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SEEKING ANSWERS
Seeking answers, Cerro Gordo family unravels web of autopsy fraud allegations
  • Updated
  • 6 min to read

The Ochoa family was still reeling from the Christmastime loss of its patriarch when members found themselves entangled in a scandal involving the man they trusted to tell them why Mario Ochoa Sr. had died.

In early December 2018, Mario Ochoa Sr. was hospitalized with an infection. Four days into his stay, Mario’s health took a fatal turn. The 68-year-old husband to Jean and father to Mario Jr., Andrea, Jessica, and Erica died on Dec. 19.

Lisa Grouette / LISA GROUETTE Globe Gazette 

The Ochoa siblings hold a photo album containing pictures of their family and late father Mario Ochoa Sr.

The family hired a private company to conduct an autopsy. But when communication with the examiner hired to perform Mario’s autopsy fell off, the Ochoa siblings turned to the internet for help.

“I started emailing him and never got a (reply), never got returned phone calls, I left messages,” Mario’s daughter Jessica Read said. “We just kind of got ghosted,” daughter Erica Ochoa added.

“That’s when Erica kind of took over and started doing some investigating on her own,” Jessica said.

The family quickly discovered the examiner, “Professor Lynn” Shawn Lynn Parcells with National Autopsy Services out of Kansas, wasn’t who he said he was.

The more the Ochoas dug, the more stories they uncovered. Through their research, they were connected with Illinois attorney Craig Sandberg, who took on the family’s case. Alongside the Ochoas’ suit, Sandberg is handling lawsuits against Parcells and National Autopsy Services for five other families in California, Tennessee, and Michigan.

The sheer number of other complaints against “Professor Lynn” left the family wondering: How could this man get away with allegedly defrauding so many people without being caught?

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

On Dec. 2, 2018, Mario Ochoa Sr. was admitted to MercyOne North Iowa Medical Center for treatment of an infection for which antibiotics didn’t seem to be working.

Later that week, a MercyOne employee gave Mario an injection of the medication Haldol Decanoate. The drug, which was prescribed to Mario for its sedative properties, was ordered to be given by intravenous drip, as an injection into the muscular tissue can produce blood clots and life-threatening side effects.

Within hours of receiving the injection, Mario began to show stroke-like symptoms, slumping to one side and unable to follow commands. His condition deteriorated to the point that he was moved to the intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator. Mario’s condition never improved, leaving the family with the difficult task of seeking end-of-life care for him at MercyOne Hospice. Six days before Christmas, Mario Ochoa died.

The family has since named MercyOne in a malpractice lawsuit filed by Iowa-based attorney Brian Galligan. A spokesperson for MercyOne said the organization had no comment on the matter. A jury trial is not slated to begin until March of 2023.

Following Mario’s death, the family said they immediately requested an autopsy. Unable to have an examination completed at the hospital, they reached out to an attorney who recommended they contact Kansas-based private examiner “Professor Lynn,” who operated National Autopsy Services.

Lynn collected a fee of $3,300 from the Ochoas and traveled to Clear Lake to perform an exam on Mario’s body, promising the family delivery of a completed report within 90 to 120 days. When the deadline passed and the Ochoas were unable to reach Lynn or anyone with National Autopsy Services, Erica began digging into Professor Lynn’s history.

One of the first things she found was that there was no real “Professor Lynn.” Rather, the moniker belonged to a man named Shawn Lynn Parcells, who is not a professor, but who’d simply given himself that title. Erica and Jessica both said the first they’d heard the name Shawn Parcells was after Erica began looking into the autopsy service.

Along with the professional pseudonym, Erica also found a host of complaints against Parcells and his company.

Parcells, who is not a licensed medical practitioner, is able to legally perform exams and tissue extractions in many states, including Iowa, but is required by most states to be under the direct supervision of a licensed pathologist. According to the Ochoas’ lawsuit, Parcells sidestepped the state’s requirement and completed the examination and tissue extraction on Mario’s body on his own at a local funeral home.

Estate of Mario Ochoa Sr. lawsuit

ON THE RADAR

The employment of private pathology services is not uncommon. Such services can be used in criminal investigations, as well as by families who are seeking a neutral opinion after a loved one dies under questionable circumstances. Private pathologists are also contracted by state and local governments that may not have access to timely autopsy services due to budget cuts or staff shortages.

Cristina Fletes-Boutte, St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

Shawn Parcells discusses the results of the independent autopsy of Michael Brown during a 2014 press conference at Greater St. Mark's Family Church in Ferguson.

Parcells’ work had been in the viewfinder of skeptical peers for some time. In a 2013 article, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed a number of accounts in which Parcells is said to have engaged in fraudulent practices, including forging a doctor’s signature on a medical report that was to have been used in one court case, and misrepresenting a doctor’s participation in an exam, forcing prosecutors to drop charges against a murder suspect.

In 2014, Parcells vaulted into public view nationwide when he assisted in the autopsy of Michael Brown, a Black man whose killing by police in Ferguson, Missouri, incited a period of heavy protesting and social unrest. A few months later, CNN reported a number of inaccuracies in Parcells’ purported background and gave the account of a widow who claimed to have been scammed after paying for autopsy services for her husband.

According to research of court records done by the Globe Gazette, Parcells’ career dates back to 1996, when he began a seven-year stint as assistant in the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office in Missouri. He started his own pathology company in 2009, and worked until spring of 2019 when the evidence uncovered in an investigation into Parcells’ business prompted the Kansas Attorney General to issue an order immediately the halting company’s operations.

An investigation in 2017 conducted by the Kansas AG’s Consumer Protection Division links Parcells to over a dozen fraudulent acts, including collecting over $16,000 in fees from Wabaunsee County for services he didn’t have the authority to provide. Additional criminal charges filed against Parcells by the state of Kansas include felony theft and felony desecration of a body.

NOW A FEDERAL CASE

Neither the Kansas attorney general nor the FBI, to whom the Kansas AG referred the Globe Gazette for questions, would answer questions about how Parcells came under federal scrutiny. But in November 2020, he was indicted on federal charges. Prosecutors say Parcells defrauded 350 victims from all over the United States who paid him for unfulfilled, incomplete, or illegally performed autopsies between 2016 and 2019, all while collecting over $1 million in fees.

Susan Weich St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

Shawn Parcells describes his organ-logging process at his morgue in Topeka, Kansas, in this undated photo.

News media has highlighted Parcells’ unorthodox handling of autopsies. A Kansas City television station video from 2019, in which Parcells invited a reporter to tour his lab, shows a cluttered workspace with clusters of plastic containers apparently containing human remains sitting out, unrefrigerated. In the video, the cameraperson was asked not to film an unrefrigerated, uncovered body that was pushed off to one side of the lab.

CNN reported in 2014 that after a widow implied in a lawsuit that Parcells had lost or destroyed the brain of her husband, Parcells brought a bucket containing an organ to a deposition and showed it to the woman’s attorney as proof the brain was still in his possession.

With licensure requirements and protocols varying by state, the world of forensics and pathology goes largely unregulated. While there is accreditation available through the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Pathology, neither organization provides consumer-protecting oversight. Rather, they serve most generally as resources for licensed individuals, who must adhere to a set of ethics and standards in order to maintain their status with the respective institutes.

According to the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office, the practice of performing an autopsy in Iowa is not regulated by any state-sanctioned governing body.

A Centers for Disease Control Public Health Law publication lists the state of Kansas as having no designated medical examiner at all, resigning its individual counties to establish their own offices, or to rely on private practices like Parcells’ to handle autopsies and related services.

Parcells is slated to next appear in federal court for a case status update in June.

CARRYING ON

Though the criminal and civil charges have piled up against Parcells, many affected families are still left with no idea where the tissues and organs of their loved ones are, nor answers as to what caused their deaths.

The Ochoas are still grieving the loss of Mario, and are still shaken by their experience with Parcells.

“Finding out the stuff that I did (about Parcells), I had trouble with that,” Erica said. “It left me with stuff that I can’t talk about.

“My mom -- this is very, very difficult for her -- she can’t even think about it,” Erica said.

“It brings up the feeling of when she lost her husband,” Jessica added. “That’s kind of why Erica has kind of taken charge; she knows our mother is not going to. [Erica’s] definitely put in the work, and we all appreciate that, because -- it’s a lot.”

Parcells federal indictment

Local
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Sen. Joni Ernst tours Cerro Gordo County hemp farm
  • Updated

Throughout their talk with Sen. Joni Ernst at their Cerro Gordo County farm on Tuesday afternoon, Greg Nicholas Sr. and Greg Nicholas Jr. wanted to convey one central point to her: Hemp has a future in Iowa and they want to be a part of its growth.

Jared McNett / Jared McNett Globe Gazette  

Senator Joni Ernst handles hemp at the Cerro Gordo County farm of Greg Nicholas on Tuesday afternoon. Ernst said she was there to listen and see what the federal government could do with a future farm bill to spur hemp production in the state.

"I think the potential is limitless but we need a little bit of help getting there," Nicholas Sr. said. 

What Ernst then said she wanted to know is just how the federal government could provide some help in reaching that destination.

One realm where the elder Nicholas Sr. said Congress could be helpful is getting the USDA to slightly shift its focus from how hemp starts off to how it ends up. 

"Instead of the USDA cracking down on farmers, they need to crack down on the processors," he said. 

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed a farm bill that allowed farmers to grow hemp under USDA and state supervision. Along with being turned into fiber for paper, rope and even concrete, the plant can also be processed into various CBD oils which can be consumed by people, Nicholas Jr. said.

LISA GROUETTE - Globe Gazette 

Sen. Joni Ernst looks at a hemp flower left behind after cultivating a hemp harvest at the Nicholas hemp farm in rural Mason City on Tuesday.

"When we were looking at legalizing this crop, I had no idea about all of the uses of this material," Ernst told the Nicholas family. 

The younger Nicholas also tried to emphasize to Ernst that upping the limit of THC (which can work as a psychoactive in higher levels in cannabis) for crops that farmers produce helps them clear a major obstacle as well. 

An article from Forbes in January noted that effective March 22, producers could "grow a crop which can produce a THC limit of 1%, up from the previous 0.5% before the crop was destroyed." They then reported that the harvest window moved from 15 days out to 30 days. "Prior to the rule, any farmer which grew the crop above 0.5% would be charged with negligent violation," Jordan Strickler wrote. 

Nicholas Sr. said that testing and verifying those limits on what he and his son grow is stressful. "Our testing results were not the same as the state," he said. 

LISA GROUETTE - Globe Gazette 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) talks with hemp growers Greg Sr. and Greg Jr. Nicholas at their farm in rural Mason City on Tuesday.

Ernst suggested that such bumpy spots in the current law could be smoothed out by a future bipartisan bill, perhaps the 2023 Farm Bill.

Despite such present impediments, Nicholas Jr. said he sees hemp eventually becoming the third crop in a rotation for farmers (along with corn and soybeans).

"(It) puts back nutrients and enzymes and life back into soil," he said to Ernst. 

Afterword

Once the tour concluded, Ernst took questions from press in attendance about a variety of subjects. 

The prior Tuesday, the Cerro Gordo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved plans to create a separate fund for about $8.23 million in funding from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act. Ernst said that she had heard from several counties that they are unsure of how to spend such money.

"If it’s something they weren’t planning on budgeting for, previously, is it money that the federal government is just sending out to those that don’t need it," Ernst said. "(With) money going to the counties, they’ll have to figure out how to spend money within the rules."

LISA GROUETTE - Globe Gazette 

Senator Joni Ernst visits the Cerro Gordo County farm of Greg Nicholas on Tuesday afternoon. 

In the coming years, Cerro Gordo County is anticipating construction for $2.5 billion transmission line that will run wind-generated energy from outside of Mason City to the Chicago area. Ernst said that she supports the wind sector but wouldn't want to see one energy source favored over another in something such as the the Clean Energy Initiative that President Joe Biden has said could create as many as 10 million jobs. 

"I really am an all-of-the-above energy gal. We want to keep energy costs as low as possible for our consumers and Iowa has a very diversified portfolio of energy. Yes it is something I would consider but, again, all of the above," Ernst said. "We shouldn’t cut one industry out and force movement to another. If people choose to go the route of the renewables, that’s really great. We can do that. We can be supportive. But we can also be supportive of things like the renewable fuel standard and the internal combustion engine." 

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Govt-and-politics
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CERRO GORDO supervisors
CERRO GORDO BOARD
Cerro Gordo adds property to conservation area, looks to wind down mass vaccination clinic in June
  • Updated

Cerro Gordo County Conservation's land area just got a little bigger on Tuesday morning. 

At the weekly Cerro Gordo County Board of Supervisors meeting, the three-member panel unanimously approved plans to add property in Meservey and Swaledale to use as parking areas/access points for the Prairie Land Trail which is a 21-mile "recreational corridor" running from Apple Avenue Southwest of Meservey to Nettle Ave Southwest of Mason City (according to the MyCountyParks website).

Director of Cerro Gordo County Conservation Mike Webb told County Supervisors Casey Callanan, Tim Latham and Chris Watts that the land comes via a donation from resident Sue Behr.

"She graciously donated us two properties we can use as parking areas," he said.

According to Webb, the donations would not only provide County Conservation with new parking areas for the Prairie Land Trail but would allow them to work with the Iowa Department of Transportation to get signage pointing people toward the route.

"This’ll be a great addition to park along," Latham said after the item passed before Watts then added: "This will be a very nice addition to the trail."

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

The southern end of the existing Prairie Land Trail at 190th street south of Mason City. A project from the Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board will extend the trail two miles to the south to 170th Street.

Construction in the cards?

While that's more immediate, one plan the supervisors heard from the County Engineering Department is more tentative and open-ended.

Engineer Brandon Billings discussed with the County Board the importance of having projects good to go in case a federal infrastructure bill passes anytime soon.

"There’s going to be money available," Billings said. "Extra money available to those with shovel-ready projects."

Jared McNett / Jared McNett, Globe Gazette  

Cerro Gordo County Board of Supervisors

With that possibility, Billings pitched the County Board on hiring local firm WHKS to design several of the potential projects.

According to Billings, one of those would be to improve a bridge on County Road B30 that was built in 1955 and sees average daily traffic of about 2800 people. Another would address a bridge on Wren Avenue over the Winnebago River that sees significantly less traffic but was built in 1935.

WHKS President Fouad Daoud said that he worked closely with Billings to select the projects that made the most sense for such a tentative plan. "Brandon is being proactive along with you to have them shovel-ready so that when funding is available they’re ready to go," he said.

The plans were ultimately tabled for at least a week for further consideration but Daoud did explain to Callanan that even if a federal bill doesn't pass such a plan could still be acted on. "If there’s money available or you receive any grants, the plans will be ready to let," Daoud said.

Lisa Grouette / LISA GROUETTE, Globe Gazette 

CG Public Health has opened a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the former Sears department store location in Southport shopping center on South Federal Avenue in Mason City.

Public Health

Clinical settings are the focus now for Cerro Gordo County Public Health's COVID-19 vaccination plan, according to Director Brian Hanft. 

At the meeting, Hanft said that clinic conversations with patients is likely the way to further protection at a county level. As of the week of May 3, Cerro Gordo has seen 14,631 completions of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccination schedule, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health's Coronavirus website.

In anticipation of the shift, Hanft told the County Board that his department is setting up its last vaccinations at the mass clinic on South Federal Avenue now and plans to be out of the former Sears building by the middle of June.

"We have a demobilization plan," he said.

That being the case, Watts asked Hanft if the Department of Public Health is informing people where they can schedule going forward. "People who want to come in (there) for their primary dose can do that, we’re just going to schedule them somewhere else to get their second dose," Hanft said.

What a Globe Gazette News+ membership can do for you:

  • A deeper examination of local issues than you'll find anywhere else.
  • Two products in one – not everything that's in the print edition of the Globe Gazette is on our website, and not everything on our website is in the print edition.
  • Access to newspapers.com archives dating back two years.
  • The ability to carry your local news with you and receive alerts instantly as news unfolds.
  • Advertising that frequently gets you deals you won't find anywhere else.

You can join here (https://bit.ly/2PtWJs1) for as little as $5 a month.


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