NOBLE, Ga. – Families in three states were pondering their living nightmare as more corpses were discovered on the grounds of the Tri-State Crematory in northwest Georgia.
Authorities had found 139 corpses by late Monday, many of them left to rot outside. Other bodies had been dragged into a shed and some skeletons were found sealed in vaults.
A federal disaster mortuary team began arriving late Monday to open a mass morgue to sort the bodies. More than 400 people were involved in the investigation.
Ray Brent Marsh, 28, operator of the crematory in this rural town 20 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn., was arrested for a second time and authorities filed 11 new theft-by-deception charges against him, bringing the total to 16.
On Tuesday, Marsh, Tri-State and a Cleveland, Tenn., funeral home were sued in Chattanooga, Tenn., by the family of a woman whose body was sent to Tri-State by the funeral home in 2000. The suit seeks class-action status.
Investigators have said Marsh told them the bodies were not cremated because the incinerator was broken. Authorities said they were unsure how long the incinerator was broken, but evidence shows some dumped bodies have been there for 15 years or more.
Kris Sperry, Georgia's chief medical examiner, described the horrendous scene and said some corpses were found in body bags, while others were dressed in clothing or hospital gowns or wrapped in sheets. They ranged from newly delivered to severely decomposed, even mummified, he said, predicting that some would never be identified.
Twenty-seven bodies have been identified and about nine have been returned to relatives. Initially, officials said they expected to find as many as 200 bodies.
Fifty-one urns were examined and nine likely contained powdered cement rather than human remains, officials said. The other 42 appeared to contain human remains, but it was not clear whose. Sperry said there was no way to make a positive identification using cremated remains.
Marsh refused a request for a jailhouse interview. Calls to his home and the crematory went unanswered Monday, and voicemail boxes at both numbers were full.
As the body count rose, agents said they had begun examining the 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.
"As far as the criminal investigation goes, we have to question everybody who was involved in the operation and that's being done," said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.
Clara Marsh, who taught high school for more than 30 years, appears not to have been involved in day-to-day operations at the crematory, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson 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, said Walker County coroner Dewayne Wilson, who is not related to the sheriff.
The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has said the state would pay the cost of identifying the bodies. Gov. Roy Barnes has declared a state of emergency in Walker County.
At the state Capitol in Atlanta, lawmakers proposed legislation hoping to prevent such gruesome problems in the future. Tri-State was never inspected because it worked only with funeral homes and not the public.
"This is an absolute abomination," Rep. Mike Snow said.
As investigators combed the grounds, grief-stricken families arrived with urns of ashes, wondering whether loved ones they thought had been cremated were instead among the corpses.
Bobbie Cann of Chattanooga, who for some 18 months has worn a locket containing what she thought were ashes from her husband's remains, said she felt "doubly robbed."
"I felt all along that I had a little of him with me," she said while awaiting forensic test results.
"We just lost our mother two weeks ago and we are having to do this all over again," 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.
Clutching a framed photograph of her mother, Shropshire said she is more fortunate than hundreds of others who are still waiting to see if their loved ones can be identified from the intermingled skeletons.
"I feel like I'm in a horror movie," said Shropshire.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.