Professional auction hunters are prepared to find all sorts of strange things in the units they buy at auction. Tax documents, personal mementos and various bits of trash are all very common to find. Bottles full of human organs, however, are not something most people expect to uncover when cleaning a storage unit.
That's exactly what was found in a Pensacola, Florida storage unit last week. The unit, which had once belonged to former medical examiner Dr. Michael Berkland, included crudely preserved human remains including brains, heart and lungs. They were suspended in formaldehyde and stored in unlikely containers like thirty -two ounce soda cups and plastic storage containers. The origin of these organs is unclear, but they may have come from various autopsies completed by the medical examiner during his career.
The man who bought the storage unit, Phillip Knight, first discovered the items thanks to the strong smell of formaldehyde that had leaked out of some of the containers. This led him to the grisly discovery of the organs. This was the first auction that Knight had attended and only his second storage unit. Unfortunately, his induction into the storage auction business did not provide the warm welcome that many would hope for.
When you purchase a storage unit at auction, there are no refunds; no matter what's found in the unit. The gamble makes it fun and exciting for some people, but situations like this can lead to headaches and disappointments for the people buying storage units. In the case of Phillip Knight, he's out a reported $900 for the organ-filled unit.
Although finding body parts in a storage unit isn't exactly common, this isn't the first time it's ever happened. For example, another Florida auction once turned up a casket containing the remains of the owner's deceased grandmother. The casket had been stored there for 17 years. It's especially common to find the ashes of both relatives and pets that have been cremated; however, one tenant was caught storing the refrigerated body of a dog following its death. Dead dogs and cats were also found in a unit during a Savannah, Georgia auction in May of this year.
Because you never know what to expect when opening a storage unit, it's important to be prepared for anything. You will most likely find nothing this disturbing in most auctions, but there's always the possibility that you might come across something illegal, toxic or just repulsive. If you do, it's important to stay calm and alert the storage facility manager; in many cases the manager will handle the situation for you entirely. You may be required to communicate with the police as part of the investigation, but timely reporting of the incident will save you from having any legal troubles of your own for improper waste disposal or any other concerns.
Update: September 7th, 2012
Medical Examiner Arrested for Leaving Human Remains in a Storage Unit
Last month, a Pensacola, Florida man named Philip Knight bought a storage unit at auction to see if he could resell the items like the auction hunters on popular reality TV shows. After paying $900 for the unit, he opened it up to see what treasures he might find. Instead of finding valuable antiques or even regular kitchen appliances, however, Mr. Knight made a more gruesome discovery: Human limbs and organs.
The scent of formaldehyde initially tipped him off that something was not right in the unit, and he soon found dozens of plastic containers and soda cups holding crudely preserved remains from over 100 people. Among the tissues found were various body parts and organs, including human brains.
Investigation uncovered that this unit had previously belonged to Dr. Michael Berkland, a 57-year-old former medical examiner. After losing his license in Missouri for falsifying records, Dr. Berkland moved to Florida to continue his practice. There, he lost his license in Florida for not getting autopsy results in on time. He hasn't been practicing medicine since 2007 when his Florida license was revoked.
Though he was forced into retirement, none of his previous employers were aware that Dr. Berkland had been spiriting away human remains and preserving them at home. When he began storing them, he informed the storage unit's manager that he would be storing tools and furniture; after failing to pay his rent, the unit went up for auction without anyone realizing the true contents. He had kept the unit for three years prior to that and had gotten into trouble with his rent numerous times, but had always managed to pay off his balance before auction in the past.
In all, the remains found in the Pensacola storage unit were collected during a span of 10 years and belong to the patients on whom he had completed autopsies. Because there was no foul play involved, authorities initially had a difficult time determining whether they could charge Dr. Berkland with anything. Finally, he was arrested earlier this week and charged with a felony for improper storage of hazardous waste. He was also charged with the misdemeanor of “nuisance injurious to public health.” He has since been bonded out of jail and awaits trial.
If convicted, Dr. Berkland could face up to five years in state prison. At present, the family members of identified remains are being contacted to see if the organs were obtained legally and if Dr. Berkland had permission to hold them. If not, he could face more criminal charges.