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SMALL BUSINESS

From postmortems a livelihood springs

An ex-coroner's investigator performs private autopsies. His side businesses include prop rentals for TV and films.

April 07, 2008|Molly Selvin | 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.

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."

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.

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.

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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