Past firings and a gruesome discovery of preserved human organs found in a Pensacola storage unit last week have raised concerns regarding Dr. Michael Berkland’s involvement in the investigation of the 2009 death of 22-year-old Sheena Morris at a Bradenton Beach motel.
The storage unit previously belonged to Berkland, but the unit at Uncle Bob’s Self Storage in Pensacola was auctioned to the highest bidder for nonpayment by Berkland. The new owner was sifting through items when he reported to investigators that he was overwhelmed by a strange odor.
He found a 32-ounce drinking cup containing a human heart and leaking formaldehyde. Investigators from the Pensacola District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office also found hearts, lungs and sections of brains being preserved in everyday household plastic food containers in the storage unit.
Previous to the gruesome discovery, Berkland played a pivotal role in the decision by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review Morris’s death.
Morris was found dead New Year’s Day 2009 in her BridgeWalk Resort bathroom, hanging from a dog leash in the shower. The case was initially ruled a suicide after the Bradenton Beach Police Department and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence of foul play.
In 2011, Berkland was hired by Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn, to further investigate her daughter’s cause of death. Berkland determined from photos of the crime scene that it could have been staged to look like a suicide. It was his opinion that swayed the medical examiner to change the cause of death from suicide to undetermined.
But that opinion is being questioned after last week’s discovery and new information that Berkland has twice been fired from medical examiner jobs, including a 2003 dismissal from the Pensacola District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office, which now is involved in investigating the macabre discovery in Berkland’s storage unit.
Berkland was fired for not completing autopsy reports properly and accurately. He was fired for the same thing in 1996 as a contract medical examiner in Jackson County, Mo.
He began a private practice after being fired from the Pensacola office, conducting private autopsies. It is unclear if any of the organs that were discovered belonged to the deceased individuals Berkland was hired to investigate.
The Pensacola office is investigating that possibility, and law enforcement officials are determining if any criminal acts may have occurred, but no charges had been filed as of The Islander press time.
But for those who first investigated Morris’ death, the impact of last week’s find and the information regarding Berkland’s employment history is clear.
“I’m very concerned about this because this is the ‘expert’ that convinced everybody the crime scene was staged,” said Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale, whose department has taken criticism from Morris and her supporters.
Osborn has accused BBPD of reaching the wrong conclusion through poor investigative techniques.
“They have been telling us for three years that he’s an expert to base facts on, and here he is falsifying documents,” said Speciale. “This guy’s word is totally discredited.”
Speciale said he was stunned at the turn of events, “But I’m sure we will find out more in the coming days. The basis of his opinion is what started this and he has no credibility.”
Speciale said the Pensacola investigation won’t change FDLE’s review process of the Morris case. FDLE sealed the case file last month and is assembling a team that is expected to begin reviewing the case next month.
“FDLE is not using his opinion in their review,” said Speciale. “It was Berkland’s opinion that is the basis of this process, but his opinion has no credibility. FDLE will base their review solely on the facts of the case.”
Osborn retains confidence
Osborn said she previously knew of Berkland’s employment history and now has been made aware of the discoveries in his storage unit, but neither has caused her confidence in him to waiver.
“We did know about his background when we checked him out before hiring him,” said Osborn. “We looked at both sides of the story and we believed his dismissals were politically motivated, as he has stated in the past.”
Osborn said the recent discovery of organs in Berkland’s storage unit took a little more time to digest.
“I had to let the news sink in for a day,” she said. “After thinking about it, I feel bad for the families whose family members may have organs in that storage unit, but it’s no different than my daughter’s body parts rotting away in the Bradenton Beach Police Department’s non-climate controlled evidence room.”
Morris’ fingernails were clipped at the crime scene and retained as part of the case file. Osborn believes her daughter was murdered and has questioned why Morris’s fingernails have not been tested for DNA.
“My understanding is that Dr. Berkland used organs in his teaching, as well, which is why he had them stored,” she said. “At this point, I have no reason not to believe he is a professional criminal pathologist and what has happened hasn’t changed my opinion of him, and hasn’t changed the fact that my daughter was murdered.”
Osborn did not receive the news FDLE was reviewing her daughter’s case with much enthusiasm. She said previously that a review is not an investigation, but she said that’s not why she’s frustrated.
“I’m frustrated with the lack of communication from FDLE, and the Bradenton Beach Police Department,” she said. “There has been no communication at all. Chief Speciale made a comment he won’t talk to me because I berate him. That is absolutely not the case. I am capable of having an adult conversation when it comes to my daughter.”
Osborn said BBPD is incapable of handling a homicide investigation, “but Dr. Berkland is a criminal pathologist and is qualified to make this determination. And the fact hasn’t changed that three other pathologists agreed with Dr. Berkland’s findings.”
Three forensic experts were contacted by Berkland to review the crime scene photos.
Berkland’s attorney, Eric Stevenson, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Berkland’s storage of organs is no different than a lawyer storing case files. The only difference, he said, was the differences in profession and that this incident has no bearing on the Morris investigation.
As of press time for The Islander, Stevenson did not return Islander requests for an interview.