A former medical examiner who was fired by Jackson County more than a decade ago has been arrested in Florida and charged with keeping human remains in a rented storage unit.
Michael Berkland, 57, was arrested Friday on charges of improper storage of hazardous waste, keeping a public nuisance and driving with a suspended license. He was released on $10,000 bail.
Crudely preserved brains, hearts, lungs, and other organs and specimens — some in soda cups and plastic food containers — were discovered in more than 100 containers last month in a Pensacola storage unit that Berkland had rented for about three years. The unit had been auctioned off after Berkland defaulted on his payments, according to an arrest affidavit.
“The remains included tissue samples and dissected organs. (Investigators) also advised that there were numerous whole organs, including hearts, brains, a liver and a lung,” according to the affidavit.
Berkland’s attorney, Eric Stevenson, told the Pensacola News Journal that he and Berkland will start preparing their defense this week.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said more charges may be filed.
Berkland had declared the contents to be household goods, furniture, boxes, sporting goods and landscaping equipment. A man who bought the contents discovered the organs after becoming overpowered by a strange smell while sifting through the items, authorities said.
At the time, authorities said they found liquid leaking from a 32-ounce drink cup with a cracked lid that was holding a heart.
According to the arrest affidavit, 10 cardboard boxes stacked in a corner of the unit contained “numerous individual containers with human remains stored in a liquid substance.” Authorities said the solution contained methyl alcohol and formaldehyde, a chemical used to embalm and preserve bodies.
Most of the containers were labeled. About half were medical grade, according to the affidavit, and the other half included the cups and plastic containers, according to the affidavit.
Berkland worked at the District 1 medical examiner’s office in Pensacola from 1997 to 2003, when he was fired for not completing autopsy reports. Berkland’s license to serve as a medical examiner in Florida has been withdrawn.
Before going to Florida, Berkland was fired in 1996 as a contract medical examiner in Jackson County in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports. Investigators found eight undissected brains when they reviewed files and specimens handled by Berkland, indicating he had fabricated autopsy results, authorities said.
Berkland said he did not dissect the brains because he planned to use them in a pathology class he was teaching. They were mistakenly reported dissected, he said, because that was the usual procedure and his recorded dictation included a stock phrase that the brain was sectioned.
A new medical examiner, Thomas W. Young, filed a complaint against Berkland with the state board of healing arts, and Berkland’s doctor’s license eventually was revoked. However, the Missouri attorney general’s office found that no criminal cases had been jeopardized.
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.
In Pensacola, the medical examiner’s office said the organs found in the storage unit appear to have come from private autopsies that Berkland performed between 1997 and 2007 at funeral homes in the Florida Panhandle and in Tallahassee.
Jeff Martin, director of the medical examiner’s office, said about 10 families have been notified that their relatives’ remains were in the unit.
Improper storage of hazardous waste carries a maximum prison sentence of five years, and keeping a public nuisance, a misdemeanor charge, could mean a 60-day jail term, according to the state attorney’s office.