ROANOKE, JUNE 7 -- A maintenance man at a Roanoke apartment building made a gruesome discovery while checking the basement for one of the tenants: three human heads, wrapped in rags and stored in a box.

Authorities said the well-preserved heads, which are being shipped to Richmond for analysis, were the remains from bodies used in medical or scientific research years ago.

William Massello, a medical examiner, said the heads had an odor of cyanide or formaldehyde, chemicals that formerly were used in embalming.

"They may be decades old," Massello said. "I'd be surprised if they were less than 10 years old."

Richard H. Fisher, who owns the stately 90-year-old brick house where the heads were found, said he did not know how they got in the basement.

The building's maintenance man, David Scarbro, said he was helping a resident check her possessions in the basement when he found a dusty, round cardboard box with the inscription of a medical college printed on its side.

Its lid was off to one side as Scarbro started tugging at a rag inside.

"I pulled on the rag and a head rolled out at my feet," he said. "I felt like I swallowed my heart."