Crime

Local pathology assistant Shawn Parcells is at the heart of the Ferguson storm

Shawn Parcells, owner of an Overland Park autopsy service, assisted in the second Michael Brown autopsy.
Shawn Parcells, owner of an Overland Park autopsy service, assisted in the second Michael Brown autopsy. The Kansas City Star

Shawn Parcells has been at the eye of a hurricane since Aug. 18.

His phone rings nonstop as cable news reporters from across the nation compete for his professional perspective on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Parcells — who is not a doctor but owns an Overland Park autopsy service — assisted in Brown’s private autopsy Aug. 17 and spoke at length at the nationally televised news conference the following day.

Since then, he has become one of the very few people at the heart of the Ferguson story willing to pick up the phone when a reporter calls.

Case in point: Parcells, 35, interrupted a recent conversation four times to speak with cable news producers, each hoping to push him beyond the information that he and Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner for New York City, provided at the news conference.

The hottest topic that afternoon?

Ballistics.

“Was it hollow point (ammunition)? I don’t know,” he said after hanging up. “It’s always been the same question asked 100 different ways. I’ve been giving the same answers we gave last week.”

Lawyers representing Brown’s parents asked Baden and Parcells, owner of National Forensic Autopsy & Tissue Recovery Services, to perform a second autopsy after St. Louis County performed the initial examination.

Baden determined that Brown died after being shot six times, including a fatal shot to the skull. The shots did not appear to have been fired at close range, but Baden and Parcells did not have Brown’s clothing available to examine for gunshot residue.

“In the Michael Brown case, the main reason we were there was to answer two questions: How many times was he shot and did he suffer,” Parcells said. “We said he was shot six times, and he did not suffer.”

There’s some vindication in all this for Parcells, though he shies away from describing it that way. Last year was devastating for his business, which provided medical examiner services for county coroners in Missouri.

A stern St. Louis Post-Dispatch article in May 2013 questioned whether he had performed autopsies without a medical license and had inflated his professional qualifications.

But being paired with one of the top pathologists on the planet to work one of the highest-profile cases of the year has given Parcells reason to hope.

“I feel a sense of accomplishment in that I was able to help this family and, of course, work with Dr. Baden,” Parcells said. “My business is still recovering. I do feel like I’ve bounced back some.”

Earnest and intense, Parcells will tell anyone who asks that he is not a physician. His highest degree is a 2003 bachelor’s degree in life sciences from Kansas State University. And his qualifications for assisting at autopsies come from occasional classes, internships, observation and on-the-job training.

A 1998 graduate of Topeka West High School, he was a kid who would rather shadow a coroner than play sports. One of his prized possessions from that year is a framed pair of photos showing him and Baden together at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The photos are inscribed: “Shawn: Thanks for your help. Michael Baden”

Hoping to fill a need in outstate Missouri counties that did not have professional medical examiners, Parcells said, he founded his pathology business, teaming with licensed doctors who did the professional work while he assisted.

Though an autopsy business might seem unorthodox, it’s not that unusual. Parcells noted that he competes with a California firm — 1-800-AUTOPSY — that has offered franchise opportunities throughout the country.

Parcells said his work was well within the law, but before long some of Missouri’s coroners and medical examiners raised alarms that he was performing autopsies himself, rather than just assisting.

The most prominent voice in the Post-Dispatch article was a giant among the state’s forensic pathologists, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case.

“It’s very bad for our state if there’s someone doing autopsies without a medical license,” Case said in the article. “This is a huge atrocity, an invitation to disaster, and it needs to stop.”

Parcells said he always worked with a qualified physician.

Matthias Okoye, a Nebraska forensic pathologist who has worked with Parcells, is quick to his defense. He said Parcells is more qualified than many hospital pathology assistants and provides a good service to the physicians with whom he works.

“Shawn Parcells is qualified to do what he does,” Okoye said. “I think he does a good job.”

The consequences of the article were immediate, Parcells said.

Missouri counties began refusing to work with him, and within weeks he had filed for bankruptcy, showing $60,568 in assets against about $428,000 in liabilities. Other lawsuits piled up as well.

His Missouri caseload dropped from about 200 a year to about 40, he said.

Parcells said he spent a year after the article looking beyond Missouri and Kansas for unmet autopsy needs. He also enjoyed working on a very small sideline: performing weddings with a Christian ministry called The God Squad: Ministers in a Minute.

Ken Zelten, who runs the ministry, said it provides ministers for weddings and christenings if a couple are not already served by clergy.

Parcells is good at it, Zelten said.

“He’s a great public speaker, and he comes across well,” Zelten said. “He’s very dedicated to our couples and our ministry.”

Parcells said his work on the Brown case has him thinking, more than ever, about the future. He said he now is pondering going back to school for a master’s degree or perhaps enrolling in medical school.

“I need to get more credentials,” he said. “I love forensics and helping families. I’m OK with going to the next level.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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