Death Cleaners

Meet the people who scrape up the most godawful messes in Missouri

For the longest time Polk dreamed of being a fashion designer. But after graduating Festus High School, she considered the more practical career of nursing. She dropped it after learning of the menial tasks of the profession.

"When it got to the part of dealing with blood and poop I was like, 'Ooh, gross!'"

Still, Jennifer's older sister, Aimee Hamby, says her headstrong sibling has always been eager to help those in need.

If looks could kill: Jennifer Polk's baby-blue eyes have seen things you can't even imagine.
Becca Young
If looks could kill: Jennifer Polk's baby-blue eyes have seen things you can't even imagine.
Becca Young

"I'll never forget when we were teenagers a car cut across the median of the highway and nearly clipped us head-on," says Hamby. "All of us were shell-shocked, but not Jennifer. Before my mom could even come to a complete stop she was out the door, running down the embankment to the wrecked vehicle. The car had flipped several times. Jennifer was at the driver's-side window telling the dazed and injured woman to stay calm — that everything would be all right."

Jennifer was just 21 and still in college — taking classes in court stenography at St. Louis Community College at Meramec — when she married her high-school sweetheart Jim Polk. A soft-spoken man with dark features, Jim worked as a city paramedic. The same year they married — 1993 — the city's murder tally spiked to an all-time record of 267.

"You name it, I saw it," reflects Jim, who spent four years with the city's emergency medical services. "Many times we'd be leaving a bloodied crime scene and the property owner would stop to ask us what they were supposed to do with the mess. We never had an answer."

It would take several more years before Jim struck upon the idea of opening his own death-cleaning business.

"I was watching the Discovery Channel one night and they had a promo for a show on bizarre businesses," he remembers. "The program featured a couple in Los Angeles who cleaned up crime scenes. I was like, 'Bingo!'"

Convincing Jennifer to join the business would prove a greater challenge. By then the couple had two small sons and Jennifer had grown comfortable in her role as a stay-at-home mom.

"I don't even like to clean my own house; now you want me to clean up blood and guts in someone else's home!?" Jennifer recalls telling her husband. "They got people to shovel shit, and it's not me."

Still, Jennifer says her faith — she found spirituality after marrying into her husband's family of devoted Southern Baptists — forced her to consider Jim's proposition.

"I remember praying: 'God, is this really what You want me to do with my life?'"

One of their first jobs: cleaning up after a woman who literally drank herself to death.

"It looked like a frat house," recollects Jennifer. "There were hundreds of cans of beer. She'd finish one and just drop it where she was and crack open another. Piles of rotting food and carry-out boxes were all over the place. She'd vomited everywhere, and she must have had GI (gastrointestinal) bleeding 'cause there were trails of blood and feces throughout the condo."

The woman was dead for at least two weeks before family members discovered the body.

"At that point the body just starts breaking down, so there was lots and lots of fluid. Blood and urine draining from her corpse seeped from the third floor to the basement. Maggots filled the walls and floors," says Jennifer, with the nonchalance one might use to convey a weather report.

"There were so many of them, they got washed down the drain and flies were coming up out of the floor drains in the neighboring condos. The whole building was full of flies, but no one knew where they were coming from."

From there, business took off. The couple charges $100 per man hour, with jobs ranging from a few hundred bucks to as much as $18,000 for work requiring structural repairs —such as replacing blood-bowed floors and larvae-lined walls.

The money can be good, but it's sporadic. Jennifer keeps the company cell phone on her at all times, answering calls 24/7. Still, weeks can go by without landing a decent-paying gig. While some have accused the couple of profiting off other people's misfortunes, the Polks justify their business as filling an unmet need.

"We could charge a lot more for this, believe me," says Jim. "There are companies on the coasts that make millions off this."

That first cleanup involving the alcoholic earned the couple fifteen grand — money they quickly sank back into their fledgling business. Soon they purchased two retired ambulances, outfitting the rigs with huge, blaze-orange biohazard symbols and the company motto: "Rapidly Responding in Your Time of Need."

They built a handsome new garage and office in their hometown of Crystal City to store all their equipment — flat-nosed shovels, putty knives, mops, power saws, crates of disinfectant and an "ozone machine" that neutralizes all but the most noxious of odors. The list goes on.

Seated in their office the week before Christmas, the Polks pore over photos that document the more than 300 cases they've responded to over the years.

There's the haunting University City homicide in 2003, in which Jennifer discovered the murder weapon, a dull and jagged butcher knife.

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