LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - A forensic pathologist out of the San Francisco area has disputed the allegations made in lawsuits filed against the company running the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Dr. Judy Melinek said she learned a former Lubbock County employee had filed a lawsuit against National Autopsy Assay Group Pathology Labs, its Chief Executive Officer Dr. Evan Matshes, and the Lubbock County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Andrews.
In the lawsuit, Senee Graves accused the doctors of taking more tissue and organs than necessary for personal research. Graves also accused Matshes of performing autopsies in Lubbock without a Texas Medical License, allegations that Andrews and NAAG have vehemently denied.
The KCBD Investigates Team has confirmed that the Texas Medical Board and the Texas Rangers are investigating these allegations.
A couple of weeks after Graves filed a lawsuit, the adoptive mother of a child who died in September 2018 also filed a lawsuit against NAAG, Matshes and Andrews.
In the lawsuit, Rebecca Ortiz accused the doctors of improper collection and retention of excessive body tissue and the mishandling the remains of her adopted daughter, Elaina Castilleja.
Melinek said she contacted Matshes after reading these allegations. Melinek said she has met Matshes at conferences and read his publications, but has no business ties to him.
“Dr. Matshes is very well respected in the forensic community and in forensic science because he has published in the field and because he shares the cases he has experienced and gone through and diagnosed in the peer review literature. If we don’t publish, if we don’t share that information in a professional format, then there is no way we can learn and progress scientifically and there is no way we can support our testimony when we testify in court,” Melinek said.
Melinek said Matshes told her law enforcement would not allow him to comment on the allegations because they had to do with ongoing cases.
“Because I had met Dr. Matshes before, I told him that I felt comfortable talking to standard forensic autopsy practice in the media. I’ve done that in the past in other cases and if it would be helpful for me to clarify or set the record straight with regards to what is proper forensic practice I would be more than happy to do so,” Melinek said.
NAAG hired a public relations firm that put the KCBD Investigates Team in touch with Melinek.
We asked Melinek about photos the KCBD Investigates team obtained that show Matshes holding a scalpel in a Lubbock autopsy suite.
While Melinek said she does not have knowledge about the specific autopsies, the fact that Matshes was holding a scalpel in a state where he is not licensed is not a red flag.
“Anyone who is doing technical work in the morgue under his (Dr. Andrews) direct supervision is basically a technician,” Melinek said. “You do not need a medical license to use a scalpel to cut in a human body if you are working under the direct supervision of a licensed physician and surgeon in that state. So, assuming that Dr. Andrews is the Chief Medical Examiner and his name is on the autopsy as the autopsy physician, anyone who is with him in the morgue cutting into that body is working under his supervision, under his license according to state law,” Melinek said.
“Ultimately the responsibility lies with the person whose name is on that autopsy report and who is making the diagnosis. It’s not cutting into the body that is the autopsy, it is the diagnostic part where you make your diagnosis and you determine the cause and manner of death. It is the chief forensic pathologist who is in the room supervising and is actually performing the autopsy and anyone he says, you can cut here or you can take there, is working as a tech, is not working as a physician if their diagnosis is not somehow incorporated into that report,” Melinek said.
Former county employees also voiced concerns about the amount of tissue and organs taken during child autopsies.
In a September memo sent by NAAG to a forensic pathologist in Lubbock County, the doctor was asked to take a number of organs and tissue from Castilleja.
The memo said there was a particular “administrative interest” in the case.
According to Ortiz, in 2010, one of Castilleja’s biological parents caused her to have a traumatic brain injury. Both parents Anthony Castilleja and Valerie Villarreal were prosecuted and sentenced in Kansas.
On September 15, 2018, Castilleja’s health rapidly declined and she was admitted to the hospital.
The lawsuit said after pulmonary and infection complications, she suffered multiple respiratory arrests and died that day in the hospital.
Andrews and NAAG ordered a list of eight samples to be taken from her body and sent to the lab in San Diego.
The lawsuit said that conduct constitutes excessive tissue collection. Melinek disagrees.
“When you have a delay between the injury and the death, especially if it’s many years, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court that the death was a direct consequence of the injury and not due to some other natural disease, which requires not only taking the injured organs, but also taking organs such as the heart and the lungs, which may have natural disease in them that would then preclude and exonerate the defendant. The organs themselves are evidence and taking them and making sure they are properly preserved and examined thoroughly is not just standard medical practice, but it’s exemplary medical practice. It’s excellent they are doing that,” Melinek said.
Melinek said she does not believe Matshes or his company are doing anything illegal.
“Nobody is doing experimental work here. What you are doing is publishing things that have already been diagnosed, photographed and documented; that is allowed under all state laws,” Melinek said.
“I think this is just a very tough subject because people are so emotional and upset about it, especially when it involves the death of a child. The idea that somebody would be taking tissues and organs from your loved one is very disturbing and very upsetting. That said, the requirements and the law for medical examiners to perform these examinations we all take very seriously and we do it because we know our that decisions of whether it is a homicide or an accident have legal repercussions for the same families,” Melinek said. “We need to be able to be thorough in doing our work in order to make the right diagnosis and that sometimes means taking organs and tissues and retaining them and doing additional testing on them for diagnostic reasons.”