By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Almost a week after eight family members were found shot to death at four separate homes in rural Ohio's Appalachian foothills, the first funeral for the victims is being held on Thursday as investigators work to identify the killers.
The victims, all members of the Rhoden family ranging in age from 16 to 44, were executed on April 22 in a pre-planned, "sophisticated operation," officials said. Federal and state officials found three marijuana cultivation sites at one of the homes, but have declined to say whether that might be linked to the deaths.
Officials have likewise declined to reveal details of the investigation to avoid tipping off suspects, but search warrants were filed under seal on Thursday by the Pike County prosecutor's office, according to Dan Tierney, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Investigators have said they are not assuming the massacre was committed by one person. Local media have quoted unnamed law enforcement officials as saying many theories are being considered, including a family feud or even the involvement of a Mexican drug cartel in the slayings.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency are involved in the investigation, according to DeWine's office, which said more than 300 tips have been received.
Many of the victims were shot in the head as they slept, authorities said. Three children were found alive.
A preliminary autopsy report showed all but one of the victims were shot multiple times and one of the victims shot nine times, according to the Hamilton County coroner's office.
The Thursday funeral in northern Kentucky of Gary Rhoden, 38, marks the first burial in the massacre that took place in Pike County, some 95 miles (150 km) east of Cincinnati, according to the South Shore, Kentucky, funeral home handling the service.
Six family members, including Christopher Rhoden Sr, 40; his ex-wife Dana Rhoden, 37; their three children Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20, Hanna Rhoden, 19, and Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; as well as Christopher Sr's brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, will be buried on Tuesday in West Portsmouth, Ohio, according to another funeral home.
Hannah Gilley, 20, Clarence Rhoden's girlfriend and mother of a 6-month-old boy who survived, will be buried Saturday in Waverly, Ohio, according to a third funeral home. Also surviving the massacre were Clarence Rhoden's 3-year old son and Hannah Rhoden's 5-day-old daughter, who was sleeping with her mother.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Ben Klayman, Bernard Orr)