Human remains found in storage unit include those of Tallahasseean

7:36 PM, Aug 30, 2012   |    comments
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(Tallahassee.com) - Human remains found in a Pensacola storage unit include tissue samples from one deceased person from Tallahassee, said Jeff Martin, director of the District 1 State Medical Examiner's Office.

Remains from more than 100 bodies were discovered Friday morning after the unit at Uncle Bob's Storage was auctioned off and the new owner detected a foul odor inside, Martin said. Pensacola police arrived and traced the storage unit to Dr. Michael Berkland, a former associate medical examiner who had rented it but fallen behind in his payments.

The parts, including lungs, hearts, tissue samples and 10 brains, were found in everything from medical specimen buckets to Tupperware containers and trash bags. A heart was found in a convenience-store Styrofoam cup that was leaking embalming fluid, Martin said. Some but not all of the containers were marked with names and autopsy dates.

"It's very bizarre," Martin said.

Berkland has not been charged, although the State Attorney's Office in Pensacola is working with the Florida Department of Health to determine whether any laws were violated, Martin said.

"Florida heavily regulates the proper handling, storage and disposal of human tissues and biomedical waste," he said.

The remains appear to be from private autopsies conducted by Berkland between 1997 and 2007 at one funeral home in Tallahassee along with others in Pensacola, Panama City and Fort Walton Beach, Martin said in interviews with the Tallahassee Democrat and the Pensacola News Journal.

Martin said the remains from the deceased Tallahassee person were found in a plastic specimen bucket marked with the person's name and the location of Tallahassee but not the name of the funeral home. The remains included tissue samples of various major organs.

He said investigators are working to get death certificates, which would include the funeral home information.

"We're compiling a list of funeral homes," Martin said. "As far as representative individuals, we have a total of 70 different (deceased persons) that we have names for and 31 cases where we have no identifying information."

Prosecutors have asked that no names be released yet, Martin said. He said his office at some point will be contacting families of the deceased people whose remains were involved.

Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said Berkland has declined to speak with prosecutors.

"Through his attorney, Dr. Berkland indicated that he was unwilling to make any statement regarding this matter," Marcille said.

Berkland, an osteopathic physician, worked for the Medical Examiner's Office from 1997 to 2003, when he was fired for keeping a large backlog of cases and failing to complete autopsy reports in a timely manner. In 1996, he was fired as a contract medical examiner in Jackson County, Mo., in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports.

He had incorrectly stated on 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. His doctor's license was revoked in Missouri and subsequently in Florida.

The Medical Examiner's Office for District 1, which runs from Escambia County to Walton County, is concerned some of the remains could be from cases when Berkland was an associate medical examiner. The office will compare names on some of the remains with the office's case log, Martin said.

Martin joined the State Medical Examiner's Office in 2004 and never worked with Berkland.

"I have no idea why he was doing that," Martin said. "There's no medical reason why he would store them for the period of time he stored them. I don't know why he stored them the way that he has."

The Florida Division of Funerals and Cemeteries has opened an investigation to gather information, said press secretary Anna Alexopoulos. The agency regulates funeral homes, cemeteries and related professions.

"At this point, there is no indication that any licensees of the division were involved in any wrongdoing," she said.

John Ricco, executive director of the Florida Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, said discoveries like the one in Pensacola "are unfortunate and outside of the professional conduct of those in our profession and others that are trusted to care for the dead. Any disposition or procedures conducted without the approval of the deceased's family is unethical and beyond the right of practitioners."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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