Organs found in storage linked to former Jackson County coroner

4/28/05 A pathologist's tools sit on an examining table the morgue of the hospital Thursday afternoon April 28, 2005.  CHRIS KEANE - SPECIAL TO THE OBSERVER
4/28/05 A pathologist's tools sit on an examining table the morgue of the hospital Thursday afternoon April 28, 2005. CHRIS KEANE - SPECIAL TO THE OBSERVER CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

A former Jackson County medical examiner who was fired here and lost his Missouri medical license is now under fire in Florida for allegedly keeping human organs in a storage unit.

Authorities said Tuesday that Michael Berkland, who also had been a medical examiner in Florida, crudely preserved human brains, hearts and lungs in soda cups and plastic food containers found inside the unit in Pensacola.

A man bought the contents of a storage unit at auction last week 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.

“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.

The unit had been rented previously by Berkland, who worked at the Pensacola 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. 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 from that time period, Martin said.

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.

Before going to Florida, Berkland had been fired as a contract medical examiner in 1996 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 was going to use them in a pathology class he was teaching. They were mistakenly reported dissected, he said, because he usually did that and his prerecorded dictation included a stock phrase that the brain was sectioned.

The new medical examiner, Thomas W. Young, filed a complaint against Berkland with the state Board of Healing Arts and his doctor’s license was ultimately revoked.

The Missouri attorney general’s office found no criminal cases were 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 Florida, officials are 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.

Officials were 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 food containers 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.