Published Nov 10, 2005

Did you know that less than 2% of the people who die in hospitals are autopsied? That the autopsy rate has been dropping for the last 40 years? That all of this could somehow end up making somebody money? Me neither! But that’s who we met in class today, East LA’s own Vidal Herrera, former CSI, autopsy tech, and founder of 1-800-Autopsy.

Vidal’s story is inspiring. He was born in East LA and grew up in hard circumstances, working all through junior high and high school. He learned to work hard, but had trouble with school, and dropped out briefly before returning to finisn High School. Because two of his family members were killed in Vietnam, he wasn’t drafted when he turned old enough in 1969. Instead, he was headed to UCLA to play football when he was injured in a munitions factory accident in Vernon; UCLA took away his scholarship. He started college elsewhere, but needed money to get along; he found it helping out in the county morgue, where he learned to conduct autopsies.

Working hard, Vidal was able to turn this experience into a job as a CSI. He worked happily at this until 1984 when, turning the body of a large woman who had committed suicide, he hurt his back. Doctors told him he’d probably never walk again, and he was confined to a wheelchair for four years. Disability paid him, sure, but he wanted to work; unfortunately, nobody would hire a man who couldn’t walk or stand for more than 15 minutes. But he found a job teaching first-year residents how to do an autopsy; he’d sit in a chair and have them do all the work.

Soon, he found that he could use a small stool, or even a 2-gallon milk jug, to support his chest as he worked at his second job, cleaning up crime scenes. Soon, he was working at other hospitals, too, and was getting referrals from funeral directors.

But people saw his East LA address and ran away, so Vidal got himself a PO Box in Brentwood and called it a “suite.” Then he read in Forbes about how 800 numbers were the next big thing so he picked up 1-800-Autopsy. Then he thought, hey, what good is a number if nobody knows it? So he bought a van and painted his 800 number on the side, and within 30 minutes an LA Times reporter had called him.

Vidal’s business was growing, but he got close to UCLA again — always a mistake — and was caught up in the cadaver theft scandal there. While he was in fact one of those to initially discover and report the thefts, it was a time filled with accusations, and it took Herrera four years to clear himself. During that time he had to put off plans to franchise his company, but he came back with a plan to move into a large location in the city of Tujunga. After years of a complex build-out, and just weeks from opening, Tujunga pulled his building permit and he was unable to use the space for autopsies. All appeared lost, until a rock band asked him to use the space as a set for a music video. Then he found how much TV and movies needed a full-dressed morgue set, and started renting out his space; it’s now used in all sorts of top TV shows. This turned into morgueproprentals and is quite successful.

Vidal has received offers of up to $24 million for his company, but he refuses to sell, because he feels it’s so important for him to be an example within the Latino community of a hard-working success. And, also, because he loves what he does and, as he said, “very early on in life I learned one rule, fuck ‘em all, you have to do what you want to do.”

However, this took Vidal away from his main focus, autopsies. Vidal now has three techs and six doctors, and rarely assists with autopsies himself. He’s looking into franchising again, but his biggest hope is to graduate from college while his mother’s still around.

Oh, and he just started 1-800-Tamales, a company which sends tamales packaged in miniature coffins as Christmas gifts for funeral directors, doctors, and lawyers. They come packaged with candies shaped like body parts. So, now, if you’re looking for a gift that stands out, you know where to go!