From medical malpractice, to police shootings, to COVID-19, the cause of someone’s death can have serious legal and public health ramifications. Forensic pathologists undergo years of specialized training to develop the medical expertise required to examine someone’s body and uncover all the factors that contributed to their death. But an NBC Bay Area investigation found some of the individuals hired to perform autopsies in California are not licensed doctors, calling into question the accuracy of their death reports and oversight of the industry.
NBC Bay Area spoke to half a dozen families across California who say they were preyed upon by a network of individuals who performed unlicensed autopsy services and face little repercussion.
FAMILIES SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
When Natasha Robinson’s newborn son passed away in 2018, she had questions for the hospital.
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“We were told (Naseam) was okay,” Robinson told NBC Bay Area. “And then all of a sudden things changed and we didn’t know what happened.”
Robinson grew suspicious and sought someone to provide an independent investigation of her son’s death. After searching the internet, she found Shawn Parcells and his company National Autopsy Services based in Kansas. The business’ website claimed the company’s team of “unbiased experts” give families “an opportunity to learn what happened to their loved one.” It also touted the company’s work with coroner offices in California and throughout the country.
Convinced she found the right people for the job, Robinson hired the company and paid $2,600. National Autopsy Services sent an examiner to meet Robinson at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland and perform an autopsy on Naseam’s body. Robinson says that was the last time she ever heard from anyone at National Autopsy Services. After nearly three years, she still hasn’t received any calls or emails detailing the results of the autopsy.
At first, Robinson thought the company’s conduct was unprofessional; she now believes it may have been illegal. It turns out the man she met who performed the autopsy was not a doctor, he was an assistant. Under California law, only a licensed physician and surgeon can conduct a forensic autopsy.
Elysha Nettleton also hired National Autopsy Services after her 55-year old-mother suddenly died in a hospital. Nettleton says the report she received from the company was filled with errors.
“I knew that her eye color was blue and (the examiner) put that it was brown,” Nettleton told the NBC Los Angeles I-Team.
Robinson and Nettleton are suing National Autopsy Services claiming the company, “Negligently failed to retain a licensed physician.”
NBC Bay Area reached out to Parcells and his attorneys, but no one returned our calls. In court documents, the company denies the allegations.
LACK OF OVERSIGHT
Vidal Herrera, owner of 1-800-Autopsy, has provided private autopsy services in California for 33 years. He says he has seen firsthand how easy it is for unlicensed examiners to perform autopsies with no oversight.
“It’s about time that somebody exposes this,” Herrera told NBC Bay Area.
In 2019, Herrera said one of his former employees confided that he was performing autopsies without a license for National Autopsy Services and other companies in California.
“I told him, ‘You're going to get in trouble. I know you're working for this company and this is going to catch up to you, just be prepared to lose everything because what you're doing is illegal,’” Herrera said.
After learning about the unlicensed work, Herrera said he reported the assistant to an investigator with the California Medical Board, but doesn’t know if anyone followed up. NBC Bay Area contacted the board; however the agency wouldn’t provide any details about the case, only stating they can fine unlicensed examiners and forward cases to district attorneys.
“I've called the Medical Board. They don't care, they don't have time. So I say they're worthless,” Herrera said.
ENSURING ACCURATE AUTOPSIES
State Senator Dr. Richard Pan represents the Sacramento region and is both a lawmaker and pediatrician. In 2016, Pan authored a law clarifying only licensed doctors can conduct autopsies. The bill was introduced after the Ventura County Medical Examiner was disciplined for allowing his unlicensed assistants to conduct autopsies while he was away on vacation.
“Having an accurate autopsy is very important to ensuring that people get justice so that there's accurate information for the justice system,” Pan told NBC Bay Area. “And then also autopsies are very important for public health as well so we understand why people died and how we can prevent that.”
After NBC Bay Area told Pan about the unlicensed autopsies that are still being performed, the state Senator called the findings concerning.
“It appears that perhaps there may need to be more protections,” Pan said. “The question is are there existing laws that aren’t being enforced or do you need additional laws?”
Federal prosecutors indicted Shawn Parcells saying he took money from at least 375 clients totaling more than $1.1 million. Parcells is prohibited from operating in Kansas where he’s based, but Herrera says the assistants who worked for Parcells are still operating here in California.
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