Calling the Cadaver King


Newsweek — Monday, 8 January 1996

A longtime investigator for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who assisted in the autopsies of Hillside Strangler victims, Herrera went solo seven years ago and says he's made a much better living in dying his way.

ENTREPRENEURS
Calling the Cadaver King

An autopsy chain? Isn't that a dying business?

By Melinda Beck

Too bad the body shop people took the name. Otherwise, Vidal Herrera could use it for his fledgling Los Angeles autopsy business, which he claims to be expanding into a nationwide chain. The current name, Autopsy/Post Services, tells you that Herrera offers autopsies of dead folks, along with drug scans and confidential reports that most coroners' offices don't do. But that title's a little flat, especially with his grandiose-if morbid-dreams. Then again, Kentucky Fried Autopsies doesn't quite do it, either.

A longtime investigator for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who assisted in the autopsies of Hillside Strangler victims, Herrera went solo seven years ago and says he's made a much better living in dying his way. So much better, says this would-be Colonel Sanders, that he plans to open 72 franchises in the next two years. That might be a stretch, but Herrera has definitely found a niche. Autopsies have been a dying art in the United States; only 5 to 10 percent of corpses are dissected and examined, down from nearly 50 percent in 1965 as many hospitals no longer have full autopsy facilities; often, an autopsy will be performed only when a crime is suspected. Most insurance plans don't cover it, and relatives often prefer their loved ones intact. Plus, pathologist dread it. As Herrera says, “It's dirty, and it smells.”

But Herrera doesn't mind at all. He serves hospitals and private clients with four staffers, nine doctors on call and three Chevy vans. Many of Herrera's clients are family members seeking information on hereditary diseases; Alzheimer's for example, can be confirmed only by examining victim's brain tissue. Other clients suspect malpractice and want evidence. Defense attorneys also seek his services to challenge police findings. “We do most of Johnnie Cochran's autopsies,” Herrera boasts. All told, Autopsy/Post did 700 autopsies this year, he says, and had to turn down 11,000 more.

Marathon team: Herrera, 43, is a shameless promoter of his trade, from the vanity plates on his car (YSPOTUA, which spells AUTOPSY in a rear-view mirror), to the 1-800-AUTOPSY phone number painted on his vans. Next spring he's sponsoring a team in the L.A. Marathon called the Stiffs, Why not? “People are intrigued by death,” Herrera says, “Death is in.”

Medical experts say that though Herrera and his staffers aren't MDs, APS performs a needed service. “I think he's honest and does quality work,” says Dr. Stephen A. Geller, chairman of the department of Pathology at Cedars Sinai Hospital in L.A. “Do I think in the long run it's good for medicine or for the future run of health care? Probably not.” That kind of talk doesn't bother Herrera, who is unshakably bullish about the future. “As the baby boomers age, there are going to be lots of deaths,” Herrera says gleefully. As he puts it, “This is a recession-proof business.”

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