Kansas man known for performing autopsies while inflating qualifications wants court to lift order keeping him away from corpses so he can give families answers during pandemic
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TOPEKA — Shawn Parcells, the Kansas man accused of exaggerating nonexistent medical credentials to perform autopsies and swindle bereaved families, regards the body count amassed by COVID-19 as an opportunity to resume operations.
The way Parcells sees it, he would be doing a public service in a time of crisis by testing corpses for the coronavirus and providing closure for families who wonder if the virus is responsible for the death of loved ones. Parcells has asked a judge in Wabaunsee County District Court, where he faces criminal charges for desecration of bodies, to remove a bond condition that effectively precludes him from getting anywhere near a cadaver.
Parcells outlined the prospect of taking tissue samples in emails to his attorney. His assertion — refuted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — is that health officials will be too overwhelmed by treating COVID-19 patients to handle postmortem testing.
"I plan to order and have on hand test kits should I get called into action by a family or public health official," Parcells said. "With my current consulting practice, I can still get swabs collected without doing an autopsy and conclude COVID-19 as the cause of death."
KDHE and county health officials in Kansas have attributed 10 deaths to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 400 Kansas residents. They expect the crisis to escalate in the coming weeks, stressing the health care system.
Kristi Zears, a spokeswoman for KDHE, said those who take samples need to be trained medical professionals.
"Kansas currently has the professional capacity to handle the need," Zears said. "Shawn Parcells’ services are not needed."
The Kansas Attorney General’s Office last year filed the criminal complaint in Wabaunsee County, as well as a civil lawsuit against Parcells in Shawnee County. Affidavits in those cases detail the activities of a hustler who inflates credentials and leads public officials and private customers to believe a real medical examiner performs examinations for which they are billed.
When The Topeka Capital-Journal raised questions about Parcells’ qualifications, he coached Topeka attorney Erik Kjorlie on how to respond. Kjorlie forwarded the correspondence, in which Parcells asked his attorney to clarify that he was willing to volunteer services with no pay in order to provide relief to people seeking answers in the wake of a deadly pandemic.
"Maybe that will help them understand I am not looking at this to start up a business and go out and take advantage of people," Parcells wrote. "They will paint the picture as such, and that is something I don't want them to do. From the start, I want them to know why I want to do this."
Pattern of deceit
Before landing in legal trouble, Parcells performed autopsy work under a dozen different company names for coroner's offices in Kansas and Missouri, including Shawnee County.
He also advertised his services online and on social media. In June 2017, Parcells posted a video of a heart removal on his Twitter account.
He landed jobs from clients around the country who wanted him to discover causes of death. According to the civil lawsuit, he sometimes simply looked at bodies at a funeral home. Several individuals reported paying him up to $3,000 and never receiving an autopsy report. In some instances, clients thought he was merely a representative for a company that employed qualified medical examiners.
"Based on our investigation, Parcells developed a pattern and practice of not having a pathologist present at the time of the autopsies and naming a pathologist on the autopsy reports to make them appear authentic," said Amanda Crutchfield, an investigator for the A.G.’s office, in affidavit to support the civil case.
Parcells habitually used formal-sounding titles that have no distinction, falsely claimed to be a professor and attached to his name misleading abbreviations that mimic medical degrees. His recent emails describe himself as a clinical forensic anatomist, clinical forensic epidemiologist and an infection disease specialist. He has no medical degree of any kind.
In court documents and responses to questions posed to his attorney, Parcells says he is qualified to test for COVID-19 because he has read Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on postmortem operations and participated in a University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center one-credit-hour online session for "COVID-19 Clinical Rounds: Lifesaving Treatment and Operations." He also points to training for communicable diseases made available through KDHE’s website.
Parcells continues to claim he is pursuing a "public health" degree at Capella University, an online institution that told the A.G.’s office he stopped taking classes years ago.
In Wabaunsee County, the coroner, sheriff and commissioners all thought an actual doctor was present — as required by Kansas law — for the 14 autopsies Parcells performed for the coroner between 2012-2015. He billed the county $16,560 for those services, including a $200 bill for a toxicology report that didn’t exist.
All of the Wabaunsee County autopsies directed to Parcells involved criminal justice proceedings for which he was to determine the exact cause and manner of death, collect evidence and reconstruct the manner of death. In an interview with Thomas Williams, a special agent with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, Parcells said he only promised to "try" to have a pathologist present, and admitted he didn’t always have one.
One of the cases involved a side proposition with a family that paid Parcells to extract a cadaver’s brain and ship it to Florida for research.
The A.G.’s office pursued charges of theft and body desecration for three of the Wabaunsee County cases, one of which involves a 19-month-old toddler.
The civil lawsuit asks for restitution and fines for all 14 of the autopsies performed for Wabaunsee County, as well as complaints made under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act.
"Our office has received at least seven new consumer complaints, and they continue to come in," Crutchfield said in a March 2019 affidavit. "The complaints are related to hiring Parcells to do autopsies and to get answers regarding malpractice lawsuits, suspecting foul play, something criminal, or the family just wanting to know what happened to their loved one. As a result of Parcells' actions, these families have missed the opportunity to have a qualified pathologist do an autopsy and give them the answers they may be seeking."
Parcells landed national notoriety in 2014 when he appeared on cable TV shows as an expert who examined the body of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Mo., man whose August killing by a police officer became a flashpoint in civil rights discourse.
A damning CNN report in November of that year called attention to concerns with the supposed expert’s degrees and credentials. Parcells claimed on his LinkedIn page to be an adjunct professor at Washburn University, but the university told CNN he had never been a member of the faculty. Police in Missouri said Parcells had misrepresented himself as a doctor.
Last year, KCTV-5 reported on families who said Parcells had taken their money but never performed the work he promised. The report uncovered a text message in which Parcells offered to pay somebody $1,000 per week in exchange for not participating in the Kansas attorney general’s investigation.
He defended his inflated credentials in an interview for the story.
"I tell people all the time I almost became a neurosurgeon," Parcells told the TV station. "That doesn’t mean I’m a doctor. That doesn’t mean that I was in medical school. I really did almost do that."
The broadcast provided a sweeping view of Parcells’ Topeka workspace, which along with a jumbo-size drink became fodder for mockery in an episode of HBO’s "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" that aired in May.
"What jumps out at me the most about Shawn's tricked-out death hutch," Oliver said, "isn't the single Glade plug-in, or the name ’Shawn’ surrounded by green hearts on the whiteboard or the Tupperware containers of baked ziti and/or human remains, or the ominous presence of what appears to be a spray bottle of Scrubbing Bubbles Multi Surface Bathroom Cleaner, or the absolutely sick Lab of Nerds poster, or the even sicker Albert Einstein poster opposite the room temperature cadaver, or the desktop skull, or the unfolded beach towel, or even the wall-to-wall carpeting.
"No, what gets me is that even within a grifter's back-alley autopsy shanty the most objectionable item on display there is somehow that absolutely enormous soda."
A.G. plays hardball
Parcells explained to his attorney in an email Tuesday that he "can honestly do tissue recovery services if I wanted to" right now in Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska because those states don’t require pathologists to be present.
Still, Parcells wrote, if he could just lift the court orders blocking him from work in Kansas, he could employ his services without restraints.
"I have now received two calls from families in New York wanting their loved one who has passed and it was mentioned they might have COVID-19, but no confirmation was given," Parcells said. "Both families called the NYC medical examiners office, and told them they are not doing suspected COVID-19 autopsy cases, however the ME gave them my number and said you are more than welcome to get a private autopsy done."
"All I can offer," he lamented, "is doing a swab like you do when the patient is alive."
The Kansas Attorney General’s Office opposes the motion to let Parcells resume work, arguing in a court filing he would put the public at risk.
Additionally, Parcells twice has been held in contempt of court and fined — most recently on March 10 — for failing to turn over the tissue samples he collected while in business.
Kjorlie, the Topeka attorney who represents Parcells, told his client the A.G.’s office was simply playing "hardball."
Responding to questions for this story, Kjorlie said "the takeaway is that an overwhelmed pathology/public health department in the current battle might well appreciate a trained individual in the field of tissue recovery/gross autopsy services assistance if they determine that they are in fact overwhelmed."
Parcells said he wanted to assist KDHE secretary Lee Norman with contract tracing for victims of COVID-19.
"We need help with this, and our health care is going to get stressed," Parcells said. "Just wait — it isn't bad now but it will be."