Glendale News-Press — Wednesday, 1 March 2000

He's got brains and eyeballs in the back of his van, but Vidal Herrera says he just wants to be another guy in the neighborhood.

La Crescenta man runs one-of-a-kind private business

He's got brains and eyeballs in the back of his van, but Vidal Herrera says he just wants to be another guy in the neighborhood. It's not going to be easy for the new La Crescenta resident. Herrera, 43 says he provides the only service of its kind in the world with Autopsy Post Services Inc., a private autopsy and tissue collection business he began in 1989. Maybe it's the white Chevrolet van advertising his 1-800-AUTOPSY telephone line. Or his frequent trips to La Crescenta's Crippen Mortuary, where many of the autopsies are performed. Maybe it's the brains and eyeballs contained in Herrera's coolers. Whatever the reason, it's not uncommon for Herrera to walk out of a restaurant after lunch and get weird looks from people. “It becomes annoying,” he said. “I find myself constantly in a position of explaining myself and I really shouldn't have to. They get the wrong impression.”

Herrera grew up in Echo Park and volunteered for the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's Office. He was later promoted to fulltime investigator, although he never attended medical school. In 1984, Herrera injured his back while moving a body and was out of work for four years. He began receiving requests from doctors who wanted his assistance on autopsies. “Because of my experience as a volunteer, that's how his started.” he said.

Herrera's services include removing tissue and organs and delivering them to hospitals and researchers, performing autopsies for people suspicious of someone's death and collecting evidence for defense attorneys. “It's a waste,” Herrera said of human tissue and organs not used for transplant or research. “You could utilize all this tissue save so many lives and bring the cost of medical care down.” Research for AIDS and Alzheimer's disease are among Herrera's causes. “When (Ronald) Reagan dies, I'm probably going to be the one who removes his brain.” Herrera said, “I think we can really have an evolutionary approach to helping humanity and it's all going to start here in La Crescenta. We want to show the positive side of death.” Herrera moved to La Crescenta last month with his wife, Vicki, and two sons, 12-year-old Zackary and 8-year-old Max. ”I like the peace and tranquility,: he said as his pager beeped for the third time in 15 minutes. “It's quiet. I really like it. I just hope I don't offend people.”

The page was a call for another autopsy Herrera said he is called at all hours with requests to remove a brain or other tissue that may be shipping off for research. Some of the tissue travels worldwide. “It is always at the next of kin's request that collection (of organs and tissue) can be done,” said Bob Hansen, manager at Crippen Mortuary. It allows for families to have an autopsy. “It's no secret that it costs the county more to do an autopsy than a private company like Vidal's” Herrera said. In 1995, the base price at the coroner's office was about $2,800. Only 5 percent of the 2.6 million deaths each year in the U.S. are subject to an autopsy, according to Herrera. That figure is down from 50 percent of the cadavers dissected and examined during the 1960s, according to Newsweek magazine. “Unfortunately, more and more hospitals won't provide autopsies because insurance companies won't pay for them” said Capt. David Campbell of the Los Angeles County Coroner's office.

For families that wish to know a cause of death, find out about hereditary disease or contribute to research also get a quicker turnaround time through the services of Autopsy Post Services. Herrera, who pulls down a salary “in the low six figures,” contracts with UCLA Medical Center and the Veterans Administration, among others. The National Neurological Research Specimen Bank in Brentwood was in desperate need of someone to remove the brains and spinal chords of AID victims when Herrera's business began in 1989, he said. “I think what he's done for the research community is very useful,” said James Riehl, who works at the specimen bank. “These tissues are so valuable for research.” His autopsy records are confidential, a hallmark trait attracting many celebrities requesting his services. Keeping with his clients' privacy wishes, he wouldn't share any of the famous names who've been on his list, but said he has had a running association with those in the limelight.

Herrera also consults for film and television projects, such as television show “Quincy, M.E.” Autopsy Post Services assists in more than 700 autopsies a year, Herrera said. With the current three full-time employees and nine part-time doctors who he subcontracts, Herrera hopes to franchise all over the world. “This is not like a conventional franchise like Subway or McDonald's,” he said. “This is an innovative idea that I came up with and it's long overdue.:” He hopes to have an many as 72 franchises next year and he's not worried about finding customers. He said he turned down 11,000 cases last year. Proud of his Latino heritage, Herrera said he also turned down a $7.5 million offer for the business from a pathology group in New York. “Because I know the direction it's going to go,” he said. “I want people to know a Latino started this.”

Herrera runs a training program he hopes will allow more minorities “to come in the back door,” to the medical field, he said. Herrera said he is trying to increase awareness among minority groups about the importance of donating tissue. Ignorance and superstition attribute to a low donation count from minorities, he said. As a couple walking outside Herrera's LA Crescenta home lowered their eyebrows and squinted to read the side of his van, the friendly-faced man just grinned. Herrera said once he begins franchising in the next year, his business will “put La Crescenta on the map.”