Autopsy Firm Turns Death Into Business

Santa Fe New Mexican — Saturday, 1 November 1997

Vidal Herrera's nicknames say it all. Mr. Autopsy. El Muerto. The Cadaver King. “I want my name to be synonymous with death,” Herrera says. And it is. Herrera has turned the somewhat grisly chore of autopsy into a six-figure business. Autopsy/Post Services specializes in private autopsies and other services not often mentioned in polite company. Eight years ago Herrera was living on a disability pension and looking for work when he had an epiphany. Death is not the ending it once was thought to be. People want to know how someone died, and since hospitals weren't doing many autopsies, Herrera was happy to step in.

“Death is a universal phenomenon,” Herrera says. “There are no barriers. Everybody is going to die, rich or poor.” Herrera is not shy about what he does. His business card picture his likeness in a reworking of a classic painting of surgeons. He drives around town in a white van emblazoned on the sides with “1-800-AUTOPSY” and a list of the services he provides, everything from private autopsies, to tissue procurement, to television and movie consultations. There is definitely a demand for Herrera's services. He has regular customers: families of celebrities appreciate his discretion, as do lawyers who specialize in wrongful death suits. “I do Johnny Cochran's cases,” Herrera says.

One typical week recently had Herrera handling about a half-dozen cases in the Los Angeles area, then he headed off to Bakersfield for a case . The next day, he flew to Cleveland to remove hair, bone marrow and tissue samples from an exhumed body to settle a paternity claim. From Cleveland he went to Tulsa, Okla., for a private autopsy, then back to Los Angeles, where he picked up a body at the airport, flown in from Alabama for autopsy. “Somebody's always calling me.” It wasn't always like that, Herrera who grew up in poverty and Los Angeles foster homes, has struggled.

A promising career as an investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office ended in 1984, when Herrera ruptured three discs in his back while picking up a body. The injury left them unable to sit or stand without pain for more than 15 minutes at a time, and it left him unemployable. But Herrera had earned a reputation as a top-notch pathology assistant, and one day a pathologist asked Herrera to help him with a private autopsy. That job led to others and eventually to a contract with the Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles to manage its morgue.

Herrera has expanded his business by paying attention to details. He read in a magazine that an address in Brentwood (near Los Angeles) was like gold when it came to attracting business, so he got a post office box there. “They call them suites in Brentwood,” he says. Then he read a story about beefing up business with an 800 number. He bought “1-800-AUTOPSY” and got a friend to record a professional-sounding message on the answering machine. “People were saying, Hey, you're doing good. You're living in Brentwood and you've got a secretary.” In truth, Herrera�s business qualifies as small he has only three full-time employees and contracts with 14 pathologists.

But he makes up for it in volume and in his plans for the future. Herrera talks of franchising his business under the 1-800-AUTOPSY tag. In the next year, he wants to open 72 franchises in the United States and 16 in other countries. He says he's been offered $14 million for business, but he's turned it down. “I'm making a decent living now, but this has never been about money,” Herrera says. “I want to make the public more aware of positive side of death.”

Herrera encourages people to donate bodies, organs and tissue to science and research, and he is trying to create a foundation to which hearing aids, pacemakers, wheelchairs, eyeglasses the things the dead leave behind can be donated to the living. “I've assisted in over 25,000 autopsies,” Herrera says. “It's always death, death, death. But that's life.”