A spokeswoman for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, Mary Paleologos, said Tuesday that the heads were originally sent from Illinois to Italy for medical research and were returned to the area for disposal as part of the agreement.
She says a paperwork problem held up the shipment, which arrived at O’Hare in mid-December.
The containers were being stored at the Cook County morgue while authorities investigated the matter.
Paleologos says the embalmed heads will be turned over for cremation.
According to a Chicago Sun-Times source, the facility where the human specimens were headed is “under investigation.”
The Sun-Times has learned that the shipment hold-up was connected to an ongoing investigation at the suburban facility in question. The investigation is “absolutely not” connected to the shipment of the heads, the source said.
The heads were shipped from Rome as cargo on a Lufthansa Airlines flight, arriving at O’Hare about one week before Christmas.
“They were properly preserved and tagged as human specimens,” said Tony Brucci, chief investigator for the medical examiner’s office.
Brucci said when the containers were X-rayed, officials discovered what was inside.
Brian Bell, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said earlier Tuesday that the specimens appear to be legitimate medical samples.
“There’s no issue with the transportation of body parts for medical purposes,” Bell said. “There’s nothing against the law that says you cannot ship them, provided you have the right documentation.”
While Bell said he has never before fielded questions about a large package of human body parts, such shipments are not without precedent, he noted.
“Everybody here is ‘Oh my gosh, you got a box of heads’ and everybody thinks that it’s unheard of,” Bell said. “It is a potentially legitimate medical shipment. We’ve seen it at various ports in the nation.”
The specimens, which are still covered in skin, were sent to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office for inspection, authorities said. Foul play was not involved in the collection of the heads.
“We need to make sure that they are truly used for medical research purposes,” said Bell.
The Sun-Times Media Wire and Associated Press contributed to this report.