LITTLE ROCK Pulaski County Coroner Garland Camper said Tuesday that he is still waiting for records showing that the human heads seized at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, last week were legally obtained and being transported for a lawful purpose.
Until he gets the paperwork, Camper said, the heads will remain at the county morgue, where they have been kept since their discovery by a Southwest Airlines employee on June 9.
“We’re still talking about humans,” Camper said. “I’m not just going to release a bucket of heads to go across the country without verifying that these were indeed lawfully obtained.”
The 40 to 60 whole and partial human heads - Camper declined to specify the number - were confiscated after JLS Consulting LLC of Conway attempted to ship them to Fort Worth by way of Southwest Airlines Air Freight.
The airline refused to ship the heads because they were not packaged and labeled according to the company’s rules, company spokesman Chris Mainz said. The airline contacted the police, which led to Camper’s taking possession of the heads.
Since then, Camper said he has been trying to verify information about the heads. He said he received some information from JLS on Monday but it doesn’t appear to accurately describe the heads.
“They’re stating the amounts that are in there, but there are inconsistencies in the descriptions,” Camper said. He said it was the first time in his 24 years with the coroner’s office that a shipment of bodies or body parts had been stopped at the airport.
Janice Hepler, the founder of JLS Consulting, said her company is cooperating with Camper’s requests.
“Nothing is wrong,” Hepler said. “We’re providing the documentation, and we fully understand the coroner’s point of view and his request.
“He needs to know what this is about and what’s going on and we’re providing him with everything he’s asking for.”
Hepler said her company sets up laboratory classrooms for medical courses sponsored by hospitals and other companies. That often entails obtaining and preparing cadavers from organizations that accept donated bodies and make them available for educational purposes.
She said she routinely ships human specimens by air freight. Airlines require the packages to be labeled “anatomical material,” she said. In this case, she said, the private courier she hired did not label the heads correctly.
“It’s just a total snowball effect,” Hepler said. “The package wasn’t labeled correctly, and it just went from there.”
While federal law prohibits buying or selling body parts, companies can charge fees for preparing or transporting bodies, Hepler said.
She added that she has been working with human specimens and producing educational courses for 18 years, and this is the first time she’s had a problem shipping a specimen.
According to police reports, the heads were being shipped to Fort Worth to a division of Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., which makes medical devices. Hepler said the heads are planned for use in a continuing-education program for physicians.
Brian Henry, a Medtronic spokesman, described the shipment as “embalmed cranial specimens” and temporal bones. The company commonly uses such specimens for physician education and training and in the development of new surgical tools, Henry said.
He said the company had a similar holdup at another airport a few years ago involving incorrect labeling, but he didn’t have further details.
“We certainly expect our suppliers to adhere to the required processes to safely ship or transport specimens,” Henry said, adding that the company would “work with our suppliers to make sure that all future orders are properly labeled.”
“It’s important to note that these types of specimens are commonly shipped commercially, and they are treated with great care,” Henry said.
Camper said the heads were packaged in three rubber or plastic containers - “the type that you could buy at any container store.”
According to a police report, the containers were not labeled as to their contents when the courier, General Delivery of Little Rock, brought them to the Southwest Airlines cargo office last week. The deliveryman told an airline employee he did not know what they contained, so the airline employee opened the containers.
The report says the airline employee found a large, red bag marked “Bio Hazard,” several items wrapped in absorbent pads and the heads. The airline employee then called the police.
Hepler, a registered nurse and certified operating-room nurse, said the heads were donated to an organization that provided them for the Medtronic project, but she declined to name the organization.
Such organizations “do not release anatomical material to just anyone,” Hepler said. “You have to fill out a lot of documentation, and they check you out, and they do that for every project.”