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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Unearths Grim Story of Corpses

NOBLE, Georgia -- Authorities in Georgia said Sunday they had discovered scores of unburied, decomposing bodies stacked in storage sheds and dumped in the woods of a rural crematory.

The grisly discovery occurred during an intense police search of the sprawling grounds of the privately run Tri-State Crematory in Noble, a small town 137 kilometers northwest of Atlanta.

Investigators said they had found about 100 bodies in varying states of decomposition, but expected that a search of a number of vaults at the crematory would raise that number closer to 200.

"Dozens of bodies have been [laying] on top of each other for years," Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia's chief medical examiner, told a news conference Sunday. He added that some of the bodies might date back as far as two decades.

A makeshift morgue has been set up on the grounds of the crematory to help identify the bodies, some of which were found in a mummified or partially skeletal state.

Police said Ray Brent Marsh, the operator of the crematory, had been arrested and charged with theft by deception for charging for cremations that were never performed.

Marsh, 28, had been running the business since taking over from his father in the 1990s. A spokesman for the Walker County Sheriff's Department quoted Marsh as saying the crematory's incinerator had not been working for some time.

The crematory has been in business for about 30 years and routinely received bodies for cremation from funeral homes in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

Shocked residents, some of whom had paid to have family members cremated at Tri-State, gathered at a nearby civic center Sunday to learn more about the ongoing search.

Some carried urns that they once thought held the ashes of their loved ones. "They're extremely upset," said Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which is providing grief counselors to the family members.

"They wanted closure when their loved ones died and now they have to go through the process of identifying them," Ray said. Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, who declared a state of emergency in the county, enabling it to receive state funding for the cleanup, later met with the relatives.

Police started investigating the crematory, which is located on 6.4 hectares of land surrounding a residential neighborhood, after a local resident reported on Friday finding a human skull in the woods.

Police said divers would scour a nearby lake to check for more bodies this week.

Health officials also plan to take further water samples near the crematory to check for possible contamination from the unburied bodies.

The discovery of the corpses came just months after a funeral company was accused in a Florida lawsuit of digging up already buried bodies and dumping them in the woods to make room for new burials.