If you ask Vidal Herrera what is the most famous autopsy he has done, he’ll remind you that his company can “never be defined by one case.”

“Many times I’m asked if there is one autopsy that really stands out and usually I tell them no. I’ve done so many,” said Herrera, who owns 1-800-AUTOPSY, a private autopsy company founded in 1988 that has franchises in Northern California, Nevada and Florida.

Among some of the famous African Americans he’s autopsied during his nine years as a deputy medical investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office are Marvin Gaye; O.J. Simpson’s young daughter, Aaren Lashone Simpson, a drowning victim; and rapper and N.W.A. co-founder Eazy-E (Eric Lynn Wright).

During those years, part of his responsibility was to visit funeral homes to “sign out the deceased and do a cursory examination.” In doing so, Herrera, who is Mexican American, developed friendships among several African American funeral homes.

When Coretta Scott King died at 78 in Rosarito, Mexico, after her family’s last-ditch effort to defeat the cancer that was ravaging her paralyzed body. (Her death came shortly after she arrived in late January 2006.)

The Tillman Riverside Mortuary in Riverside was called on to handle the body because 1) it is an African American funeral home and 2) it is close to Travis Air Force Base, where the body was to be flown. A federal ruling had to be relaxed to allow the body to be shipped across the border without being embalmed.

“Mr. Tillman telephoned me the previous night and asked me if I would do him a favor and come out to Riverside and do the autopsy,” Herrera said. “He also told me the King family only wanted African American doctors to touch the body. He asked if we had a Black doctor, and I said, yes we do–Dr. Howard Oliver.” (Oliver, a pathologist, examined the remains of Mitrice Richardson, the young African American woman who was killed in Malibu.)

“He then asked if I had a Black embalmer and I told him we didn’t because I’m not a funeral director, but I could arrange to have an African American embalmer go to his funeral home and do it.”

However, Herrera’s embalmer was already committed to another case so the mortuary founder, Leon Tillman, ended up doing the embalming himself. Herrera autopsied the body with the family’s permission.

Herrera allowed that the King autopsy is the one “I’ll remember the most for the rest of my life.” It is the most important, he said, because of what Dr. and Mrs. King “meant to African Americans and other minorities around the nation.”

Ironically, sixteen months later the Kings’ firstborn child, Yolanda, an actress and author, died in Santa Monica at age 51 of an apparent heart attack. “We did the autopsy,” he said.

Most people are surprised to know that there are private autopsy companies around, but the demand has grown extensively since most hospitals have cut back on the number of autopsies they perform. Last year, it was reported that just 2 percent of deaths were autopsied by hospitals, down from 42 percent in 1965.

People turn to services like 1-800-AUTOPSY when they are unsure of how a person died, or if they have questions.

Herrera also has such clients as the Veterans Administration, UCLA School of Medicine, and House Ear Institute, the National Neurololgical Brain Specimen Banks.

“We give voice to the deceased,” said Herrera, who founded the company in 1988 with his wife Vicki Klebanoff. “We allow them to tell their stories, because it’s all there on the table in the tissue and blood,” he told one newspaper. The company’s mission statement is, “The deceased must be protected and given a voice.”

Herrera has been involved in several infamous, high-profile murder cases as the Hillside Strangler in the late 1970s and the Night Stalker in the mid-to-late 1980s. Some might remember the 1981 case of Ron Settles, the Cal State Long Beach star football player, who was found hanged in his cell after being arrested for speeding by Signal Hill police officers. The police claimed that he had hanged himself, but the coroner’s office ruled that his death was “at the hands of another.” The Settles case is one of the early cases that helped propel Johnnie Cochran’s legal career.

About the Night Stalker case, Herrera said: “I was a deputy medical investigator at the time [with the Los Angeles County coroner’s office]. I was the one that found the fingerprint on the window ledge at the crime scene in 1984.”

While some questioned the fingerprint’s importance, a year later the California State Fingerprint Tracking system was instituted, and authorities were able to prove that the fingerprint belonged to Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker suspect. Since then that tracking system has been adopted internationally so that fingerprints in the data bases can be traced by police agencies all over the world.

But 30 days after his involvement in the Night Stalker investigation in 1984, Herrera received a career-ending injury while trying to lift the body of a 284-pound woman alone because he had no one to help him. The injury proved severe, and forced his retirement from county coroner’s office. He was out of the business for four and half years before launching 1-800-AUTOPSY.

Despite his business, Herrera is not a gloomy guy, but quite a character, as the Gift Catalogue section on his 1800autopsy.com website proves. He also make couches out of coffins, which are in demand as real art.

In the Latino community, Herrera is known as “El Muerto,” roughly translated “the dead one.”
Oddly enough, his first name, Vidal, means life.