Dead Sure

Details — Wednesday, 1 March 2000

Corpses need cops too. And in California, 1 800 AUTOPSY is the number to dial.

Martin Person On The Freelance Autopsy Boom

Corpses need cops too. And in California, 1 800 AUTOPSY is the number to dial. This handy post-mortem hot-line is the work of Vidal Herrera, a freelance autopsy technician and entrepreneur, who investigates the cause of death for families, attorneys and hospitals. There's plenty of takers. Herrera's toll-free pager squawks with the regularity of an over-active alarm clock.

“A typical call is someone saying 'The hospital killed my mother,” he explains, between calls at his makeshift HQ in a hospital morgue. “They want answers, they are blaming somebody. They can't accept that this person has died and in this country everyone has the suing habit.” Fueled by a frenzy of medical malpractice suits and the impending mass demise of the babyboomer generation, Herrera's business and bank balance are both healthier than ever. His company Autopsy/Post Services, is based in Los Angeles, but flies in bodies from all over the U.S. Vidal's memorable phone number helps, as does his eye-catching Chevy van: a mobile ad, emblazoned with a graphic list of services to offer. Many customers call with a lawsuit in mind, others to donate organs to medical research or get confirmation of a diagnosis of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's in a loved one.

A former investigator at the same LA Coroner's office which investigated the OJ Simpson case, Herrera injured his back lifting a “stiff” in 1984. Unemployed and disabled, he spent months in a wheelchair and four years looking for a job. His career as a scalpel for hire started almost by accident. “I was desperate; desperate people do desperate things,” he shrugs. “I was able to use my experience (as a coroner's investigator) and turn it into a business. In our society you are what you do.” Vidal and his four-man team performs around 2,000 autopsies a year - five or so a day - generating a turnover of more than $1 million. He puts his success down to hard work; often cruising the freeways from job to job for 18 hours a day, mobile phone, bone saw and garden shears (for cutting ribs) packed neatly in the back of his shiny wagon.

Because it's his own business Herrera can guarantee confidentiality (he handles autopsies for OJ lawyer Johnnie Cochran), and he undercuts the competition by 20 per cent or more. It's more for extras like forensic photography, blood testing and exhumation. But though he's not shy about promoting his sevice, in private Herrera keeps quiet about his grizzly profession. “El Muerto” (as Vidal in known in Hispanic LA), avoids awkward questions by telling people he's a meat-cutter. His ambition has always been to open a restaurant, but for now he's too busy planning phase two of his autopsy empire: to do for the death industry what McDonald's did for hamburgers. If all goes well, he will sell franchises in 72 cities in the U.S., plus a dozen more in England, South America and the Far East. As he points out with a wry grin, “People die everywhere, and right now death is very popular. It's recession-proof, it's constant and it will always be here.” So who you gonna call…?