Final Cut

People Magazine

Curious about a cadaver? Vidal Herrera's firm - call 1-800-AUTOPSY-boasts an impressive body of work

Scalpel in hand, autopsy technician Vidal Herrera makes a Y-shaped incision on the body of an 80-year-old man laid out before him in a Hawthorne, Calif., mortuary. With a curved knife he cuts away skin, exposing bones and fat, then removes the rib cage with a few snips of his shears to reveal the internal organs. “Hey, look, he's got a pacemaker!” Herrera exclaims. “I'll call the family and see if they're willing to donate it.”

Later, with the cadaver sewn up and sent to Forest Lawn, the 6'2”, 280-lb Herrera chows down at a local taco stand. “They make a great lengua and cabeza,” he says cheerily. “Try some.”

For Herrera it was just another day at the office. Ten year ago he founded Autopsy/Post Services, Inc. in Los Angeles, one of a handful of companies that specialize in conducting private autopsies; perhaps you've seen him cruising the freeway in a van emblazoned with his business number: 1-800-AUTOPSY. “I drive it in traffic on purpose,” Herrera, 46, says of the marketing ploy he devised in 1994- to the dismay of his wife, Vicki , 44, “I wigged out,” she says. “I told him, ‘Dear, this isn't a catering service you're running.’” Now working with her husband, she admits, “It's the best thing he's ever done.” Indeed, business is booming for Herrera, who was a deputy field investigator for the Los Angeles County Coroner's office until a back injury, suffered while lifting a body, forced his retirement 14 years ago. He and his freelance staff of 11 pathologists (Herrera is qualified only to assist) perform between 600 and 700 autopsies a year at $2,000 to $2,500 apiece, enough to earn him a six figure income. As Herrera notes, his work is “recession-resistant.”

Fueling the industry has been the decline of hospital autopsies. In L.A. the county coroner deals almost exclusively with criminal cases, suicides and accidents. Families who suspect malpractice or merely wish to know what their loved ones died from can turn to Herrera. Says David Campbell, an L.A. County Coroner's investigator: “He's made a place for himself that didn't exist before.”

Herrera's future was foreshadowed when as a boy he played in East L.A.'s Evergreen Cemetery. They third son of a Mexican immigrant garment worker and his wife, who divorced by the time Vidal was 8, he was a high school football player, then drifted around the country as what he calls a typical hippie. On his return he took a job as a morgue orderly, joined the coroner's office in 1974 as a volunteer and after required courses at East Los Angeles College, rose through the ranks.

It was during college that Herrera met Vicki, with whom he has sons Zack, 14, and Max, 11. “I bring them to work,” says Herrera. “I've had them hold brains for me.” Vicki long ago grew accustomed to seeing people cringe when they learn of her husband's work. “They think he's like Jeffrey Dahmer,” she says, “that we have body parts in the refrigerator. “Though proud of his success, even mother Minerva Loera, 67, admits she's grossed out by it all: “Que asco (How disgusting)!”

When he worked for the coroner, Herrera was known among Latinos as “El Muerto” (the Dead One). To be sure, his tiny West L.A. office is a mini-museum of morbidity, decorated with Mexican Day of the Dead art, brain-shaped bookends and countless skulls and skeleton figurines. Still, Herrera sees his trade as largely life-affirming. Outside of autopsies, his most important task is procuring donated organs and transporting them to research facilities and organ banks. “This job has made me value life more, because I look at death from a different perspective,” says Herrera. “I look at how the dead can help the living.”