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Morbid Vanity Generates Thousands of Calls

Ten years ago, Vidal Herrera, living on disability after rupturing three discs by hoisting a 5-foot 2-inch, 285-pound dead woman, mailed more than 2,000 resumes but received no job offers.

Today, the autopsy specialist, who walks with a cane as a result of his injury, receives an average of 200 calls each day for his services and gets offers of up to $14 million to purchase his business –Autopsy/Post Services Inc.

The La Crescenta, CA, resident, who coordinates a network of more than 10 doctors and assists them on autopsies requested by the deceased's relatives, is in such hot demand thanks to his memorable vanity number, 1-800-AUTOPSY. He expects to launch a catalog on Halloween, in response to the thousands of requests he gets for his business cards, which feature an autopsy scene and his black surgical gowns touting his toll free number. The number will appear also on coffee cups, pens, jackets, T-shirts and bags in the catalog.

In preparation for its launch, Herrera will fax a sheet advising interested parties to call the company number or visit its Web site (www.1800.autopsy.com) to order the catalog for $2. The promotion will hit medical schools, nursing schools, ambulance companies, mortuaries and even chiropractic offices nationwide. A portion of the proceeds will go toward nonprofit organizations that give the hearing aids, eye glasses and prostheses owned by the deceased to the needy.

Herrera intends to sell franchises of his business for $30,000 apiece within the next three months. He is aiming for 54 locations in the United States and 16 in Japan, Europe, Canada and Mexico.

Although Herrera, who says the company's net profit last year was is in “the low-six figures,” is enjoying the commercial fruits of his labor, he still holds close to his heart the true meaning of his job. His company's motto is: “The deceased must be protected and given a voice.”

“Because hospitals are downsizing and consolidating, you read in the paper everyday that the quality of care is diminishing. You read about patients' rights, but one thing you never consider is the right of patients who die,” Herrera said. “In 1978, 50 percent of people who died had an autopsy performed. Today, it's just below five percent.”

Herrera believes declining autopsy rates are partly due to doctors' fears that autopsy results will be used against them in malpractice suits. In addition, many hospitals have been consolidating and downsizing in recent years and have eliminated services, including autopsies, to cut costs. Finally, insurance companies don't cover autopsy costs. While the average price for an autopsy is $3,700 in California, according to Herrera, Autopsy/Post Services performs an autopsy for about $2,000.

He feels so passionate about the importance of his profession that co-workers and neighbors have nicknamed him “El Muerto,” or “The Dead One” in Spanish.

“Death is what saved me from committing suicide, because I was so depressed after I was injured,” Herrera said. “Death is what sustains me, because it is what allows me to work. And death is what motivates me in terms of trying to get the message out about the positive side of death like transplantable tissue, cadaver research and recyclable items like hearing aids.”

Members of the medical community have wanted to purchase Herrera's business – upping the ante from $7.5 million to $14 million over the past few years – but he steadfastly refuses their requests.

“I am a Latino, and I am an American,” Herrera said. “I was born here, but for the past 15 years there has been so much negative criticism, because there has been a large influx of illegal aliens coming into this country. Everybody thinks they are on welfare, are not productive and have a lot of babies. I just want people to know that here is a Latino who is doing something productive. In fact, here is a disabled Latino who is doing something productive.”

Herrera currently operates from a van equipped with a phone, beeper, modem, fax, laptop and autopsy equipment, but he began his business from his East Los Angeles home. Callers often hung up without so much as a “goodbye” upon discovering the location of his office. Herrera then stumbled upon a magazine article claiming that businesses located in or near the swank 90210 zip code were profiting from the popularity of Fox-TV's hit show, “Beverly Hills 90210.”

“I went to the post office right across the street from the restaurant where Nicole Simpson last had dinner and said, 'I need a PO Box,'” Herrera recalled. “The man said, 'I'm sorry, sir, in this area we don't call them PO Boxes, we call them Suites.' I said, 'Well, then I'll take a Suite.'”

Herrera noticed that people often threw his business card into the trash almost before he was out the door. So he designed cards that featured an antique Scottish painting of doctors hard at work dissecting a corpse. The card quickly became a novelty item among attorneys and doctors, but Herrera's plan to expand his business was far from over.

After reading about the success of vanity numbers in a financial magazine, Herrera dialed “0” and asked the operator how one goes about purchasing a vanity number such as 1-800 AUTOPSY, for instance. The operator referred him to MCI, where a representative informed him that the number, 1-800-288-6779, belonged to State Farm Insurance. The rep said the number had been out of circulation for two years but could be Herrera's for $1 to $10,000 depending on how active the number still was.

“Well, you have to make money to spend money, so I thought I'd take a chance,” Herrera said.

A few days later, Herrera received a bill in the mail for just $2. He quickly got to work transforming his lime-green van, which he had purchased at his neighbor's yard sale for $100, into a moving billboard for his new number. He painted the Honda a plain white and neatly stenciled 1-800 AUTOPSY on its side. He also listed a few of his services: private autopsy, forensic autopsy, exhumation, post-DNA paternity analysis, and television and movie consultant.

“I noticed all these cars — mobile pet groomers, personal trainers, cleaners, notary publics. And on TV they had 1-800 LAWYERS, 1-800 DOCTORS and 1-800 FLOWERS,” Herrera said. “I kept thinking that I should advertise, but because this is such a serious subject matter I thought people would be offended. Then I said, 'Hey, why not? If you don't try, you are not going to learn.'”

Thirty minutes after Herrera painted his van his phone started ringing. Herrera got a case from relatives seeking their loved one's cause of death, then he got another and yet another.

Herrera, who received 1,100 calls in response to a television story about his business, will soon be hiring an answering service to handle the autopsy requests and press interviews currently fielded by him and his wife.

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