Autopsies Are Easy, Red Tape Is Hard


At least dead men don’t give you the runaround.

That much Vidal Herrera knows.

Herrera, 42, owns an El Sereno company called Autopsy/Post Services Inc. So far, he’s found it easier to cut up dead bodies and scoop out lungs and hearts than to get information about a job training bill from his elected representatives.

Herrera has become something of a media sensation since his “discovery” a year ago by my colleague, “Only in L.A.” columnist Steve Harvey. Harvey highlighted Herrera’s van, which tools the highways and back alleys emblazoned with “1-800-AUTOPSY.”

Herrera is an autopsy technician. He hires pathologists to perform private autopsies, removes organs for research, and takes bodily fluids samples for paternity and DNA analyses. He’ll swab blood at a murder site or tidy up after a rotting corpse. He also coordinates the willed body program for anatomy students at UCLA’s medical school.


Since The Times’ mention, “El Muerto,” as Herrera is also known, has been featured in publications far and wide. He’s been dubbed a “cut-rate coroner,” a “rigorous mortician.” He has been offered thousands of dollars to relinquish the rights to 1-800-AUTOPSY (sorry, not for sale), and he’s talking franchises.

It was, in fact, after Herrera was recently featured on CNN that a staffer in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office phoned with information about the jobs program.

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act will provide up to $300 million in 1995 (and funding through 1999) for businesses to apprentice high school students. Students would eventually receive high school diplomas and certificates of competency in their chosen fields. The bill is aimed at training the 75% of all American high school students who do not receive four-year college degrees.

Herrera thought it sounded perfect for his company.

After all, he learned his craft on the job, first as a volunteer, then as an investigator in the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. No college degree was necessary. And his business is becoming lucrative, grossing in the “low six figures.” Some of his assistants are medical-school-bound college students, but why not train high schoolers?

An autopsy empire needs warm bodies too.


You have to expect that a column about a guy who slices open chests, then snips away at the ribs with garden shears for a living is going to contain at least a partially blocked artery’s worth of gore.

Herrera and I met recently at a La Crescenta mortuary. He invited me to watch him work. I believe his actual words were: “We have an autopsy, and we also have a brain procurement. Would you like to see that, too?”


Three of us stood in the mortuary’s embalming room: Herrera, Long Beach pathologist Howard Oliver and I. Actually, the men stood. I sat, on the theory it would hurt less if I hit the floor from a chair.

I made it through most of the autopsy unscathed.

Which is more than I can say for the dead woman.

Her relatives were concerned that medical malpractice had contributed to her death.

As Herrera prepared to slice off the top of the woman’s skull to get a look at her brain, Oliver held up a lung.

“Wanna see this?”

Pneumonia, it seemed, had done the lady in.

As Herrera fired up the surgical saw, I suddenly remembered a dental appointment.


The Senate staffer who had called Herrera about the jobs bill suggested that he call his local congressman for more information.

So Herrera visited the Alhambra field office of Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, but no one there had any information. He was referred to Assemblywoman Diane Martinez, who told him he ought to contact Assemblyman Richard Polanco.

Polanco was having knee surgery at the time, and his office suggested Herrera contact Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre. Alatorre’s office suggested Herrera call his congressman . . . Matthew Martinez.

He has tried Gov. Pete Wilson’s local office and even the Kathleen Brown campaign.

So far, no one has been able to help.

The apprentice bill is a new piece of legislation, and the programs--to be run by the states--have yet to be determined. Still, it would have been nice if someone had taken Herrera’s inquiries to heart.


Herrera sees more blood and guts in a day than most of us will see in a lifetime. The stench of an autopsy doesn’t even phase the guy.

It’s not being able to figure out the bureaucracy runaround that makes him want to gag.