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From postmortems a livelihood springs

Times Staff Writer

Vidal Herrera has heard every joke about death.

But death has been a godsend to Herrera, who runs three growing businesses out of a gray, two-story building along a dreary El Sereno strip of auto body shops and small warehouses.

After a back injury ended his career as a deputy field investigator for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, Herrera started 1800Autopsy.com, performing private autopsies, DNA tests and other forensic services. So successful, he turns away business at times.

A collector of antique morgue and mortuary equipment -- yes, he acknowledges it’s an odd hobby -- Herrera created a thriving studio rental business, MorguePropRentals.com, after a friend gave his name to a TV production staffer searching for props. His “fully dressed” morgue studio, embalming tables, body crypts and other equipment have been featured on “CSI,” “House,” “Law and Order” and several other TV shows and movies.

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Ever the entrepreneur, Herrera launched his third venture last year, CoffinCouches.com, recycling damaged or used coffins into glitzy special-order couches -- high-style macabre for the biker and Goth crowd.

“Death maimed me, death sustained me, and death motivates me,” the stocky 55-year-old reflected. Also motivating Herrera is his entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take chances.

His autopsy business was born of desperation after Herrera ruptured three discs in 1984 while moving a 284-pound suicide victim. Repeated surgeries and rehabilitation sidelined him and for years he was unable to sit or stand for more than 15 minutes at a stretch.

When Herrera explained his physical limitations “nobody gave me a job.”

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A stint as a contract employee retrieving tissue for Veterans Administration researchers sent him to local funeral homes. There he met grieving families anxious to know why their loved one died, and an idea was born. He founded 1800autopsy.com in 1988, which brings in annual revenue in the “low $600,000 range,” and opened franchises in Orlando, Fla., Northern California and Las Vegas, with others to come.

Close to 180 people die every day in Los Angeles County, Herrera said, but the coroner investigates only a fraction of those deaths, generally when foul play is suspected.

Herrera’s customers usually call with other concerns. Adult children want to confirm their father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease to allay or confirm fears they’ll inherit the ailment. A hospital needs tissue for research or a widow, contemplating litigation, wants to know whether a defective pacemaker caused her husband’s death.

Business has grown by word of mouth, still his major form of advertising other than the shiny white Hummer emblazoned with the company’s logo and vanity license plate “yspotua” -- “autopsy” spelled backward.

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That sense of whimsy pervades the company’s office along with the whiff of disinfectant. Trophies won by the North Hollywood baseball team Herrera sponsors -- “The Stiffs,” of course -- a skull wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and a string of red chili pepper lights decorate the walls.

Herrera’s staff of four full-time employees and two part-timers perform about 700 procedures a year, including autopsies and brain and tissue retrievals. Costs range from $1,500 to $3,200. The autopsy costs include services of a pathologist who by law must be present.

Adult children and ex-wives fighting over a deceased’s estate have turned DNA paternity testing into a lucrative sideline. For $900 plus the cost of exhuming and transporting the body, Herrera will recover bone marrow, hair or teeth and send the samples to a lab for testing.

The public fascination with crime shows that has generated a growing volume of calls to 1800autopsy.com also led Herrera to found MorguePropRentals.com. The 3-year-old business generates about $100,000 annually from shows that rent out his replica autopsy room -- next door to the real one -- as well as individual items, including dissecting tables and anatomical charts.

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Autographed posters from dozens of TV shows and movies -- his current and former customers -- line the hallways in Herrera’s building.

CoffinCouches.com, also the result of serendipity, started last year when someone asked Herrera whether he would fashion a one-of-a-kind seating arrangement. He now buys up defective models or coffins discarded when family members change their minds about where Mom or Dad should rest in perpetuity. He cleans them, cuts them apart, adds legs and custom upholstery. Customers can pick from Dodger blue, cowhide and pink naugahyde, among other coverings.

The sideline is still an experiment, he said; so far he’s sold two couches at $3,500 each and has orders for more. To drum up business, Herrera trucks the couches to motorcycle and RV shows, figuring those folks are his target market. If the novelty item catches on, he’ll make more; if not, he’ll move on.

Herrera attributes his success to a hardscrabble childhood, lifelong passion for business and a willingness to take chances.

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The East Los Angeles native, one of seven boys, spent his early childhood in foster care while his mother recuperated from tuberculosis. Herrera went to work at age 12, over the years flipping burgers, landscaping and hawking maps to movie stars’ homes. County jobs as an orderly and X-ray technician followed before he landed in the coroner’s office.

He long ago lost any squeamishness about death -- “a body is a body is a body,” he quips.

Although he’s taken business courses at local community colleges, Herrera believes that his lack of formal business education has probably cost him $600,000 in mistakes by investing too quickly in some things and waiting too long on others.

“It’s been a learning experience,” he said.

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And he’s learned well, concluded Ernie Doud, president of Doud Hausner & Associates, a Glendale-based family consulting business group.

Herrera’s autopsy business is “a replicable model,” Doud said, and with the baby boomer generation aging, the demographics work in his favor. The challenge will be to avoid spreading himself too thin.

“Operationally, he needs to keep things simple,” Doud advised, approving of Herrera’s decision to franchise rather than manage a far-flung set of offices.

Doud also endorses Herrera’s willingness to cut his losses, warning “don’t kill yourself jumping off the horse when it’s time.”

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For now, though, Herrera has as much business as he can handle along with a growing number of speaking invitations abroad.

“This is nothing I ever planned,” he smiled, “but if you can dream it, you can do it.”

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After-life ventures

Businesses

* 1800Autopsy.com, performs private autopsies, DNA tests and other forensic services

* MorguePropRentals.com, rents autopsy and mortuary equipment and a replica autopsy room to TV and movie productions

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* CoffinCouches.com, sells couches made from coffins

Owner: Vidal Herrera

Headquarters: El Sereno

Employees: Four full-time, two part-time

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Revenue: More than $700,000 a year


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