the probe has intensified, officials said they're still puzzled as to why Marsh, 28, did what he did. More questions seem to be arising every day.

"That's the million-dollar question: Why did this happen over this period of years, when cremating a body would seem very minimal compared to what's going on now?" asked Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.

Another question: Why did investigators find on Marsh's property several caskets – some empty, some with bodies inside, that appeared to have been buried and then dug up? It was not clear who disinterred the caskets or why.

"By the hour, this is getting bigger and bigger and bigger," said Georgia's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Kris Sperry. "I don't have a theory because none of this makes sense. I don't think it ever will."

Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Buddy Nix said 191 bodies had been recovered on the 16 acres of woodlands around the Tri-State Crematory. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, said 29 bodies had been positively identified.

Sperry said he had examined another 79 sets of cremated remains returned by families of people whose funeral homes were customers of the crematory. He said one of the containers was filled with dirt and seven others were at least partially filled with concrete dust.

One container of cremated remains was returned by a family whose deceased relative has been identified as one of the corpses found in the search of the crematory, Sperry said.

Authorities said they expect many more bodies and remains to turn up as they comb the facility grounds, the wooded area behind the buildings and a nearby lake.

Nix said gas records have been subpoenaed in an attempt to determine when the crematory was last used.

He said searchers found a body in a casket about 100 yards behind the house on the property Tuesday and began digging in a nearby mound of dirt. He said they found five bodies not in caskets, and a search at that site was continuing.

Marsh was arrested for a second time Sunday night on 11 new theft-by-deception charges after posting bond and going free the first time earlier in the weekend. He now stands accused of 16 offenses, in total.

A federal disaster mortuary team began arriving late Monday to open a mass morgue to sort the bodies.

Investigators have said Marsh told them the bodies were not cremated because the incinerator was broken, but evidence shows some dumped bodies have been there for 15 years or more.

As the corpse count rose, agents said they had begun examining the computer and business records of Marsh and his parents, Ray and Clara Marsh, who turned the business over to their son in 1996. The elder Marshes have not been charged, but authorities said bodies were being dumped before the son took over.

No one in the family has any prior criminal record. Clara Marsh was known to be an upstanding and active community citizen. She taught high school for more than three decades and didn't appear to have been involved in day-to-day operations at the crematory, according to Wilson.

"I would say they're a good family," he said. "I don't know what went wrong."

Investigators examined the contents of 51 urns that had been sent to relatives — some contained powdered cement or potting soil rather than human remains, officials said. Other urns appeared to contain human remains, but it was not clear whose.

The Marsh family also reportedly bought several 1,000-pound septic tanks, four of which had been installed, Wilson said. It was unclear whether that discovery will have any bearing on the case.

"We're all plowing new ground," Wilson said. "We just have to learn as we go."

Distraught family members planned an area candlelight service Tuesday night, according to Wilson, "so they can all come together and have a time of reflection, remember their loved ones and feel some comfort during the tragedy that affected them in the last four days."

Many families planned second funerals for the loved ones they believed were resting in peace.

"We just lost our mother two weeks ago and we are having to do this all over again. I feel like I'm in a horror movie," said Leatha Shropshire, a mother of three, whose own mother died Jan. 30 and was found dumped in the 16-acre area behind the crematory.

Tri-State was charging families between $200 and $1,500 for the cremation service, authorities said at the press conference. The actual cost of operating the incinerator in the 3-hour cremation process was about $25, they said.

In almost all cases, Tri-State Crematory picked up the bodies from up to 30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, delivering ashes later in return.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.