By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

BROOK PARK, Ohio (AP) - The investigation trail of a box of skulls found in auctioned materials has led to Peru by way of Miami and Cleveland.

Last week an employee at a warehouse near Cleveland Hopkins International Airport run by the Marc's regional discount chain found 12 skulls in the box purchased at last month's auction of items abandoned at a customs inspection point.

The box was shipped by air last May from Lima, Peru, to an individual in Miami, apparently meant as a gift, according to Cherise Miles, a spokeswoman for the customs agency, but was never claimed from customs.

The government has identified the intended recipient, according to Miles, who said the person's name was withheld pending the investigation.

As for the sender, "We don't know if the person actually knew there were skulls," Miles said. That was under investigation.

As a Marc's employee went through the box, a figurine fell and broke, disclosing a skull enshrouded in ceramic. He contacted warehouse security and the manager, Mark Ternovan, according to Detective James Tesar's report.

Marc's regularly stocks shelves at its 51 stores with items purchased at auction, including those attended by owner Marc Glassman, said Debbie List, administrative assistant at the chain based in nearby Middleburg Heights.

"He attends auctions all the time, everywhere," she said.

At the time of the discovery, the ceramic items were at least one week away from making the shelves at Marc's, where closeouts and low prices are favored over shopper comforts.

You can find men's underwear at the end of the frozen foods, flea collars hanging next to California wines and a chest-high display of unwrapped dog chews. Over in the corner, tropical birds squawk from a room-sized cage.

When you check out at Marc's, don't expect to see price scanners. Cashiers do it the old-fashioned way.

Your purchases are invariably packed in plastic bags with another store's name imprinted. The bags can change from day to day, depending on what's available to Glassman and his buyers.

Police in Brook Park, a working-class Cleveland suburban astride Interstates 71 and 480, released photos showing both a sample skull and one encased in ceramic.

The blanched skull appeared to be missing a lower jaw and has outsized eye sockets. The ceramic-encased skull resembled a head with a biker's tightly fitting helmet and wide purple band down the sides of the face, lips pursed closed.

The skulls include at least one of a child and showed evidence of bindings, according to assistant Cuyahoga County Coroner Heather Raaf. The dried-out look indicated the skulls were aged, possibly for many years.

None had any sign of violence or injuries, according to Raaf, and some may have been buried at some point.

The coroner's office, which traditionally maintains a respective stance regarding bodies and body parts under investigation in its morgue, said Thursday that the skulls were off-limits to photographers and reporters.

A message seeking comment on the Peruvian origin of the shipment was left Thursday at the embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)