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Autopsy

By HILDY MEDINA

Staff Reporter

Nothing bothers Vidal Herrera more than a cadaver going to waste.

“You could still harvest the skin, arteries and heart valves,” he explained. “There’s so much good you could do.”

Herrera is founder of Autopsy/Post Services, Inc, a Los Angeles-based post-mortem firm that has carved out an unusual market niche performing freelance autopsies.

“I don’t like it when people start making fun of this,” he said. “Unfortunately, society has a negative view of death it’s natural and it’s universal.”

And as the 46-year-old entrepreneur adds, “It’s recession-proof.” Herrera plans to franchise his business.

Everything the company does, including post diagnosis for deceased Alzheimer’s and AIDS victims, medical photography and videotaping, crime scene mop-ups and other services, is performed at hospitals, mortuaries or crime scenes.

It’s easy to see why Herrera is in demand. While autopsies were standard procedure when someone died in a hospital 30 years ago, they are now few and far between despite the fact that family members often want to know what their loved ones died of.

Further, attorneys in wrongful-death and medical malpractice often prefer freelancers to the County Coroner’s Office, which they believe is sometimes biased in favor of police or investigating authorities.

For $2,000 and up, Autopsy/Post, which includes a staff of four full-time assistants and 13 on-call pathologists, will provide a full-scale autopsy including a microscopic tissue report sometimes within four hours from the time of the request. He charges hospitals $425 per cadaver to assist in autopsies, and the same price to remove and deliver organs to medical research institutions.

“Because of religious beliefs, sometimes the family will call us at the 21st hour and tell us the body has to be buried within a few hours,” said Herrera. “If a mortuary will let us in at one in the morning, we’ll do it.”

The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office charges $3,317 for a post-mortem exam, which must be prepaid with cash. There is no time guarantee.

“We’re really backlogged,” said an L.A. County Coroner employee who didn’t want to be identified. “Our cases come first.” Typically, autopsies that fall under the coroner’s jurisdiction take about five days for completion.

The rate of hospital-death autopsies has dropped since 1965, when nearly half of the patients who died in health care facilities were autopsied. Today, only about 5 percent of those patients are autopsied, according to the Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Many times, an autopsy will be performed only if a crime has been committed.

“The autopsy rate has dropped significantly,” said Dr. Diana Rogers, director of the pathology department at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. “It used to be a requirement many years ago to keep up a certain percentage. Because of all the recent technology, doctors don’t feel like they need them. They feel like they know more.”

That presents an opportunity for Herrera, who is often called upon to assist hospitals that no longer have full autopsy facilities.

“When the need does come up, we’ll call Vidal to help with the process,” said Rogers. Besides, “he’s had a lot of experience with anatomic dissections. He’s certainly seen a lot through the years.”

Herrera is a former field investigator for the L.A. County Coroner’s Office.

Among the investigations he assisted was the famous Night Stalker case in 1985 that terrified L.A. residents. “I identifed Richard Ramirez’s fingerprints on the window sill,” boasts Herrera.

The East L.A.-native began his company in 1989, after being unemployed for nearly four years because of a lower-back injury he sustained while lifting the corpse of a woman who weighed over 200 pounds. In 1988, he took a part-time job as an autopsy technician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, and pathologists were impressed with his skills. So they began asking him to lend a hand with autopsies outside of the hospital.

“At the time, I didn’t own a car, so I bought a 1974 Honda Civic at a garage sale for $100. Three cases later, I was able to buy my own surgical instruments,” said Herrera. “The rest is history.”

Today, Herrera drives around in a white van with tinted windows and a toll-free number emblazoned in bold black letters on the side: 1-800-AUTOPSY. Revenues are in the “low six-figures,” said Herrera, and last year he and his staff assisted in more than 900 autopsies.

Herrera’s services have been ordered by such high-profile lawyers as Johnnie Cochran and Milton Grimes, who represented Rodney King in his civil rights case. Besides using his services, these attorneys call Herrera to get in touch with pathologists.

“Carl Douglas (an attorney with Cochran’s firm, who helped represent O.J. Simpson) will call me when they have a police-involved shooting or in-custody death,” said Herrera. “I’ll assign a pathologist, go to the mortuary and do photography.”

In legal cases, in which time is money, Newport Beach attorney Brian A.S. Waite depends on Herrera to “to put us in contact with pathologists at a moment’s notice.”

But while attorneys are after definitive answers, many families who call Herrera just want advice. When doctors aren’t available, Herrera is the next best thing.

“Usually when somebody calls me, nine times out of 10 they don’t need an autopsy,” said Herrera, who is known among many East L.A. Latinos as “El Muerto,” (the Dead One). “They just want to know why. I can usually establish by the first call if it’s a natural death, and I tell them what to do.”

Herrera doesn’t miss the chance to harvest valuable medical aids when he has a family on the phone. He has a standard line of questions: “Did the deceased wear glasses, a hearing aid, a pacemaker, use a wheelchair?”

Herrera says he donates these items to non-profit organizations that recycle medical appliances and give them away in Third World countries. He also harvests organs, although he charges a fee for that.

One of Herrera’s most profitable services is exhumations. In wrongful-death cases, attorneys sometimes want autopsies after a corpse has been interred.

“It’s the most time-consuming job,” explained Herrera, who was speaking over the sound of a buzz saw at work on a cadaver. “It’s like reconstructing a crime scene. We have to photograph the grave site, the tomb, the casket and the body.”

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