California

Insider Questions Lack of Oversight of Private Medical Examiners

Grieving families claim they are preyed upon by unlicensed companies and individuals offering autopsy services.

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Elyshia describes her 55-year old mother, Sheri, as kind and loving.

"She was strong," Nettleton says.

She says in 2018 her mom suddenly became sick and died unexpectedly in a hospital.

Nettleton wanted to know what caused her mother's sudden death and tried to get the coroner to do an autopsy.

"The coroner said no, (he) said if you want an autopsy done, then you can pay for a private one," she explained.

Elysha says she paid over $3,000. She then waited months for a report. When she read the report, she said it made no sense. The report stated that her mother's eyes were brown when they were blue.

It turns out that the person who did the autopsy appears not licensed to do autopsies, nor was he assisting a medical doctor as required by California state law.

Vidal Herrera, a former medical examiner with decades of experience in the field, runs 1-800-AUTOPSY, a private company.

He tells the NBC4 I-Team he has been complaining about unlicensed individuals doing autopsies for years.

"Nobody has really taken the time to really dig into it to see what's really happening," Herrera said.

He says many of these unscrupulous businesses advertise online.

"The worst part is how they basically taking advantage of families most vulnerable time when you need them," Herrera said.

Herrera says has called the California State Medical Board and complained about people he has encountered allegedly performing unlicensed private autopsies, including a former employee he says he fired after finding out he was performing autopsies without a licensed doctor present.

A spokesperson for the state Medical Board tells the I-Team in a statement: "If the board became aware of a forensic autopsy that was performed by a person who is not a physician and surgeon, it would investigate and possibly refer the matter to the local district attorney for prosecution as the unlicensed practice of medicine." The Medical Board could not tell us how many complaints or referrals they have handled that were specifically related to autopsies.

State senator and medical doctor Richard Pan (D - 6th District) helped pass the law requiring doctors to directly supervise autopsies.

He says he was surprised to hear the allegations of unlicensed autopsies. He told our NBC Bay Area I-Team that there is room for change.

"Given some of the findings that you described; it appears that perhaps there may need to be more protections," State Senator Pan said.

Herrea says he welcomes any effort to improve oversight because he says right now there is none.

Nettleton is one of several families in California who filed a civil lawsuit against the person who allegedly performed illegal autopsies. Their cases were recently settled for an undisclosed amount. She offers grieving families this advice:

"Make sure you actually have a person to person meeting and ask for all the credentials," she said. "I will never get the answers that I was looking for," she added.

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