Death Cleaners

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

"You can see from the photo that this was a horrible, horrible struggle," says Jennifer. "The guy fought like hell for his life. The blood trails show that they dragged him down to the basement to die."

There's the heart-rending discovery of a digital tape-recorder onto which a young suicide victim left a final message to his family.

"We hit the 'Play' button, and sure enough there was the victim's shaky, fraught-filled voice. His brother came to pick it up and take it to the family. He was a big lumberjack sort of a guy. When I gave it to him he was just bawling. He took it out to his truck and must have listened to it a half-dozen times."

Kris Dougherty has cleaned everything from brain matter 
to pigeon feces in his dozen years in the business.
Becca Young
Kris Dougherty has cleaned everything from brain matter to pigeon feces in his dozen years in the business.
Alex Shevelyov is one of a handful of employees Kris 
Dougherty retains for the nastiest of cleanups.
Becca Young
Alex Shevelyov is one of a handful of employees Kris Dougherty retains for the nastiest of cleanups.

Her most memorable case was a three-day job spent scouring the remains of a 400-pound Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who dropped dead climbing out of the bathtub.

Hanging from the fence outside the rural home near Springfield were dozens of large animal bones — deer vertebrae, cow pelvises, pig skulls. Inside, the man decorated the cinderblock abode with medieval weaponry, more bones and a poster of naked women holding Uzi submachine guns. On several of the windows he'd scribbled the word "Redrum" (murder spelled backward).

"I don't believe in ghosts, but the first thing I did was gather my guys," recalls Jennifer. "We held hands. I prayed: 'God, please protect us.'"

When the team cracked open the door, the stench knocked them into the yard. He'd been festering for three weeks.

"The flies were so thick on the windows, you couldn't see daylight," says Jennifer. "I had to vacuum them off with a Shop-Vac. His body had broken down so much that it was really just a four-inch pile of sludge with some bones on top. The medical examiner came in and took their shovels and scooped up the bones, but that's about all. At some point the gases built up in his body to the point that he exploded. Not only did I have all the sludge on the floor, it's also all over the ceilings and walls.

"Have you ever seen a bowl of pudding that's been left on the counter for a couple hours?" inquires Jennifer. "You know, it gets that kind of hard, gooey layer on top. That's how the surface of his body was. But underneath it was just full of maggots. They're moving about feeding on him, and the whole gelatinous blob was quivering."

That visual still sends shivers down her spine, which is why Jennifer is forever baffled by the legions of folk wanting in on the action.

"I get phone calls from people all the time wanting to start their own business," marvels Jennifer. "It's usually women. I tell them it's a horrible job and they really don't want to get into it, which is true. But I'll be honest. I also don't want the competition."

Last fall a Kansas City outfit garnered headlines when it set up a branch operation in St. Louis and shocked local commuters with grisly billboards announcing "Suicide, Homicide and Death Cleaning."

The company, Bio Cleaning Services of America, has since left town. A woman answering the phones in KC says there wasn't enough business in St. Louis.

It is, one might say, a cut-throat industry.

In 2004 six companies advertised in the Greater St. Louis Yellow Pages under the listing "Crime & Trauma Scene Clean Up" — a title SBC added to its phone book only within the past three years.

Today the yellow pages contain the names of just three companies. The problem, agree Jennifer Polk and Kris Dougherty with Anchor Trauma and Fatality Service, is that so few people know about their line of work.

"When something like this happened in the past, the family cleaned it up themselves or burned down the house," explains Jennifer. "What people don't realize is that nine out of ten times, homeowner's insurance will cover our expenses. So really no one should have to clean up the remains of a loved one."

The definitive history of crime-and-trauma cleanup has yet to be written, but those in the business trace its origins to the crime-plagued battlegrounds of New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s. The industry formed its first public outreach and regulatory board, the American Bio-Recovery Association, as recently as 1996.

Yet even among the hundred or so members of the association, there's frequent discord, especially as to how best to introduce the service to the public.

Jennifer found Bio Cleaning Services' billboards in poor taste. She also takes objection to Dougherty's — and others — tactic of handing out business cards to police departments and medical examiners.

"I'm just so pissed that all these jerks are dropping their cards and playing this game that I believe is ethically questionable," fumes Jennifer. "People get a card from the medical examiner and they're going to think that the cleaning company has been vetted by the state or the city. But that's simply not the case."

In Missouri no governmental body regulates the death-cleaning industry. Perhaps that's not surprising, notes Jennifer, given how real estate law completely ignores the issue of death.

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