Death Cleaners

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

"Pets, lead paint, mold — they're all things you have to disclose when you sell a house," says Jennifer. "But if someone is brutally murdered in a home and the place was full of maggots and the floors and walls had to be replaced because of damage from the decomposing corpse? You don't have to say a thing."

In 1998 California became one of the first states to pass legislation monitoring the removal of biohazardous waste from non-health-care facilities. The bill also provided that state's Department of Health Services with licensing powers and the ability to enforce penalties on companies that do not properly dispose of waste.

Phone calls to the Missouri Department of Health left a spokeswoman fumbling for which state agency — if any — would oversee death cleaning. The industry also falls outside the purview of the Missouri Division of Professional Regulation, an agency that licenses everyone from accountants to professional wrestlers.

Becca Young
Becca Young

"It's true," says Dougherty. "Other states monitor this, but not Missouri."

The only federal regulations for the field come by way of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, whose codes on blood-borne pathogens require safeguards such as hepatitis vaccinations.

Dougherty picked up his OSHA training a few years back during a multiday conference. He's since passed along his knowledge to a team of four employees he reserves for trauma and crime-scene cleanup.

"The first thing I have them do is get their shots," says Dougherty. "Then I try to explain to them as best I can what they're getting into. This isn't for the weak."

Dougherty boasts that his is the best-trained crew in town and dismisses Jennifer and her firemen as amateurs.

"They're just moonlighting," scoffs Dougherty. "They don't do this day in and day out. They don't understand how fluid travels and that you have to use black lights and Luminol to find all the matter. It's more than just cleaning for appearances. This is about cleaning for health."

When relayed Dougherty's thoughts on her company, Jennifer flies into a rage.

"What a schmuck! My guys are the most experienced people there are when it comes to biohazard removal. I mean, who do they call when a chemical truck spills? The fire department."

Her rant is interrupted when the phone rings.

"Midwest Crisis Cleaning, may I help you? Urine and feces, huh? A cat? All over the basement? Sure, we can take a look. But let's do it tomorrow, because unless it's a homicide or a suicide, we're not working Christmas Day."

No jobs are overlooked. The unifying factor: The work must be so nasty no one else dares take it on.

"We pretty much handle anything that goes beyond your Merry Maid cleaning service," notes Jennifer before reeling off a list of recent assignments.

There's the midnight call she received just last month when a disgruntled Home Depot employee showcased his contempt for the company by defecating all over the store's restroom.

"I show up and I'm sure it's just hysterical to all the employees," says Jennifer. "They probably think I'm a high-school dropout — some poor, uneducated schlep. I think they're surprised I have all my teeth, frankly."

There's the woman who up and left her home never to return. Her 30 cats eventually starved to death, but not before relieving themselves all over the house. No odor is harder to neutralize than the sulfuric calling card of an incontinent cat, says Jennifer.

"It permeates the concrete, the drywall, the lumber — everything," she says. "For that job we cleaned it as best we could, but finally we just totaled it out. It had to be bulldozed."

Worse are the hoarders or, as Jennifer calls them, "path houses," because of the narrow passageways the mentally ill cut through their cluttered homes. In 2003 she and her crew spent a week cleaning up the home of a hoarder in Ste. Genevieve, filling seven Dumpsters in the process.

"It was like the running of the bulls. Each time we picked something up, it would stir a colony of mice and they'd hit the paths running."

Among the layers of debris Jennifer and her crew found dead cats, mounds of rotten meat and $70,000 worth of jewelry.

"The whole time we're there, the woman is standing around smoking and pleading that we not throw anything away," says Jennifer. "Literally everything she ever touched in her life was in that house. Stuff was piled four feet high. We had to clean the basement with shovels."

Another nasty job: Prior to the renovation of the Old Post Office downtown, Dougherty and his crew spent nine days purging a century's worth of pigeon feces off the building.

"In some places it was three feet deep," says Dougherty. "And it wasn't pigeon crap. There were deformed birds and half-eaten carcasses left by the falcons. We had to wear oxygen tanks. Pigeon feces is notorious for harboring a range of nasty lung diseases — cryptoccosis and psittacosis for starters."

A dab of Vicks VapoRub under the nose will cut some odors. Stronger smells — such as decomposing flesh and cat urine — require charcoal-filtered respirators. Tyvek body suits and latex gloves protect the skin and clothing.

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