Thursday, 24 March 1994
Daily News Daily Life
Think of a place you would never want to be and, chances are, Vidal Herrera has been there, Crime scenes of the Hillside Strangler. Crime scenes of the Nightstalker. More currently, the scene of the multiple shootings in Santa Fe Springs.
Free-lance pathologist has a job to die for
Think of a place you would never want to be and, chances are, Vidal Herrera has been there, Crime scenes of the Hillside Strangler. Crime scenes of the Nightstalker. More currently, the scene of the multiple shootings in Santa Fe Springs. "They called me to help on mystery fume-case (in Riverside), but I had three autopsies that day," Herrera said. "They were my regulars. I couldn't just drop what I was doing." Regulars? Regular autopsies? Well, yes. Herrera is a free-lancer, of sorts, providing autopsy and post-traumatic services for regular clients like the Veterans Administration Medical Center and the UCLA School of Medicine. But, if you need him, you can call him. Just dial 1-800-AUTOPSY. "I was watching TV one day," he said, "I saw a 1-800-DENTIST advertised, I saw a 1-800-LAWYER advertised. I called the operator and asked if 1-800-AUTOPSY was available." It was. Voila! A death business was born.
It's hard to ignore Herrera when you see him driving down the street. His van is emblazoned with this 1-800 number, and his specialties are listed as if they were on a morbid menu. Private autopsies, Forensic autopsies, Post-mortem biopsy diagnosis, DNA (paternity) analysis. Toxicology and serology, Tissue procurement, Medical photography, Production (TV, movie) consultation. Civil and criminal consultation. "In a private autopsy, you work directly with the family. Sometimes when a loved one dies, the family is not comfortable with the doctor's assessment," he said. He "procures tissue" - removes organs, for brain banks, he harvests eyes and spinal cords. He collects tissue from AIDS patients for study. "Its a fascinating profession from a law-enforcement point of view." Herrera said. "I work with the FBI, the fire department. There's a lot of action. I've worked on big cases. I did the Michael Bryant case. He died while in police custody. I was busy during the earthquake, transporting cadavers form Cal State Northridge. I'm on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day."
The job, he says, has changed his view of life and death. "You never compromise your work when youÃ¯Â¿Â½re working for the dead," he said "Nobody sticks up for the rights of the dead, I do." Herrera's life's work of death began in 1977 when he took a job at the Los Angeles County morgue. "I met a guy who told me that this was a good way to earn a living while going to school," he said. "I was a typical hippie. My reaction as like anyone else's - 'You're crazy,' But when you think about it, itÃ¯Â¿Â½s not crazy at all." He went from transporting bodies to assisting pathologists in autopsies. He learned medical photography, then became a coronerÃ¯Â¿Â½s investigator. "It was on-the-job, he learned to lift and label, to eviscerate, to excise and dissect. He learned how to harvest tissue, how to clean crime scenes of blood and gore. And, then, he hurt his back.
The dead are heavy. This disability put him out of the business for 4 1/2 years; then in 1988, he went into business of himself. He has two vans now and is thinking of franchising nationally. "My name ins well-known in the medical community, he said, "But in the Latin community, they call me Ã¯Â¿Â½El Muerto."