PENSACOLA — A former medical examiner crudely preserved human brains, hearts and lungs in soda cups and plastic food containers found inside a storage unit in Florida, authorities said Tuesday.
A man bought the contents of a storage unit at auction last week in Pensacola and made the gruesome discovery after being overpowered by a strange smell while sifting through furniture and boxes.
Investigators found formaldehyde, a chemical used to embalm and preserve bodies, leaking from a 32-ounce drink cup with a cracked lid that was holding a heart, said Jeff Martin, director of the District 1 Medical Examiner's Office in Pensacola. The unit had been rented previously by Dr. Michael Berkland.
"How horrible it is for the families of these deceased to think that someone's loved one's organs are basically rotting away in a storage unit somewhere; it's horrible," Martin said.
Berkland worked at the medical examiner's office from 1997 until 2003, when he was fired for not completing autopsy reports. Officials said he was also performing private autopsies in the area, but it's unclear if any of the organs were from autopsies he conducted while working at the medical examiner's office. The medical examiner's office is now cross-referencing names in its database during that time period, Martin said.
Officials are also trying to locate family members for some of the victims, but many of the organs are not labeled, making it nearly impossible to identify them.
No charges have been filed against Berkland.
His attorney, Eric Stevenson, declined to comment Tuesday. Phone calls and emails to Pensacola police were not immediately returned.
Officials are trying to determine whether Berkland broke any laws regarding biomedical waste, and the storing and disposing of human remains.
It was not immediately known why the organs were being stored there. Martin said it's unlikely they could have been sold anywhere because they were not well-preserved.
Many of the remains were stuck in household Tupperware and other containers that "aren't made to hold up to outdoor weather conditions. The chemical inside of those containers is very caustic … a lot of those containers were emptied because they had cracked through, so all of those caustic chemicals were leaking out somewhere," Martin said.
Berkland told employees of the Florida storage facility that he planned to keep household goods and office furniture there, the company said.
"We never had any indication that anything was out of the ordinary, nor did anyone on our management team ever notice anything amiss during daily property checks," said Diane Piegza, vice president of corporate communications of Uncle Bob's Self Storage.
Before coming to Florida, Berkland had been fired as a contract medical examiner in 1996 in Jackson County, Mo., in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports. His doctor's license was ultimately revoked there.
Berkland had incorrectly stated on the reports that he had taken sections of several brains to be preserved as specimens for medical conferences and teaching purposes.
He called them "proofreading errors" and the Missouri attorney general's office found they did not jeopardize any criminal cases.
At the time, Berkland contended the actions against him in Missouri were politically motivated and unfair because he was unable to present evidence in his defense.