Tag - Medical Examiner

The World’s Most Famous Storage Unit And The Guy Who Bought It – An Interview With Philip “Clay” Knight

Philip “Clay” Knight

Back in August, you probably heard about the Pensacola storage unit that its former owner, a medical examiner, had left filled with body parts. Although the headline made national news, no one had stopped to get the buyer's side of the story – until now. I had the chance to talk with Philip Knight, the Florida auction hunter who was part of this grisly tale.

At 6'8” and 420 pounds, Philip – or, as his friends call him, Clay – is an imposing figure. A former sheriff's deputy and retired sergeant with the Florida Dept of corrections, Philip developed an interest in storage auctions after watching shows like American Pickers, Barter Kings and – his favorite – Auction Hunters. He's always liked buying, selling, picking and trading, and his retirement seemed like the perfect time to finally pursue those interests.

His first auction turned out to be a bust. Not to be deterred, he decided to give it a second chance, and headed 150 miles to Pensacola to try a few auctions going on there. The first auction he won was full of furniture. Philip was willing to call it a day after that, but his wife urged him to visit the next auction, at a Uncle Bob's storage facility, to see what else they could find.

After eight auctions of regular units, the facility moved to cutting the locks on two climate-controlled units. The first contained synthetic marijuana and bidding was quickly shut down. The other – although no one knew it yet – contained human remains collected by a retired medical examiner.

Of course, that's not what Philip Knight saw when he placed his bid. From the brief glance he got into the unit before the auction started, he made out several nice pieces: a glass-top table, some nice curio cabinets, a gargoyle statue and a new landmower. He placed a winning bid of $900, totaling $1,058 after fees, and set to the task of clearing the items out of the unit.

It wasn't until his wife, Lana, started sifting through the boxes that they realized something was strange about the unit. Inside the first cardboard box was a Gladware bowl containing formaldehyde and a human tongue. Other boxes contained numerous more containers filled with ears, livers and brains. Some were stored in plastic storage containers, but others were in plastic bags and even one Styrofoam cup.

Knowing that the unit had once belonged to a medical examiner, Philip suspected that the body parts might have been preserved for research purposes, but the contents of the boxes still made him uneasy. He explained the situation to the storage facility, which refunded his cleaning deposit, and he and his wife left with the items they had salvaged from the unit.

That was the last Philip heard about the situation until a friend called to ask about the story, which he had seen on the news. He was surprised to hear that the incident was a national news story. Philip has expressed his sympathy to the families who had to be notified about the discovery and who would now have bad memories attached to the situation.

“No body parts in this one, so we're good!”
Fortunately, Philip and his wife got to keep everything else they had won in the auction, so the money spent won't be going to waste. They're holding onto the merchandise for a while in case collectors take an interest in it. He's also requested that he get to keep the medical examiner's badge as a memento after the investigation is over.

I asked him whether this experience had turned him off to the storage auction business, and he said definitely not – as long as he doesn't find any more body parts! He told me that his wife dove right in to opening boxes at the next auction he won, and announced, “No body parts in this one, so we're good!” He's bought several more units since the incident, and he's enjoying his new career as a storage auction hunter.

Human Organs Found in Storage Unit

Organs Jar

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.

Dr. Michael BerklandThat'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.

Philip KnightThe 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.