Grieving families disturbed by no regulation of private autopsies

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by BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV

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wfaa.com

Posted on November 25, 2009 at 11:01 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 11:40 AM

It is the stuff of prime time television - a medical examiner determines the cause of a crime victim's death with an autopsy.

That only happens in criminal cases, however. 

The growing business of private autopsies promises to analyze death in non-criminal cases. But it can be a gruesome example of what can happen when no one's watching.

That's what Jay Stallons found out.

When his father, Jim Stallons, suddenly died in four short hours last year, Stallons said he wanted to know why. At a cost of more than $2,300, he hired Autopsy Associates of North Texas to perform a private autopsy.

"Something there is not right," Stallions said.

The autopsy report, he said, took weeks to complete and contained little medical information.

J.R. Daniels had a similar disappointment when his mother died and he hired Autopsy Associates of North Texas. He and his father paid more than $2,000 for a private autopsy.

"The biggest question was: How did she die? Why did she die?" Daniels asked. "And that question was never answered."

In the case of Allen Prior's death, his family knew why he died.  Prior had been in cancer treatment for months. His wife, Pat Prior, wanted to know if he had hereditary conditions that he could have passed on to his children.

So, she paid Autopsy Associates of North Texas more than $3,500 for an autopsy on her husband.

Prior is a registered nurse who has witnessed autopsies and knows what the procedure is supposed to accomplish. But when her husband's autopsy report arrived, she thought it was the wrong one.

It never even mentioned the tumor in his stomach, the hemorrhage he suffered as a result, and the fact that he died of both.

"I had paid $3,550 for this autopsy and what I got was a worthless piece of paper," Pat Prior said.

William DarbyWilliam Darby owns and runs Autopsy Associates of North Texas, which has no address save a post office box in Denton. Darby describes himself as an "autopsy technician." His brochure says his firm is "helping families to find answers," and that its exams are performed by "a medical doctor specializing in pathology."

What many families contacted by News 8 learned is that no agency polices the field.

By tracing records through the Texas Open Records Act, News 8 found Autopsy Associates of North Texas has performed scores of autopsies in the area.

News 8 obtained six actual autopsy reports produced  by Autopsy Associates of North Texas and talked to several other families who had used the firm.  All said the autopsies were inadequate.

The adequacy of an autopsy, however, is difficult to judge. Most medical doctors are unfamiliar with interpreting them and virtually any physician can perform one.

"You're supposed to have a medical license to do an autopsy, but beyond that, you don't' have to be a pathologist," said Art Caplan, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. 

But many families seeking autopsies for loved ones don't know that.

"There should be some regulation, some way to give you a scale," Daniels said. "Are these people legitimate? Do they really know what they're doing? Because they're holding a family's life in their hands."

Autopsy Associates of North Texas has done much of its work in a back room at the Denton Regional Medical Center. Last summer, the hospital told News 8  it rented William Darby the back room  on a "per job" basis. Denton Regional would not return several phone calls about its current relationship with Darby. 

Darby also rents space at funeral homes to conduct his work. The subject's brain is removed during an autopsy and placed in a fixative for several days for further analysis. Since Darby rents autopsy space for a few hours at a time, it isn't clear where the company conducts the procedures.

Darby didn't return phone calls and referred News 8 to his attorney, who declined to answer written questions.

All the autopsies News 8 obtained from Darby's company bear the signature of Dr. Juan Luis Zamora, forensic pathologist. The Texas Medical Board said Zamora obtained his medical degree from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, with additional training at the University of North Carolina and UT Southwestern.

Zamora did not return phone calls.

Allen Prior's autopsy bears Zamora's signature, but Mrs. Prior said he appears to have missed a lot in the procedure.

The report notes a scar on Prior's knee, but not the fact that he had an artificial knee. The report also notes a scar on Prior's upper chest, but not the fact that he had a heart pacemaker. 

Mrs. Prior finds this incredible because "just looking at the body, you would be able to see it." 

Mrs. Prior said she never received the pacemaker or the knee, despite promises from Autopsy Associates of North Texas. She has no morbid interest in having the devices -- she simply wants to know they were not sold, because both have value.

Caplan, who chairs a United Nations committee on trade in body parts, said the entire process of private autopsies needs to be tightened.

"We should go to the places that do private autopsies from the health department or even the medical examiners' offices and say, 'I want to see the body you're working on. I want to see the parts. I want to see what you're doing,'"  Caplan said.

Caplan is also concerned about what can happen to human tissue removed from bodies during autopsies, since some bodies may be more valuable dead than alive.

Texas Tech Medical School is one of several that collect brain tissue for studies of Alzheimer's disease. It pays several sources for "removing" the tissue, rather than for the tissue itself, since that is against the law.

"I do not sell tissue," Darby said before referring questions to his lawyer.

Bills and receipts obtained by News 8 under the open records act show invoices Autopsy Associates of North Texas submitted to Texas Tech for extracting brain samples from bodies. Records show Tech paid $3,000 for the removal of samples in 2007 and 2008.

"The market in tissues is absolutely growing every year," Caplan said.

And the market for private autopsies is growing as well.

A to D Mortuary in Amarillo recently started a private autopsy business. Owner Keith Bassett said his firm also does autopsies for Potter County, the state and the federal government.

The man performing the duties is Juan Luis Zamora, M.D.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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