PENSACOLA, Fla. -- 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 told The Associated Press.
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 their 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 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.
Kennedy reported from Miami.
And while you're here...
Scissors in the Abdomen - Feb. 16, 2011
An X-ray shows a pair of surgical scissors in the abdomen of Anne, a woman in Lyon, France, who complained of abdominal pain after a surgery. Five months after the operation, Anne realized the scissors had been forgotten in her womb when the point of the scissors pierced her navel following a coughing fit.
Face In A Testicular Ultrasound
Doctors examining an ultrasound of a testicular tumor in Canada were shocked by the resemblance to a face in agony. "It was very ghoulish, like a man screaming in pain," said Doctor Naji Touma, who works at Queen's University, according to The Toronto Star.
Spear in man's head
These CT scans show a 6-inch spear lodged in the head of Emerson de Oliveira Abreu, who sought treatment at a hospital in Brazil in late March. The spear pierced his head during an underwater fishing accident. After doctors operated to remove the spear, Abreau said he would never fish underwater again.
Prisoner X-rays in May 2006
X-rays from Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., on display in May 2006 show items such as bed springs and batteries that prisoners swallowed to gain trips to outside hospitals.
Dog Swallows Wedding Ring
Albuquerque resident Rachelle Atkinson says she and her husband Scott had searched everywhere for their $4,500 wedding ring before beginning to suspect the dog ate it.
A 15-year-old had a blowgun dart stuck in his throat. Reproduced with permission from Pediatrics, Copyright @ by the AAP. Full text may be available from Pediatrics' website: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/.
live ammo in skull
A CT scan shows a 14.5 millimeter live round of ammunition lodged in the skull of an Afghan soldier. A U.S. military doctor successfully removed the unexploded round -- more than 2 inches long -- at the Bagram Air Field hospital in Afghanistan last month.
Steel balls and magnets inside a child, May 8, 2008
An 8-year-old girl from Indiana swallowed steel balls and magnets from a toy set in May. The child required emergency surgery and was hospitalized for two weeks.
In this Monday Sept. 12, 2011 image of a CAT scan released by Brazilian Federal Police on Sept. 16, 2011, bags loaded with cocaine are seen inside the body of an unidentified man after he was arrested at the Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Monday. According to a federal police press release, the man is identified as a young Irish male who tried to board a flight to Brussels after swallowing 72 capsules containing a total of 830 grams (1.82 pounds) of cocaine.
Snake and blanket July 2006
Houdini, a 12-foot python, swallowed an electric blanket in July 2006 that his owner put in his cage for warmth. The snake was doing fine after surgery.
This dozing drunk caught a free ride on the baggage belt at a Rome airport, and received a free full-body X-ray in the process.
Nails in skull
A nail gun shot six nails into construction worker Isidro Mejia's head during an April 2004 accident. He survived and was expected at the time to recover fully.
Knife in Face
A stunning X-ray image shows a knife stuck deep inside a Chinese teenager's cheek. Ren Hanzhi, 13, tripped and fell while peeling an apple -- jamming himself in the face with a nearly 8-inch knife on Jan. 31. Amazingly, the blade did not strike the boy's brain and doctors were able to remove the knife, expecting him to make a full recovery.
A Miami teen who impaled himself in the forehead in a spearfishing gun accident is very, very lucky, according to surgeons who were able to remove the long piece of metal that was lodged all the way through his brain.
In this image provided by the University Medical Center in Tucson, a CT scan shows a pair of pruning shears embedded in the head of an 86-year-old Green Valley, Ariz., man before it was removed by Medical Center surgeons in Tucson on July 30, 2011. Leroy Luetscher was accidentally impaled through his eye socket after falling on the shears while working in his yard, the handle penetrating his eye socket and reaching down into his neck. He is expected to make a full recovery. (AP Photo/University Medical Center,Tucson, Arizona)
Dante Autullo, a 32-year-old Chicago man, accidentally shot a 3.5 inch nail in his brain and didn't notice for more than 24 hours. In January of 2012, doctors at Advocate Christ Medical Center successfully removed the nail and replaced a piece of his skull with a mesh patch and titanium plate.
Marilyn Monroe chest x-ray - June 28, 2010
Three X-rays of Marilyn Monroe's chest and pelvis taken during a 1954 hospital visit have sold for more than 10 times their presale estimates, earning $45,000.
Metal Bar Through Skull
This tomography scan released Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 by the Miguel Couto hospital, show the skull of 24-year-old construction worker Eduardo Leite pierced by a metal bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Doctors say Leite survived after a 6-foot metal bar fell from above him and pierced his head. Luiz Essinger of Rio de Janeiro's Miguel Couto Hospital Friday told the Globo TV network that doctor's successfully withdrew the iron bar during a five-hour-long surgery.
Alien Tumor -- Feb. 14, 2011
When California vice principal Josh Abken told his doctor he was having persistent back pain about a year ago, the doctor took an X-ray. They discovered a soccer-ball sized "alien" tumor that had become as solid as a rock and even had growing tentacles.
Surgical scissors in Australian woman
A 6-inch pair of surgical scissors appears in the abdomen of Australian Pat Skinner in April 2004 -- 18 months after her initial operation.
A 30-year-old Atlanta woman with a history of bulimia swallowed a knife while demonstrating that she no longer had a gag reflex for friends, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
Cutis Verticis Gyrata
The man has a condition called cutis verticis gyrata, which is when the scalp has "ridges and furrows resembling the brain's surface."
Invasive Species? Man Hospitalized With Eel In Butt
A man in China's southeastern Guangdong province admitted himself to a local hospital after he reportedly got a live eel stuck inside him. According to British tabloid The Sun, the man inserted the 20-inch-long Asian <a href="http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4880024/porn-addict-rushed-to-hospital-after-he-put-live-eel-up-bum.html" target="_hplink">swamp eel into his anus after seeing it done in a porn movie</a>, and he had to endure all-night surgery to have it extracted. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/09/eel-removed-from-man-stuck-colon-photo_n_3046785.html?utm_hp_ref=weird-news" target="_blank">(Read More)</a>
PVC pipe in corpse in February 2006
A film released in February 2006 shows PVC plumbing pipes put into a deceased person as part of an alleged body parts ring. Several people were charged in the case.
Lee Gardner's Fork, PRE-OP
Yeah, it's disgusting. Sorry about that.
Fork In Tummy
Lee Gardner got a plastic fork stuck in his stomach. FOR 10 YEARS. Here's the fork in it's glory, after the operation.
Nail in skull
A nail rests in a South Korean man's skull in December 2004. He sought help for a bad headache and upon discovery said it likely happened four years earlier.
Chair January 2007
The leg of a chair thrown outside a Melbourne, Australia, club in January 2007 speared Shafique el-Fahkri's eye socket down to his neck. He spent a month in intensive care but has mostly recovered.
Prisoner who swallowed a cell phone, Sept. 2006
Cell phones were found in the intestines of four prisoners in El Salvador's maximum-security prison, authorities said in September 2006. Suspicious prison officials took X-rays of each of the prisoners.
Chen Liu of China
Police in Sydney, Australia, released this X-ray of the skull of Chen Liu, 27, who died after being shot in the head with a nail gun 34 times. Liu's bound body was found in a river in November. The photo was released as part of a public plea for more information in the case. Liu is shown on the upper left in an undated photo.