Authorities discover human heads, brains, spines and other body parts in jars at the home of a Gainesville neurologist.
By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- It was 10 p.m. on a rainy Monday night as Officer Glen Baker responded to what he thought was a routine domestic battery call.
But upon reaching the brick ranch home of Gainesville neurologist Joseph James Warner, Baker found a scene out of a grade B-horror movie.
First were the three glass jars containing human brains, soaking in a chemical solution.
After asking Warner for permission to search the rest of the house, the list grew.
"The defendant showed us two human heads, numerous human brains, spines (human), and various other parts contained within jars," Baker wrote in an arrest report. A human shoulder, the arm still attached, was in a Tupperware container in the garage.
Warner, who teaches a neuroanatomy class at the University of Florida, told police he needed the body parts for research.
Within minutes, the quiet street which houses mostly faculty and students was filled with patrol cars.
"There were more than 30 cop cars," said Michael Justo, 21, a UF senior who lives across the street from the Warners. "They were everywhere. We didn't know what to think."
As facts of the case emerged Wednesday, it appeared the parts were likely taken from the University of Florida for research. If true, Warner could face a misdemeanor charge of illegally storing human remains. Police said he did not have a permit to keep the parts at his home.
Warner, also charged with a misdemeanor battery charge, was booked into the Gainesville jail with bail set at $5,000. He was released Wednesday but could not be reached for comment. Police said he had hired legal counsel but could not provide a name.
Warner, who served as a courtesy instructor for the university since 1990, was fired Tuesday.
"I am angered and appalled to discover that Dr. Warner, one of our former and trusted instructors, may have taken specimens from his campus laboratory to his home without approval and authorization," said Lynn Romrell, director of the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida and an associate dean for medical education at the UF College of Medicine.
As a courtesy instructor, Warner was not a full-time member of the university staff. He had access to a collection of human brains and brain specimens from the Anatomical Board.
Romrell said Warner, like all instructors, was allowed to take the body parts to his laboratory on campus to prepare them for use in his class. But he was not allowed to remove them from university property without the written permission of the board, Romrell said.
Warner never obtained that permission.
"The body parts found in Warner's home are the kind of specimens used in the teaching of human anatomy in medical schools nationwide," Romrell said. "But to store these body parts in his home -- even for work related purposes -- is inappropriate and illegal."
Gainesville Police were making a log of all the parts found in Warner's home, 3211 NW 38th St.
"We don't have the luxury of assuming we know where all of these body parts come from," said Cpl. Keith Kameg of the Gainesville police.
Police also found more than 30 guns and a cache of military ammunition. The Army was called in to assist, and it was determined that most of the items were collectibles, Kameg said.
"It's unlikely there will be any charges relating to the guns or the military ordnance," he said.
According to the arrest report, Debra G. Warner called police about 9:30 p.m. Monday and told them her husband had punched her in the face and pulled her over a couch. She said she was thrown into a glass wall unit, which cut her leg.
She also alerted police to the presence of body parts in the house.
According to the UF Health Science Center, Warner held a full-time faculty position as an assistant professor in the department of neurology from 1984 to 1989. He earned his bachelor of science degree in zoology and his medical degree from the University of Florida.
Warner performed his residency at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brockton, Mass., where he served as chief resident in 1983-84, said Donna Burtanger, a spokeswoman for Harvard Medical School, which is affiliated with the Brockton center.
Warner went on to work at the VA Medical Center in Lake City, where his work was scrutinized as part of an investigation launched by the VA's inspector general into the deaths of two patients.
In 1997, the inspector general ruled the managers of the VA hospital endangered patients' care by assigning Warner to daily rounds -- called "medical officer of the day" -- even though they knew his spinal condition limited his mobility.
Warner had back surgery in 1992, and his doctor wrote the VA in 1993 and 1994 that he couldn't get around without pain and at times required a wheelchair.
In a January 1996 case, Warner said he and a colleague were unable to revive a man having a heart attack. The VA's health care inspectors reviewed the case and said the hospital fell short of providing the best care possible.
Warner and several other former Lake City employees filed a federal lawsuit against the VA in December 1996. He said he was given the responsibilities of medical officer of the day as an act of reprisal.
Warner's Gainesville neighbors described him as a quiet man.
"He hardly ever spoke," said Carey Mobley, an assistant professor at UF's pharmacy school. "I can't really say anything bad about him."
Mobley said he has lived next door to Warner and his wife since November. Just one month ago, Warner complained about the family's Chihuahuas, who bark a lot, Mobley said.
Asked if he ever noticed signs of domestic strife at the residence, Mobley shook his head.
"Nothing worse than a normal couple," he said.
-- Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.