June 16, 2010 -- A shipment of up to 60 human heads and parts of heads, wrapped with duct tape and stuffed in plastic containers, has been seized at an Arkansas airport while cops determine whether the ghoulish cargo is involved in an illicit body parts trade.
Investigators said the heads appeared to be "medical specimens," opening the door to whether authorities in Little Rock, Ark., had inadvertently stumbled upon an "underground market" for human body parts.
Pulaski County Coroner Garland Camper said 40 to 60 whole and partial heads were discovered June 9 by a Southwest Airlines employee who alerted the Transportation Security Administration and local police.
The coroner now has possession of the heads.
The heads, he said, were not refrigerated or placed on ice. Instead they were "packed in regular plastic containers, and wrapped with water-absorbent material and duct tape."
The heads were being shipped by JLS Consulting LLC, a medical research company in Conway, Ark., to Medtronic, a company that produces medical devices like defibrillators, based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Camper said the heads had been improperly labeled and the documents connected to the opaque plastic containers did not indicate what was inside.
"There were inconsistencies with what they said were in those containers and what was found," Camper told ABC News.com.
Camper said investigators were focusing on the way the heads were being transported, how they were obtained and whether they were being sold illegally.
"These were human body parts. They were medical specimens," Garland said. "There is a real demand for these body parts all over America. There is an underground market for this stuff and we are determining if we stumbled on an underground human body parts market."
JLS founder Janice Hepler told the Associated Press the heads are to be used in a continuing-education program for physicians.
Plastic Container of Severed Heads Found at Airport
She told the AP it is illegal to buy or sell body parts ? but companies can charge fees for preparing or transporting bodies. She said human specimens are used in the educational courses she prepares.
A spokesman for Medtronic told ABCNews.com, there were only four "embalmed cranial specimens" and the other body parts were "pairs of temporal bone ear blocks."
"The specimens are appropriately sourced from a vendor which works with facilities that have specimens from those who have willfully volunteered their bodies for medical research," wrote Medtronic spokesman Brian Henry in an email.
As to why the heads were wrapped with duct tape and not appropriately labeled, Henry wrote: They are frequently shipped commercially and are treated with great care.. We expect our medical suppliers to adhere to all governmental regulations and standard labeling procedures when shipping and/or transporting specimens."
The trade in human body parts for continuing education is a multimillion dollar industry with virtually no federal oversight, experts told ABC News.com.
It is difficult to regulate the sale of human remains because the buyers are often large corporations that use cadavers to train physicians in new techniques with medical equipment they've developed, Todd Olson, a professor of anatomy at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, previously told ABCNews.com.
"I don't realistically see that we can ask the federal government to regulate this ? [or] that it will do anything but create loopholes and profiteers and solidify the role of corporate profit makers working in the shades and shadows of the current system," Olson said.
The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education is an organization that pairs surgeons with health companies for training in newly developed technologies, Olson said. But the organization does not demand that body parts used in its courses and provided by corporations be properly obtained and tracked.
In 2007, the head of UCLA medical school's willed bodies program was arrested for selling cadavers donated to the school to a company that provided bodies to more than 20 private, medical, pharmaceutical and hospital research companies including Johnson & Johnson.
A 2008 investigation into the Bodies exhibit, a travelling museum show featuring preserved cadavers in artful poses, revealed it was stocked with the illegally obtained corpses of Chinese prisoners.