PENSACOLA, Fla. (WALA) - Autopsy results can determine insurance benefits or even be a final clue in a homicide.
FOX10 News conducted a two-month investigation in 2007 on the consequences of what can happen if a doctor doesn't complete an autopsy report. We featured Dr. Michael Berkland, who was arrested in 2012 after body parts were found a storage unit he was renting. Authorities said the unit was sold at auction and the body parts were found after the sale.
NEVER HAVE YESTERDAY BACK
You can never have yesterday back. Life keeps going, even after you lose someone you love. As time ticks on, grief is supposed to fade.
But in 2007, more than 100 families in northwest Florida said they have not been able to heal as weeks became months, then years.
Paramedic Cindy Woodward, at the time, was in her fifth year of waiting. In 2001, she was at Ground Zero when a fire broke out in her home. Her husband Neil, a volunteer firefighter, first got his young daughter our safely then began battling the fire.
"He breathed in a tremendous amount of smoke, and it was for an extended period of time," Cindy said.
An emergency worker gave Neil oxygen when he complained about the smoke. Moments later, he had a fatal heart attack.
Cindy lost the love of her life and the father of her children.
"It was really hard, because I was so far away in a totally different place, with all these terrible things happening and I was just kind of in shock," she remembered.
Cindy and her late husband were both friends of the pathologist assigned to perform the autopsy - Assistant District Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Berkland.
Dr. Berkland determined Neil's death was from natural causes. According to his report, the smoke he inhaled played no role.
"Somebody who's 32-years-old, you don't expect to have a heart attack. Wouldn't you kind of question that? Wouldn't you check out everything to find out for sure?" Cindy asked.
Dr. Berkland claims he tested Neil's blood for carbon monoxide at a hospital. He said the results showed very low levels of the gas. Berkland said the piece of paper with the actual results mysteriously disappeared from Woodward's file.
But Berkland's former supervisor, Chief District Medical Examiner Dr. Andrea Minyard, said in an amended autopsy report that "no carbon monoxide testing was done on Firefighter Woodward".
"He falsified a test and the autopsy was not accurate. I knew that when I read it. It stated that he didn't have any identifying marks or tattoos, and he did," Cindy said.
If Dr. Berkland had determined smoke could have contributed to Neil's heart attack, then the cause of death would have been accidental. Cindy and her three children would have been eligible for a substantial death benefit payment.
Cindy felt like Berkland's report was not accurate.
"I thought we were his friends and his coworkers. And that anybody he would have been more careful with - I would've thought it would've been somebody he knew and respected," said Cindy.
FAILED TO FINALIZE 95 PERCENT OF REPORTS
The Association of Medical Examiners recommends completing reports within 90 days - 60 days in homicide investigations.
In 2002, the Florida Board of Osteology found Berkland "failed to finalize 95 percent of his reports". Dr. Berkland was asked to resign in 2003 amid dozens of complaints.
FOX10 News saw boxes of files from 109 cases Dr. Berkland never completed. They go all the way back to 2001. Among the case files were two homicide cases that, by 2007, had not yet been able to go to trial.
"We have to have that in order to go forward. And if it delays the trial, then it can delay justice," said Assistant State Attorney David Rimmer.
One of Berkland's files contained information about the murder of a four-month-old boy.
"I know that someone is responsible for the death of that child, and it's probably someone in that household right now. With other children in the household," said Dr. Minyard.
Dr. Minyard filed complaints with the Florida Board of Osteopathy regarding the unfinished reports. The board put Berkland on probation in 2005, requiring him to complete the reports to get his medical license fully reinstated.
"He had six months to finish the cases. However, he did not finish the cases in that time," Dr. Minyard said. "He was given another three months by the Board of Osteopathy, which I was very surprised and shocked that they would let this go on and on and on without doing something about it."
In 2007, Dr. Berkland served as chairman of the board of the 900 member Florida Division on the International Association for Identification. It's a professional association representing pathologists and crime scene investigators.
He also operated a private forensic science business, performing autopsies at a cost of thousands of dollars each and testifying for criminal defendants in trials.
TROUBLES BEGAN EARLIER
Meanwhile, other families waited on his unfinished business. FOX10 learned Berkland's troubles began more than a decade ago.
In 1996, Berkland
was fired from his job as the Jackson County, Missouri medical examiner for falsely stating that he had examined eight brains, then made up reports about them.
In 1999, the state of Missouri revoked his medical license for "dishonesty, unprofessional or unethical conduct and making a false statement".
Dr. Minyard and the Florida board didn't learn about Berkland's problems until after he was hired.
Berkland's former supervisor, Dr. Thomas Young, in a sworn statement to the Missouri Medical Board said Dr. Berkland "did things that made me very, very wary and nervous".
Dr. Young told Minyard Berkland snuck into his former office and removed items after his termination. FOX10 asked Dr. Minyard if that would have been body parts, and why.
"It's my impression these would have been body parts, yes. I don't know. I don't know," she said.
Dr. Young testified a young woman's brain and a uterus were later recovered by police officers from the trunk of Berkland's car.
Berkalnd had also been accused of improperly handling human remains on another occasion.
In 2005, an Okaloosa County man sued Dr. Berkland, claiming Berkland caused him and his family emotional distress. The suit said Berkland refused to release his murdered wife's body for a timely burial and kept the remains for 15 months for "no good cause, legitimate or legal reason". The case was settled before trial.
FOX10 went to Berkland's office three times in 2007, attempting to get his comments in person. We were able to speak to Dr. Berkland by phone, but he would not schedule a time for an on-camera interview.
We also contacted his attorney, Patrece Cashwell, offering to interview Berkland in her office. She wouldn't agree to our request either.
The Florida Board of Osteopathy gave Dr. Berkland until February 17, 2007 to finish the cases. On February 23, 2007, his license was suspended for six months.
THE SAGA CONTINUES
Cindy Woodward continued to fight for her family in court. She said if Dr. Berkland had done his job correctly, her husband's death benefit would someday pay for her children's education.
"We all have procedures that we have to follow. You just do it. It's just what you're supposed to do, and you do it," she said.
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