In some cases, a private autopsy can provide a family with answers about a loved one’s death — for example, if medical malpractice is suspected or if someone dies at the hands of the police.
As a result, more and more people are turning to private-autopsy companies, a service that can cost thousands of dollars.
Reverend Anthony Martin, 71, paid for a private autopsy after the death of his wife. Martin was only 16 when he met Betty, who died in 2018. They were married for more than 40 years and have four children.
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Even though Betty had a history of heart issues, her passing at their family home in North Carolina was unexpected, Martin told NBC 7 Investigates.
“She was laying on the couch and she was doing extremely well, and the next day she was dead,” Martin said.
Martin wanted to know more about the circumstances around her death, but medical examiners and coroners only do autopsies when a death is suspicious. So his children helped him find a private autopsy company online.
In August 2018, he hired the San Diego-based National Autopsy Experts (NAE) for their advertised “expert” autopsy and toxicology services. He paid them $4,600 and said that, not only was an autopsy never conducted, the company told him tissue samples had been sent to the Mayo Clinic for testing when that wasn’t true.
“I was already grieving, and then to go through all of these other things,” Martin said.
Martin eventually hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit against the company and its owner, Julia McGrath.
The case went to trial last month in San Diego. The jury rendered a verdict of more than $8,000 for breach of contract, the amount Martin paid NAE and the company that exhumed his wife’s body. The case has not been finalized.
McGrath’s attorney sent NBC 7 Investigates a statement, saying in part, “NAE has always been honest and forthcoming in explaining to the plaintiff that the board-certified forensic pathologist contracted and assigned to the case was unable to determine a cause of death.”
The attorney said McGrath offered Martin a full refund before he filed his lawsuit. Martin’s attorney said the offer was made after he had been hired, so Martin did not accept, because he also wanted to recoup the legal fees he had already paid.
Martin never got the answers he was hoping for.
“It was very very stressful," Martin said. "It will never be the same. It will never be the same."
More Families Left Looking for Answers
When Natasha Robinson’s newborn son passed away in Oakland in 2018, she had questions for the hospital.
“I held his finger. He squeezed my finger, and it was just perfect,” Robinson said. “Everything that I was told, I feel like they lied to me. We were told he was OK, and then all of a sudden, things changed, and we didn’t know what happened.”
Robinson’s suspicions grew and she said she “got a bad vibe from the doctor.”
Robinson wanted a second opinion and contacted National Autopsy Services, which is based in Kansas. The company, which is not related to NAE, is owned by a man named Shawn Parcells.
Robinson read on his website that the company consisted of “unbiased experts” who give families an opportunity to “learn what happened to their loved one.” She paid $2,600 and National Autopsy Services sent someone to examine her son’s body. That was three years ago. She said that she’s heard nothing since.
Robinson learned the exam wasn’t performed by a licensed doctor as required by state law in California; Robinson said the person who did the exam was an assistant.
Elysha Nettleton, whose 55-year-old mother suddenly died in a hospital, also hired National Autopsy Services.
“The coroner said ‘no,’ " Nettleton said. "He said if you want an autopsy done, then you can pay for one."
Nettleton said the report she received from Parcell’s company was filled with errors.
For example, “I knew that her eye color was blue, and he put that it was brown,” Nettleton said.
Robinson and Nettleton are suing National Autopsy Services, arguing that it “negligently failed to retain a licensed physician.”
Practitioner Calls for Industry Oversight
Vidal Herrera has been in the private autopsy business for 33 years.
“It’s about time that somebody exposes this,” Herrera said.
Herrera said he witnessed firsthand the lack of oversight of his industry. This year, he found out one of his assistants was doing autopsies without a license for other companies.
“I told him, ‘You're going to get in trouble. And I know you're working for this company and this is going to catch up to you,’ ” Herrera said.
Herrera said he reported the assistant to an investigator with the California Medical Board but doesn’t know if anyone followed up. The board wouldn’t confirm to NBC 7 that an investigation was underway, either, but a representative said they can fine unlicensed examiners and forward cases to the district attorney's office.
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Parcells’ attorneys, but no one returned requests for comment. Federal prosecutors have indicted Parcells, alleging that he took money from at least 375 clients totaling more than $1 million. In court documents, the company denied the allegations and he has pleaded not guilty to those charges and is awaiting trial. He’s prohibited from operating in Kansas, where he’s based.
California State Senator Richard Pan, who represents the Sacramento region, is concerned about the private autopsy industry as a whole. In 2016, he helped pass a law clarifying that only licensed doctors can conduct autopsies. He said even more enforcement may be needed.
“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 we need additional laws?”
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