A former medical examiner has been arrested on charges related to the discovery late last month of human remains at a storage unit in Pensacola, Florida.
Michael Berkland faces a felony charge of improper storage of hazardous waste, a misdemeanor charge of nuisance injurious to public health, and driving with a suspended license.
We have yet to see any references in the mainstream press to the fact that Berkland essentially closed the books on an investigation into the death of Lori Klausutis, who was found dead in summer 2001 in the office of then U.S. Representative Joe Scarborough. Now the host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Scarborough largely has escaped scrutiny in the Klausutis case since Berkland ruled her death an accident, stemming from a cardiac arrhythmia that caused her to fall and strike her head on a desk.
Scarborough has strong ties to Alabama. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama and is close to former GOP Governor Bob Riley and his son, Homewood attorney Rob Riley.
Several online news sources have raised questions about Berkland's findings in the Klausuits case, saying they are not supported by relevant scientific literature. The recent grisly discovery at a Pensacola storage unit raise new questions about Berkland's competence--and perhaps his sanity. From a report by Eric Heisig at The Pensacola News Journal:
Ten cardboard boxes stacked in the corner of the unit contained “numerous individual containers with . . . human remains stored in a liquid substance,” according to an affidavit for Berkland’s arrest. Other containers were found in plastic garbage bags.
The Medical Examiner’s Office has said the remains appear to be from private autopsies that Berkland performed between 1997 and 2007 at funeral homes in Pensacola, Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Tallahassee.
Just how disturbing is this story? Consider this report from Tom McLaughlin, of The Northwest Florida Daily News:
About half of the containers in which Berkland stored human remains “consisted primarily of Ziploc style plastic sandwich boxes,” according to a probable cause affidavit filed by Barry Brooke, chief investigator for the state attorney’s office.
One sample, a human heart, was found in a Styrofoam drink cup purchased from the Dodge’s Store in Fort Walton Beach
Formalin is used to preserve human tissue. It “is considered a hazardous material with special handling procedures,” the affidavit said. It contains both formaldehyde and methyl alcohol.
Formaldehyde is classified as a hazardous material and a poison, “and is an inhalation hazard,” the affidavit said. It also is a carcinogen, it added.
Methyl alcohol is considered flammable and presents a fire hazard, according to the affidavit.
Brooke reported that Jeff Martin, an investigator for the Medical Examiner’s Office in Pensacola, removed about 10 gallons of used formalin from Berkland’s storage unit.
Did Berkland put the public at risk? The answer is yes:
Berkland not only failed to use a properly licensed facility to store the hazardous waste, but many of the containers he put formalin into “were inadequate for holding hazardous materials, which adds to the severity of the offense,” the affidavit said.
Improper storage of hazardous waste carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. The misdemeanor charge could mean a 60-day jail term, according to the state attorney’s office.
In light of recent events, does the public have any reason to buy Berkland's findings in the death of Lori Klausutis? Should the public trust findings that allowed Joe Scarborough, and those associated with him, to escape serious scrutiny for a death that took place in a Congressman's office?
The answers to those questions appear to be no. And that means the public should demand a new investigation into a death that never has been adequately explained.