Video: Meet 'The Dead One', who perfoms 500 private autopsies a year in LA
Vidal Herrera – or 'El Muerto’ (‘The Dead One'), as he is known – makes a living out of death by investigating the cases of those people who died suspiciously.
Every year, more than 500 bodies arrive at the Los Angeles headquarters of his company, 1-800-Autopsy, with the deceased ranging from A-list celebrities to anonymous murder victims.
“They want to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones,” says Vidal of the bereaved families, who pay between $3,000 and $10,000 for his services.
"In up to 10% of cases, the wrong cause of mortality is written on death certificates.
"It's my job to find out what really happened, and to give these families closure."
Vidal, a retired crime scene investigator, has been in the business for 40 years and has assisted with more than 19,000 autopsies.
As a CSI, his celebrity cases included Marvin Gaye, actress Natalie Wood, Martin Luther King's wife Coretta Scott King and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.
Most recently, he taught one of Hollywood's most bankable stars how to perform post-mortems.
Vidal said: “Will Smith is playing a forensic neuropathologist in one of his upcoming movies, Concussion, and he really wanted to get his hands dirty and learn how these examinations are performed.
“He was a real pro and my staff loved having him here. We often have big names in our facility, but they've usually gone to meet their maker before they get to us.'”
Vidal’s Hollywood connections are extensive. He has acted as a ‘technical advisor’ on several big-budget movies and many hit TV shows. “I also run a side business, Morgue Prop Rentals”, Vidal says. “I have lent equipment to shows like Law & Order, CSI and House, and I get called upon to help ensure realism”.
Despite a life-long career in the industry, Vidal admits he can still be shocked by his findings during an autopsy.
He said: “We've seen it all - decapitations, drug overdoses, shark bites, traffic accidents, plane crashes.”
And although he says that child victims are 'always very hard to deal with', his work has also helped to convict many criminals.
Vidal said: “Often a case will be written off as a suicide by the authorities, but our examinations will prove it was, in fact, foul play.
“We see some terrible things - OAPs who have been abused in care homes; people who have been poisoned.
“We treat every body that comes in as a potential homicide victim in case we have to defend our findings in courts”.
From its offices in suburban East LA, 1-800-Autopsy has come to dominate the private post-mortem industry.
Bodies are sent from all corners of the globe and Vidal is often called upon to assist on high-profile cases.
He said: "When Princess Diana died, a team of lawyers got in touch, asking us to rush over to France to do a second autopsy.'I told them that unless we had approval from Diana's next of kin or the House of Windsor, we couldn't touch it."
A similar request came in from the estate of Michael Jackson after his death from an overdose in 2009.
Vidal said: "We spoke to the family's attorneys, but it was a straightforward, unremarkable toxicology case."
In a gripping new documentary, Vidal investigates the case of 24-year-old student, Morgan Clearly, whose body was found hanging near her home in Palmdale, California.
Investigators declared it a suicide but no note was discovered and her family questioned the official verdict.
Morgan’s mother, Teresa Clearly, enlisted the help of Vidal to find closure to the questions that had plagued her since her daughter’s death.
She said: “We had so many questions - I called 1-800-Autopsy because I felt that Morgan deserved it. We wanted to know for sure what happened to her”.
Business at 1-800-Autopsy is brisk, and grows through word-of-mouth referrals.
Vidal said: "My catchphrase is "Death maimed me, death sustained me, death motivates me’."
The 'maiming' he refers to is a serious injury he suffered while working as a crime scene investigator earlier in his career.
Vidal said: "I went to move the body of a 280 pound female suicide victim, and I ruptured three discs in my back.
"I was retired by the medical examiner's office and went through many surgeries, and four years of rehabilitation."
Vidal's disability made it hard for him to find employment and eventually he found work collecting tissue samples from funeral homes.
His new position put him in contact with bereaved families.
He said: "At these places, I came across so many people who didn't believe the official account of what had happened to their loved ones.
"Hospitals don't want to spend money on the dead, so less than 1% of bodies get autopsies these days: nobody was looking out for these people.
"That's how 1-800-Autopsy was born."
Created in 1988, Vidal says his 'boss' is his wife of 35 years, Vicky, who fields calls, counsels distraught relatives and decides which cases to take on.
His working day typically begins at 4am and he and his team - which includes four licensed pathologists, who oversee every autopsy - never know what to expect.
Vidal said: "Some people want a relative's gold teeth extracted so they can melt down the gold and sell it; others want us to collect DNA for a post-death paternity test.
"We get families fighting over an estate - adult kids want to blame their dad's new lover for killing him off.
"They get mad when they find out that, by law, the girlfriend or wife is the legal next of kin, who has authority over the body. Death can make things very messy."
Despite his love for his profession, Vidal admits that his job can take a heavy toll.
He said: 'When I got injured, a psychologist told me I had Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, from dealing with death all the time.
"Once a month, I host a barbecue here for people who work in this industry.
"Often we have nobody to talk to about what we do, and it's important to let your hair down and vent with people who understand."
But regardless of the stress, Vidal admits there is nothing else he would rather do.
He said: "Death has been good to me. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people find closure. And let's face it, death is a recession-proof business."