A Dying Art

Santa Fe New Mexican — Monday, 27 May 1996

Sometime this summer he will transform his four-year old business into one of the most unique franchise opportunities ever offered - private autopsy services.

Entrepreneur Finds Money In Cut-Rate Autopsies

Vidal Herrera vividly remembers the odor he encountered two decades ago when he observed his first autopsy. A friend who worked as an autopsy technician brought him to a local morgue to pique Herrera's interest in a career assisting doctors with autopsies.

“It's something you never forget,” he says of the now familiar smell of formaldehyde. “I got over it because I thought if I'm going to do this, I had better suck it up.” “What you smell,” his friend told him that day, “is money.” There's money in death. Now Herrera, a tall, burly man who speaks in a deep monotone, is poised to find out just how much.

Sometime this summer he will transform his four-year old business into one of the most unique franchise opportunities ever offered - private autopsy services. Dozens of outlets are expected to open around the country, offering cut-rate autopsies and other corpse-related services, including the gathering of organs and tissue samples for transplant and research. The hot demand for Herrera's franchise opportunity does not stem from a morbid fascination with death. It's just that once you overcome your concerns about making a living by dissecting the dead, you see a business with strong potential for profits. For a variety of reasons, autopsies have become a dying art in this county. Hospitals used to perform them on 50 percent of their deceased patients. Today the future is between 5 and 10 percent. Local coroner's offices only conduct autopsies in suspicious death.

Meanwhile, many family members seek autopsies on loved ones when they suspect foul play, malpractice or even just for the closure that comes with knowing exactly why someone dies. Herrera steps into this void. He has an on-call staff of nine doctors and works with many hospitals an mortuaries in the area. He might be called in to perform a complete autopsy or simply to collect a brain that's being donated for medical research. Maybe you've already seen him driving around town. He owns a fleet of three white Chevy vans emblazoned with his company's toll-free number: 1-800-AUTOPSY. It's no joke. Herrera's choice of a phone number for this business was a shrewd move. He's been offered millions for the rights to the number, but he's not selling. “The next 40 years is considered the golden era of death because of the baby boomers.” Herrera says “There is going to be a considerable amount of death.” He couldn't have envisioned this future for himself back in the 1960s, when the East Los Angeles native was a self-described hippie working a in a pizza joint. Several mentors trained him for a career as an autopsy technician, a worker who prepares bodies for the detailed, cause-of-death examinations by doctors.

Herrera worked for many years as an investigator with the Los Angels County Coroner's office, assisting on such high-profile cases as the Hillside Strangler, the Skid Row Slasher, and the Night Stalker. At a crime scene Herrera discovered a fingerprint that helped lead to the capture of Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez. Because he was the only coroner's investigator at the time who also spoke Spanish, at each crime scene he earned the nickname: “El Muerto.” A back injury forced him on disability in 1984. Because of his injury he had trouble finding other work. It wasn't until about four years later, when the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles hired him as an autopsy technician on a contract basis, that he resumed his career. Because there's a shortage of autopsy technicians, Herrera began contracting work with other area hospitals and mortuaries. Eventually, he established a strong network that led to the start of his private autopsy business, called Autopsy/Post Services.

Lately, Herrera has emerged as a strong advocate for the need to conduct more autopsies and for greater awareness about tissue and organ donation. Herrera attended a medical conference two years ago in Washington, D.C., attended by pathologists and other doctors who were addressing the declining number of autopsies. Herrera, the only one attending who was not a physician, was asked to speak near the end of the conference. Although nervous, he issued an impassioned plea for the need for autopsies and talked about the high demand for this business. The attention he received from that appearance garnered him national media coverage and helped promote the franchising idea. Meanwhile, the decline in the number of autopsies is still being heavily debated in the medical community.

Dr. Patricia Konrad, director of autopsy services at the UCLA Medical Center, says that many physicians no longer do them because they believe that today's sophisticated testing equipment tells them all they need to now about the cause of death. Also, some doctors may not want to uncover information that might make them vulnerable to a malpractice suit. “I think we're losing an incredible amount of valuable information,” Konrad says about the decline in autopsies. “It can be a good teaching tool. And we're not getting a full picture on some of the lost patients.” Scott Carrier, a spokesman with the Los Angeles County Coroner's office, says his office handles more than 6,500 cases annually. The office is obligated by law to perform an autopsy anytime there is a sudden or suspicious death. However, he says, there are borderline cases that are up to the discretion of the coroner's office on whether to do an autopsy. “Ideally it would be wonderful to autopsy every single case that comes through. But because of shortage of staff we are not able to accommodate that.” Carrier says.

In a recent case, for example, the family of a man with AIDS suspected that he might have died as a result of something done to him by his gay lover, who stood to inherit all of his estate. The official cause of death was listed as AIDS.

Herrera's company performed an autopsy at the request of the family and discovered more than 100 times the amount of morphine in the man's system than should have been there. They took the information to the coroner's office and referred it for investigation. While these cases can be gratifying for Herrera, he is most concerned with making the public more aware of the need for organ and tissue donation for either transplantation or medical research. “I look at death, as such a waste,” he says. “There's is so much valuable tissue that could help the living.” Once his franchises are operating around the country, he plans a massive campaign to promote organ and tissue donation. “We want to show the positive side of death.” he says, “Nobody wants to listen because they are uncomfortable talking about death. But we are going to be in your face.”