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18 human heads delayed at airport were intended for medical research

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 9:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — A shipment of 18 human heads stopped by customs officials at O’Hare International Airport was sent here from Rome to be cremated after being used in medical research, officials said Tuesday.

Customs held up the shipment in late December because accompanying paperwork was incomplete, according to Mary Paleologos, a spokeswoman for the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Other officials said it was not clear where the shipment was to be delivered.

After news of the shipment broke Tuesday, a company in Schiller Park, Ill., came forward with what appears to be proper paperwork to accept the shipment, she said.

The heads had been embalmed and were packaged in three blue coolers shipped from Rome on a Lufthansa Airlines flight about a week before Christmas, said Tony Brucci, chief of investigations for the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

The items were tagged as human specimens, officials said. The containers holding the specimens arrived as a regular cargo shipment, according to Paleologos.

“The embalmed heads are anatomical specimens used for research and were properly preserved, wrapped and labeled when they arrived at the airport from a medical research facility in Rome,” she said in a statement.

“The three sealed containers holding the specimens arrived as a regular cargo shipment,” Paleologos said. “The heads were detected when the containers were routinely X-rayed as they passed through U.S. Customs.”

Customs officials at O’Hare held up the shipment because the final destination was not clearly indicated on the accompanying paperwork, Brucci said.

The coolers were X-rayed and customs officials saw 18 human heads inside, Brucci said. They were delivered to the medical examiner’s office Monday so they could be properly stored while officials investigated the shipment. One of the coolers was opened for a preliminary inspection, Brucci said.

Photographs and X-rays will be taken of the specimens before they are released, according to Paleologos and Brucci.

Brucci said that when the office was first notified of the shipment, his first thought was, “Oh, boy. Here we go.” But officials said the heads appear to be human specimens for research and that is how they have been logged by the office.

Due to privacy laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prohibited from discussing specific cases, said Spokeswoman Cherise Miles.

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(Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas contributed to this story.)

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