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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”