Shawn Parcells bills himself as a medical investigator, an expert in forensic medicine and a consultant on child abuse.
He has testified at murder trials, taught at universities and conducted lectures for lawyers and police officers.
Parcells, 33, runs Kansas Forensics, a company based in Leawood, Kan., that provides medical examiner services for county coroners in Missouri and Kansas, and private autopsies for families across the country. He says he has observed or helped with more than 1,000 autopsies, and he’s trained in gunshot wounds, strangulation and drug deaths.
But some coroners and medical examiners in Missouri say Parcells has inflated his qualifications and performed autopsies without a medical license. Others allege that doctors whose signatures were on some autopsy reports were not present at the autopsies, did not review the work or never actually signed the documents. Meanwhile, Parcells’ online work profile is filled with inaccurate information.
Some coroners worry that Parcells’ actions could jeopardize criminal cases, potentially allowing a murderer to go free.
Parcells denies any improper behavior, saying jealousy and politics are at the root of what he called rumors about his work.
“What it comes down to is they think I’m trying to play doctor when I’m not,” he said. “I would never do that. I’m not that kind of person.”
Yet last month, the Phelps County prosecutor asked to delay a murder trial because of concerns about a report by Parcells’ company. Public defenders in Phelps and Harrison counties have investigated autopsies Parcells handled in other murder cases. Police in Andrew County are looking into allegations that a pathologist Parcells listed on a 2012 autopsy was never consulted.
The coroner in Pettis County filed a complaint with the Missouri Board of Healing Arts, and several others have discontinued using Parcells’ services because of what they called unprofessional conduct. One of those was former Lincoln County Coroner Robert Shramek, who used Parcells’ firm four times in 2010. Shramek said he became alarmed when Parcells asked what to put down as the cause of death on an autopsy report instead of following the evidence.
Others, such as Dr. Mary Case, the medical examiner for St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties, have been outspoken about the allegations against Parcells.
“It’s very bad for our state if there’s someone doing autopsies without a medical license,” she said. “This is a huge atrocity, an invitation to disaster, and it needs to stop.”
Parcells says he was exposed to his line of work while growing up in Topeka, Kan., from volunteering in high school for a service that transported bodies to a morgue, to shadowing doctors at hospitals. One of those doctors, Dr. David Borel, then a pathologist at St. Francis Hospital in Topeka, now works part-time with Parcells.
Parcells, who has a bachelor’s degree in life sciences from Kansas State University, worked at various jobs before eventually starting his company in 2009. He hoped to fill a niche created in part by budget cuts at medical examiners’ offices.
Since 2008, Missouri has averaged about 3,100 autopsies a year. Nearly three-fourths of the autopsies are performed at medical examiner offices run by doctors in St. Louis and a handful of counties, including Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis.
Coroners in rural counties of Missouri are elected to office and don’t usually do autopsies themselves because they often have no medical training. They rely on medical examiners’ offices or private companies, such as Parcells’, for the work, which typically costs about $1,300, including lab fees.
Parcells started his business with several pathologists who traveled across the state to conduct exams at funeral homes and other facilities. His business grew to cover as many as 50 counties in Missouri, he said in a recent interview.
But some coroners say they eventually began to notice some practices they found troubling.
Last month, John Beger, the prosecutor in Phelps County, asked to delay a murder case, just two weeks before it was set for trial, because of questions about blood work handled by Parcells’ company for a toxicology report in a drug death.
Beger filed the motion after Dr. Edward Friedlander was deposed on April 8. Friedlander is one of the pathologists who formerly worked for Parcells; the doctor’s name was signed on a report listing the cause of death in the case as a heroin overdose.
Friedlander, however, “testified that he had not signed the report, that it was not his signature on the report, that he had not been consulted concerning the death,” the document said. It added that he “had not authorized anyone else to put his signature on the report and that he had no knowledge of the case.”
The case was continued and is now set for a five-day trial beginning June 24.
Neither Friedlander nor Beger would comment. Parcells said he had no knowledge of what Friedlander said because he was not at the deposition.
Similar questions have surfaced in a domestic assault case in Andrew County, in northwestern Missouri. Police say they are looking into an autopsy performed in August 2012.
According to the autopsy report, Dr. George Vandermark was the forensic pathologist on the case. But the report lists Friedlander as the pathologist who reviewed and signed the paperwork.
Grant Gillett, a detective with the Andrew County Sheriff’s Department, said that he was present at the autopsy and that neither Vandermark nor Friedlander had been there. He said Parcells and a female assistant were the only ones present.
Parcells said he had no idea how Friedlander’s name got on the document.
“In fact, he wasn’t even working for our group then,” he said. “I am not sure how that report got his name on it, unless someone changed the name on it.”
Parcells said that even though Vandermark was not at the autopsy, he did review photos, tissues and other tests. He added that the report was incomplete.
Vandermark declined to comment. Former Andrew County Coroner Ron Crouse said he did not change anything on the report and considered the autopsy final.
Another case from Phelps County revolves around a question that several coroners have raised: Is Parcells conducting autopsies on his own? In Missouri, it’s a misdemeanor to perform an autopsy without a medical license.
Parcells says the issue boils down to a misunderstanding about what he does.
He acknowledged that he had been accused by the deputy coroner in Phelps County, Lenox Jones, of performing an autopsy on a homicide victim in August 2012. But Parcells argues that the work he did fell short of an autopsy. He described his work on the case as dissecting, or the removal of organs for examination.
“An autopsy is the diagnosis of the cause and manner of death; I’m not doing that,” he said.
He added that his photographs and specimens later were reviewed by Vandermark, who signed off on the work.
Parcells said Jones didn’t confront him until weeks after the fact. Jones could have simply pulled “me out of the room, and we could have discussed it right then and there,” he said.
Jones declined to comment. An official with the public defender’s office said they were checking into the allegation.
The nature of Parcells’ work spurred a 2011 complaint with the Missouri Board of Healing Arts by Pettis County Coroner Robert Smith. The case was closed in July 2012, and complaints are not made public.
Parcells said that he was vindicated by the board and that the complaint involved yet another misunderstanding regarding his dissecting work.
“I know I’m not doing anything wrong,” Parcells said. “If that had been the case, the board would have said something, but the board said, ‘You’re not doing anything wrong; we’re closing this, it’s ridiculous.’ ”
Smith said he had filed the complaint because he had seen Parcells doing an autopsy.
“What else would you call what he was doing?” he said. “It was just something that we were not going to stand for.”
Smith said he was never given an explanation about why the case was closed. The board declined to comment or even acknowledge that a complaint had been made.
Another official who has voiced similar concerns is Noah Mays, the former coroner of Gentry County, in northwestern Missouri. He said he used Parcells’ company for three years and at first was satisfied with the work. But last summer, Mays said, he and a sheriff’s deputy traveled to Topeka, with a corpse, an apparent suicide. Parcells had agreed to handle the autopsy, he said. They met Parcells at a facility he owns behind a funeral home, in the basement of an old carriage house.
Every other time Mays had attended an autopsy by Parcells’ company, a pathologist had been present. But not this time. Parcells was doing the work by himself, Mays said.
“We asked him multiple times ‘Is this cool? Is this kosher? What’s going on? Is this legal?’ and he says, ‘Oh yeah, I do it all the time; it’s fine.’ ”
The lingering controversy surrounding Parcells was a frequent topic of discussion at the Missouri coroners’ annual fall meeting last year and at the recent spring meeting, Mays and other coroners said.
“People were saying pretty much that he was just cutting them open, signing the paper, and the rest is your problem,” said Mays.
But Parcells argues that the coroners are rushing to judgment, failing to understand the nature of his work.
“Some of these coroners either don’t listen, don’t want to be educated or don’t want to really find out how this really works,” he said.
In addition to questions about Parcells’ work, some of Parcells’ statements concerning his qualifications also have come under fire. His résumé on LinkedIn and other websites lists extensive educational and professional training that Parcells admitted in a recent interview is not accurate.
For instance, a few months ago, his LinkedIn profile stated he had been a graduate student at the University of Florida for two years, but he acknowledges that he never attended a class there.
Currently, he lists New York Chiropractic College under his education, but he just finished his first trimester as an online student. He also lists himself as a professor at Wichita State University, but Jean Brickell, chair of medical technology there, said Parcells only assisted at a clinical site one time.
Parcells said he was not trying to misrepresent his education.
“I think like the University of Florida, for example, I had that on my LinkedIn page at the time because I was planning on starting, and then life got busy, and I never went back to my LinkedIn page to take it off,” he said. “It was an honest, human mistake.”
Also, Parcells lists the National Association of Medical Examiners and American Academy of Forensic Sciences under his organizations, but those groups say he is not a member.
Parcells uses the professional initials “FPA,” which he says stands for Forensic Pathologist Assistant, a designation he invented. “I’m trying to get that designation out there for pathologists’ assistants to be able to use,” he said.
Sarah Patterson, spokeswoman for the American Society for Clinical Pathology, says she has never heard of the FPA designation.
Patterson said a certification exists for a pathologists’ assistant — after completion of a master’s degree — but she said Parcells was not a member of their group, nor has he ever taken any classes through them.
Aside from his academic qualifications, Parcells says he has been certified as an expert witness by courts in Missouri, Texas and Georgia. He claims he has testified in about 15 criminal cases, including ones that dealt with child abuse and murder.
He cited his extensive work assisting on child autopsies over the years.
“We know a lot about injuries, mechanisms of injuries, I mean that’s what you do in forensics,” Parcells said.
But others, such as Dr. Gregory Schmunk, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, say Parcells has no standing as an expert.
“Mr. Parcells can get all the on-the-job training that he wants, but until he is properly certified, there is no way that he should be allowed to testify in any court in this land,” he said. “We cannot be sending people to prison for any period of time based upon the testimony of someone who has had on-the-job training.”
For now, with the questions surrounding Parcells, the list of coroners in Missouri using his services has dwindled to seven.
Dr. Vincent L. Shelby, a chiropractor and the coroner of Nodaway County, is among those who still praise Parcells.
“I’ve been really happy with the work he’s been doing for me,” Shelby said. “Any time I’ve ever been down there, it always involved a pathologist, and my reports get back to me in a timely fashion.”
Borel, the doctor who works with Parcells, said that critics had not fairly studied Parcells’ training and experience and that those who do not agree with his practices are expressing a difference of opinion about the proper protocol for an autopsy.
“It seems like some of these critics might not ever be satisfied with a scenario where a pathologist assistant did the prosection, and the pathologist of record would sign it,” he said.
For his part, Parcells says that he has made enemies throughout his career, but only because people resent his success and don’t give him credit for his experience.
“It is my love and passion, and God has given me a gift that I cannot give up, otherwise I would fail God, myself and my family,” he said.
A few days after the interview with the Post-Dispatch, Parcells and Borel announced a change in policy: Parcells would no longer do procedures without Borel in attendance.
“We have decided that I will be present at all autopsies gowned and gloved,” Borel said.