Kansas man accused of performing illegal autopsies did at least two in Central Texas

Investigations

Investigative summary:

A Kansas man is accused of performing autopsies without the proper authority in Central Texas and across the country. He “held himself out as a professor, held himself out as board-certified in Pathology, board-certified in Infectious Disease, and as it turns out, was none of those things,” according to the civil attorney one family hired to file a lawsuit against the man, his business, and the Temple, Texas, funeral home where he says he performed some of those autopsies.

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The facility is rather large, square and seemingly new. It’s in the middle of a field all the way down 30th Street in Temple, Texas, surrounded by only a few homes. There are little to no signs on the outside. 

There’s a garage at the back of the building and more traffic in and out of the facility than may have been expected; several cars take up spots in the parking lot. Patient body boards can be seen from afar, along with other medical equipment.

Inside the building is a private autopsy suite. This is a funeral home – Central Texas Mortuary Services.

This is where the body of Paul Schuessler was taken for a private autopsy.

Schuessler, 70, passed away unexpectedly on Jan. 20, 2019 at a Llano hospital, just hours after he fell there. It’s believed he suffered a brain bleed.

Because of the circumstances of his death and a lack of understanding about what caused it, the Schuessler family was determined to get answers. After learning the medical examiner would not be performing an autopsy, they sought out those answers through a private autopsy.

The family hired Shawn Parcells to perform the autopsy at Central Texas Mortuary. Now, the family’s attorney says his clients have even more questions about what happened to their loved one.

“They wanted to know what happened to their dad. They wanted to know what happened to their husband,” Patrick Luff said, the attorney for the Schuessler family.

The Schuessler family says they found out about Parcells from the Temple funeral home.

A funeral without a body

Luff says his clients’ frustration with Parcells began early on with what Parcells allegedly said were
“travel delays” to perform the autopsy as soon as possible. Ultimately, the attorney says, the Schuessler family had the funeral and visitation service without Paul’s body present – with a closed, empty casket – because they say Parcells was still performing the autopsy.

“I don’t think that there are many more positions of trust that are more important than the trust we put in someone to take care of our loved ones after they die,” Luff said.

Shortly after the autopsy and the burial, Luff says Parcells gave the Schuessler family some “preliminary results” over the phone. Then, the family claims Parcells disappeared. They are still waiting for the final autopsy report and expect to be waiting for a while.

“This was a death that was very sudden, very unexpected. So, at the same point that they’re trying to grieve, they’re feeling the frustration of not being able to even reach this person that they’ve placed an awful lot of trust in,” Luff said. “They’re frustrated. They’re angry. They’re sad. They’re bewildered.”

Although Parcells’ business – National Autopsy Services – is based in Kansas, for the first time, KXAN Investigates independently uncovered that his practice crossed into Texas. KXAN confirmed at least two families hired Parcells to perform what they believed were private autopsies on their loved ones at Central Texas Mortuary.

In a FaceTime interview with KXAN, Parcells admitted to performing two autopsies at the facility – one in late 2018 and the other on Paul Schuessler’s body in January 2019.

The Schuessler family filed a lawsuit against Parcells, his company and Central Texas Mortuary. The civil suit names the funeral home for its alleged connection with Parcells – claiming the business should have known he wasn’t allowed or qualified to be performing autopsies.

Parcells does not appear to be or appear to ever have been employed by the funeral home. Parcells was simply performing autopsies at the facility.

KXAN reached out multiple times to the owner of the Temple funeral home for an interview or to receive a statement. An employee finally responded to our calls and emails, acknowledging they were received, then replied, “No comment.” 

Qualifications to perform an autopsy in Texas

In Texas, state penal code 42.08, regarding abuse of a corpse, states a person commits an offense if the person, without legal authority, knowingly: “disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects, in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse.”

Travis County Medical Examiner Requirements

Deputy Medical Examiner II

  • Education and Experience: Graduation from an accredited college of medicine AND a postgraduate training program in pathology AND one (1) year of training in forensic pathology at a medical-legal training center.

  • Licenses, Registrations, Certifications, or Special Requirements: Licensed to practice as a medical doctor in the State of Texas issued by the Texas Medical Board. American Board Certified in anatomic or anatomic/clinic pathology. American Board Certified in forensic pathology.

For Deputy Medical Examiner I:

  • Education and Experience: Graduation from an accredited college of medicine AND a postgraduate training program in pathology AND one (1) year of training in forensic pathology at a medical-legal training center.

  • Licenses, Registrations, Certifications, or Special Requirements: Licensed to practice as a medical doctor in the State of Texas issued by the Texas Medical Board. American Board Certified in anatomic or anatomic/clinic pathology. American Board Eligible or Certified in forensic pathology (Board Certified in forensic pathology within three (3) years of hire).

That means it could be a state jail felony to perform an autopsy without the right qualifications.

“An autopsy is the practice of medicine and the practice of medicine is performed by doctors – physicians. It is a physician who does the autopsy,” explained Chief Travis County Medical Examiner Dr. Keith Pinckard. “It is beyond any sort of normal practice in this field for anyone other than a physician to be doing an autopsy.”

In Travis County, for example, it is a requirement that all Medical Examiners be board-certified in Forensic Pathology, which is a sub-specialty.

The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office does not perform an autopsy on every death that occurs within the region, however. They’re mainly reserved for “sudden, traumatic, and otherwise suspicious deaths.”

In addition, the office provides autopsy work for 43 other counties across Texas for a fee, not including Bell County where Schuessler’s body was examined.

Under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 49.32, consent to an autopsy may only be given by signing the form prescribed by the State of a Texas.

READ: Texas autopsy form

READ: Schuessler Autopsy Contract

Luff says Parcells’ contract with his clients does not meet the state’s requirement of that documentation. However, KXAN learned the Texas Deptartment of State Health Services (DSHS) does not receive completed VS-200 autopsy consent forms.

Representatives with DSHS were unaware which agency, if any, receives the completed form or whether they are collected on a local level. There are not instructions on the form that indicate it’s filed anywhere, in fact. We were told it may just be for the records of the person performing the autopsy in case there’s a dispute about whether it was authorized.

State law just requires DSHS to create the form.

Although he says the criminal code isn’t written perfectly in Texas, the family’s attorney and industry professionals alike agree: it is clear an autopsy must be performed or “assisted by” a physician.

 
Autopsy requirements by state
*Important Note: All pathologists are physicians, but not all physicians are pathologists.

Shawn Parcells defends himself, his work

Parcells spoke with KXAN over FaceTime from his home in Kansas on May 8. He says although some people throughout his career inaccurately assumed he was a pathologist or a general doctor, he has never claimed to be one.

“I have told people I’m a Forensic Clinical Anatomist. Of course, they ask what that is. I do have a background and training in Epidemiology. Of course, they ask what that is,” Parcells said. “As far as my pathology background is that of a Pathology Assistant.” 

Pathologists’ Assistants, or PAs, are required to work under the supervision of a doctor in Texas.

Parcells admits to and repeatedly told KXAN he did autopsy-related work on his own, without the physical presence of an assisting physician.

“As far as a pathologist being present, I think that really is up to the pathologist. In the past, I have had pathologists that want to be there from start to finish. Then on the flip side of that, I’ve had pathologists that don’t feel the need to be there. They have full belief that you can do your job autonomously, but at the same time, if you have questions, you can always call them,” Parcells said. “‘Supervision’ is ‘I have a pathologist that I work with.’ If I need to call him [the pathologist] or FaceTime him, or take a photo and send him a picture, then he can guide me along how the rest of the case may or may not need to go, but he’s not physically present. Then [the pathologist is] reviewing the rest of the case to sign off on it.”

Parcells said he has been “doing this for so long” that he’s done over 2,500 cases in his entire career.

Dr. Pinckard told KXAN it doesn’t work that way.

Referring to PAs, the Travis County Medical Examiner said, “Everything they do is under the direction of the physician performing the autopsy.”

He added, “Those activities are done under direct, physical supervision by that physician. Meaning, the autopsy pathologist is right there while everything is happening.”

Although Parcells claims to be a Pathologists’ Assistant, the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants disagrees, claiming he is misrepresenting himself as a PA.

The AAPA represents 2,000 certified pathologists’ assistants or certification exam eligible members in the United States and beyond.

The association released a lengthy statement about Shawn Parcells. In part, it states:

“Mr. Parcells has no legitimate training and holds no credentials, yet claims to be a pathologists’ assistant and forensics pathology expert. This misrepresentation of pathologists’ assistants and functioning outside of our scope of practice by this individual and others like him is an affront to every qualified pathologists’ assistant who has invested a great deal of time, effort, and money in themselves to acquire the required didactic and clinical training to become a pathologists’ assistant, prepare for the certification exam, become certified through the ASCP, and maintain their certification through the ASCP credential maintenance program (CMP) which requires completion of 45 continuing education credits per three year period (will increase to 60 credits per three year period effective 2022). Mr. Parcells misrepresents himself to the public as being qualified and an expert but is not accountable to the institutions that provide the credentials for our profession, claiming that they are “voluntary.” If he were a member of the AAPA, his membership would be revoked for misconduct according to our bylaws. He would also likely lose his certification by the ASCP, if he were certified. If he were licensed, he would lose that as well.”

According to the AAPA’s release, Parcells is not a qualified pathologists’ assistant “in any way.”

Parcells also told KXAN he never completed “full autopsies.”

When asked whether he told his Central Texas clients he would be doing “autopsies,” Parcells responded, “I told them I was doing portions of it.”

He went on to add, “I did ‘procedures.'”

If people feel misled, Parcells says that’s their own misunderstanding of the situation.

“They don’t understand how our industry works. That’s the flat-out, bottom-line. You have emotions that are high. People are upset. They’re not comprehending things,” Parcells said. “I didn’t set out to willfully and intentfully (sic) deceive them.”

In a message to KXAN, Parcells said, “I failed in managing my business to the best of my abilities. I grew quickly and when doing so, I had to rely on others for doing the gross autopsy work. I really should have managed better and gotten reports out more quickly. What I am doing now with my attorney is working on all past due reports to get them finished and out to families.”

He continued, “I never set out with any intentions to take money from families and not finish our work.” 

Parcells also said he does have supporters. He says of the over 600 families his company has served, that only around 40 are upset. Parcells says “that is not a bad stat.”

Parcells says he wants anyone who’s upset with his work to contact his attorney so their issues can be addressed directly with him.

“We’re not running from this. We’re really trying to tackle this. We are really trying to work things out,” he said.

Who is Shawn Parcells?

When Parcells was 12 years old, he says his grandfather died. The Kansas native traveled with his family to the East Coast to attend the services.

“I had a morbid curiosity, I guess,” Parcells said, adding that he asked for a tour of the funeral home. After the funeral, he says, the funeral director showed him the embalming room.

“I was fascinated,” Parcells added.

When he returned to Kansas shortly thereafter, Parcells says he tried to find any funeral home that would let him do anything.

“Autopsies really gained my interest from day one just because I was fascinated with how the whole human body fits together,” he said.

Parcells says he planned to go to medical school after completing his undergraduate degree at Kansas State University. Although he claims he had been accepted to a medical school in the Caribbean, he and his wife soon learned she was pregnant and that changed the plan.

“I started my company in 2010 and I was predominantly doing coroner work in Missouri and Kansas,” he explained, after saying he completed various internship programs. Parcells said he was going to become board-certified, but ultimately, life got in the way.

“Even to this day, the certification, I mean – it always looks good if you’re certified, obviously, but it’s really a voluntary process. It’s not like a physician assistant. A physician assistant – they have to have that to practice,” Parcells explained, emphasizing he has “on-the-job training” that’s gotten him to where he is today.

Parcells assisted in the 2014 autopsy of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The case entered Parcells into the national spotlight when Brown’s family commissioned the independent autopsy. In media appearances, Parcells was referred to as a “forensic pathology expert.”

In this instance, a preliminary autopsy was conducted by Dr. Michael Baden and Parcells assisted. Baden was a former chief medical examiner in New York City.

Missouri Connection: An autopsy in question and a suspect who went on to kill 

In August 2012, Shawn Parcells’ forensic work came into question surrounding a criminal case in Missouri. Andrew County hired Parcells’ company at the time to perform an autopsy on Robert “Bob” Forrester, 74, who was believed to have died as a result of a brain bleed. Police say however, they suspected manslaughter may have been the true cause of death after Forrester called 911 to inform authorities that his grandson, “Bobby” Ray Forrester, hit him in the face and knocked him out.

Forrester fell and died shortly after the attack, according to family members we spoke with in Missouri. An autopsy would be critical to determine whether the bleeding was a result of the assault or trauma from the fall, which could inform a possible criminal case.

Vicki Groce was hired to assist Parcells in Forrester’s autopsy. It was one of about a dozen cases she worked with him on in the Midwest for about a year at the end of 2011 and into 2012, according to court documents. 

“I don’t ever want to see criminal cases not be able to be pursued because an autopsy was not done correctly,” Groce said. “At the beginning, I did think he was a pathologist. He had me convinced for a long time.”

She remembers the serious concerns surrounding whether Parcells should have proceeded with Forrester’s autopsy without a doctor present.

“The deputy kept asking when the pathologist was going to be there and asked me a couple times, ‘Do you think this is right; are we going to be able to use this autopsy?'” Groce recalled.

Groce continued, saying that deputy also asked Parcells several times about the same thing.

“‘Are we supposed to be doing this? Do we need to wait?'” she remembers. “And, every time, Shawn said, ‘No, everything is fine. I’m allowed to do this. I can do this.'”

KXAN found Groce through one of Parcells’ bankruptcy filings dating back to December 2015. Those records indicate Parcells owed her $3,000 for work the court says had never paid her for and needed to. Although Groce says Parcells has yet to fulfill the entire debt, she says she’s not speaking out because of the money.

“I now know I probably should have done more research prior to working for him, but I truly believed him at the beginning,” Groce said. “I would have had nothing to do with them. I never would have went to work for him.”

In the Forrester case, Groce says because Parcells performed the autopsy without a pathologist present, the alleged attacker was ultimately able to avoid arrest and prosecution. Five years later, Groce says, he also went on to kill his grandmother.

In September 2017, police say Bobby Ray killed his grandmother, Beverly “Bev” Forrester, who was 77. The grandson was charged with Second Degree Murder, took a plea deal and was sentenced to life in prison.

Family members we spoke with say they can’t help but wonder whether Beverly would still be alive if her grandson had been charged in the attack on his grandfather.

“I do feel had this autopsy not been botched, my aunt would be alive,” Annie Coy Roseberry wrote in an email to KXAN.

Parcells insists that the Robert Forrester death investigation was “messed up from the beginning” because Forrester’s body was embalmed prior to the autopsy, but notes that in this case, science was the culprit that led to no prosecution – not him or his work.

“The guy didn’t get off because of me. The guy got off because the case was just not forensically sound. The science in that case basically said there’s no way to tell which event caused what,” Parcells said in his defense. “I can tell you in all the years I’ve done this, my promise to myself, and to clients, has always been ‘I will present to you the science and what the science says.'”

Civil and criminal charges in Kansas

In March, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office filed civil and criminal charges against Parcells. He is charged in Wabaunsee County District Court with three counts each of theft and criminal desecration.

The state’s lawsuit claims Parcells conducted coroner-ordered autopsies without a qualified pathologist supervising him, as required by state law. The state says Parcells is not a pathologist.

The state’s lawsuit reads in part, “Defendant Parcells has no formal education, degree or license in the healing arts. He is essentially a self-taught pathology assistant.” The suit also alleges he billed the county for 14 autopsies that were not performed.

Parcells turned himself in to law enforcement but was released on a $25,000 bond. He is due back in July in Kansas court.

Just days after the charges were filed, Parcells was temporarily banned from conducting autopsies in Kansas. A county judge issued the temporary restraining order, which remains in effect, and will remain in effect until the lawsuit alleging violations of Kansas’ consumer protections and false claims acts is resolved.

Allegations of misrepresentation online

Part of the Temporary Restraining Order filed in Kansas against Shawn Parcells said his business website, www.NationalAutopsyServices.com, “advertises, solicits and offers for sale products and services including private autopsies, tissue recovery and forensic services to consumers and governmental entities.”

The TRO required the website be closed — inaccessible to the public — in addition to all of Parcells’ social media sites that also serve to “promote, advertise, solicit, demonstrate and illustrate and offer private autopsy services, forensic pathology and tissue recovery services.”

The order claims Parcells and his business participated in “ongoing fraudulent business practices” which were being solicited online. The website advertises the company’s ability and willingness “to go anywhere, at any time, to provide autopsy services allowing far-reaching access to unknowing consumers far and wide.”

The civil attorney for the Schuessler family in Texas says Parcells utilized his website to misrepresent himself and his business practices.

“Shawn Parcells sold the clients at the beginning, stating that he was an ‘expert,’ referring to himself as a professor, advertising on his website that the work is done by board-certified pathologists, doctors board-certified in infectious disease,” explained Luff. “I’ve never seen any information that anybody was involved other than Shawn Parcells and every indication is nobody was involved other than Shawn Parcells.”

According to internet archives, in January 2019 the now-removed website appeared as shown in the gallery below.

In the website’s “About” page, the business emphasized its commitment to families, public health and safety. The fee for autopsy cases is listed between $3,000-$3,500.

The business’ website also lists locations in cities across the United States, including its corporate office in Topeka, Kansas, along with regional morgue facilities and international locations.

Texas Attorney General’s Office aware of Shawn Parcells

During the course of our KXAN investigation, we contacted the Texas Attorney General’s Office to determine whether it has already, or plans to take action against Parcells here. Representatives with the office say there is one complaint against his company, National Autopsy Services, but it cannot confirm or deny an ongoing investigation by the state agency.

The AG’s office said it is “aware of the action taken in Kansas” and added it is monitoring complaints coming into its office.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office encourages people with complaints against National Autopsy Services and/or Shawn Parcells to file a consumer complaint form with the office.

Although the office cannot take action on behalf of individuals, it can bring cases in instances of violations of state law or public interest.

A Nationwide warning

The Better Business Bureau has issued a nationwide warning about Shawn Parcells’ business after receiving complaints in nearly 20 cities. Despite the civil lawsuit recently filed in Bell County, Texas is not currently a part of the BBB’s list.

Complaints were received in the following cities:

  • Los Angeles, California
  • Ocala, Florida
  • Orlando, Florida
  • Evanston, Illinois
  • Kansas City, Kansas
  • Potomac, Maryland
  • Parkton, North Carolina
  • Absecon, New Jersey
  • Brooklyn, New York
  • Danville, Pennsylvania
  • Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
  • Lincoln, Rhode Island
  • Newport News, Virginia
  • Roanoke, Virginia
  • Sterling, Virginia
  • Woodbridge, Virginia

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