Death Cleaners

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

Jennifer Polk

Jennifer Polk's job is to mop up the hellish mess, not ask questions. But to her trained eye, the sticky remnants of a suicide tell plenty.

"You can tell by the teeth in the ceiling that he placed the barrel under his chin," observes Polk, whose Jefferson County firm, Midwest Crisis Cleaning, is one of but a few local businesses engaged in the macabre industry of death cleaning.

"When they put the barrel in the mouth, everything above the teeth blows up. The jaw usually stays intact."

It's been at least 72 hours since the victim ended his life in this nondescript apartment in west St. Louis County. Earlier on this gray February morning, the coroner's office arrived to collect the body. Still, there's so much more to clean.

Congealed blood blankets the room, lending the walls the appearance of an ersatz Pollock abstract. The shotgun blast ripped through the victim's skull and punched a hole through the ceiling. A narrow stream of sunlight now pours through the fist-size opening, penetrating the darkness.

The suffocating odor of death hangs heavy. Religious books scattered across the floor — the Bible and Jehovah's Witness literature — reveal the victim may have been searching for a higher power he never found.

Dressed in blue hazmat suits, the 33-year-old Jennifer Polk and her crew of four men — full-time firefighters and EMTs whom she hires at $50 per hour — diligently begin the grisly task. Parts of the walls can be wiped free with virus-killing disinfectants and household cleaners. Others will have to be replaced with new drywall. Any fabric tainted with body fluids — including the bloodied sofa-sleeper on which the victim fell — is placed in red biohazard bags destined for a medical-waste incinerator.

With clinical calm, Polk points to a waxy blot on the wall and asks, "You see that stain there? That's brain matter. It's almost impossible to get off."

In the corner of the room, a moist and matted section of scalp might be mistaken for a small, drowned rodent. Next to it, the athletic Polk bends down to pick up a tablespoon-size fragment of skull.

"I'm always surprised how absolutely clean skull comes out," she says matter-of-factly. "It's so white and clean. No fluid whatsoever."

Soon, she's tiptoeing around the room like a beachcomber, filling a Ziploc freezer bag with the jigsaw-puzzle remains of the victim's crown. Her employees look on in shocked silence.

"Normally we joke around during jobs," she concedes. "You couldn't do this without a sense of humor. But look at this piece of scalp. You can see where he parted his hair. He was what, maybe 25 years old?"

Kris Dougherty says he got into the death-cleaning business a dozen years ago.

"If you told me I could have ten of these cleanups a day, I wouldn't want them," says Dougherty, who charges as much as $20,000 for the most repugnant scrub-downs. "Unfortunately, there's a need for this. I look at it as a civic duty, like nurses or teachers."

As president of a company that provides cleaning services to hotels, Dougherty routinely received calls from clients asking him if he could sanitize a room following one's final summons. Hotels, notes Dougherty, are popular destinations for people with a death wish.

"They want to get away from their natural environment. Go someplace no one can find them. A hotel is the logical choice," posits the 45-year-old Dougherty, whose St. Ann-based Anchor Trauma and Fatality Service has deterged dozens of hotel suicides over the years.

Hotels relieve the victim's family the burden of having to hose off the hideous leftovers, adds Dougherty. "If you really want to do a clean suicide, go in the bathroom, shut the door, get in the shower, turn the water on — then shoot yourself."

It's not just suicides. Not sure what to do with the decomposing remains of that bedridden aunt? Stumble upon the scene of a blood-drenched homicide? Find a co-worker's corpse pinned beneath the conveyor belt?

Call a death cleaner.

"The medical examiner will get the bulk of it," says Dougherty. "But their job is not to clean. Generally any body part smaller than a quarter gets left behind."

That leaves lots of work for Dougherty and his crew, especially when assigned the more ghastly jobs — like the time three years ago when a man literally blew himself up in a popular Soulard eatery.

News articles reported that the repairman was recharging the restaurant's refrigeration system when a tank of Freon exploded, killing him just prior to the lunch-time rush.

"The guy didn't have time to say, 'Oh, shit!'" recalls Dougherty. "There was nothing left of him from the waist up. He was literally all over the kitchen.

"We were scraping him off the walls with spatulas, and I could tell some of my people were about to lose it. Finally, I picked up an egg and yelled, 'Look. An eyeball!' I tossed it at one of my guys and it splattered all over the floor. That broke the dour mood and we could get down to business."

Jennifer Polk wears her strawberry-blond hair in a Jennifer Aniston coiffure. Attractive and sincere, she's the type of person who, when telling a story, will grab hold of her subject's arm, drawing the person's attention to her clear blue eyes.

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.

"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.

"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."

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.

"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.

"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.

"In the summer I probably sweat out ten pounds a day," says Jennifer. "I'll take off a glove and there'll be pools of sweat in each of the fingers. And still it doesn't keep the smell of death from penetrating your clothes and hair."

On several occasions, Jennifer says, her crew has stopped somewhere for lunch only for nearby diners to catch one whiff of them and leave the restaurant. Their rules for dining out after a job: No Chinese food (the rice looks too much like maggots) and no barbecue (the tangy vittles remind them too much of human entrails).

"Hell yeah, it affects you," agrees Dougherty. "People think the job is cool and everything. But it's not. I laugh when people call me and say they want to get into this business."

Flipping through pictures of the bloodshed he's cleaned over the years, Dougherty pauses at a photo of a soiled and tattered airport hotel room. The room's occupant stabbed himself in the stomach. When that failed to kill him, he slit his wrists.

"At some point he decided he wanted to live, and he ran around trying to call 911. There were bloody handprints and footprints all over the place."

Another photo, another suicide. On the bloody bedroom walls, the victim penned a few rambling thoughts: Nobody loves you. It can't rain all the time. Nobody is gonna miss me.

"At least 50 percent of suicides, we find pornography and drug paraphernalia," muses Dougherty. "I guess if you figure you only have a few days left to live, do you hold back? No. These people go all out."

Even more disturbing, adds Dougherty, is the way families gloss over the issues leading up to a suicide. Even in death, there is denial.

"We'll come in to clean and the family will get upset that we're wearing our hazmat suits and taking precautions against pathogens such as tuberculosis, AIDS and hepatitis," he says. "They'll say, 'Oh, our boy wasn't into drugs or pornography. He would never do that!' And you want to ask them, 'Oh, and I guess he would never kill himself either?!'

"But of course, you don't dare say that. Instead you listen to them and say what you can to help them cope. Sometimes I feel like a mortician and a grievance counselor rolled into one. We probably cry on half the jobs we do. Who wouldn't?"

Jennifer recalls how a client showed up at her door one day saying she'd come to deliver a check. But really all the woman wanted was a sympathetic ear. Days earlier, her husband placed a handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

"Her family told her that her husband would burn in Hell for killing himself. The image was just too much," says Jennifer, who spent an hour consoling the woman. "I told her I didn't believe that. I said only God and her husband knew where they stood. It wasn't for her family to judge."

Jim Polk quit going on calls months ago, fed up with the filth and squalor. Jennifer believes God introduced her to the business and she's sticking with it until she hears otherwise.

"God will let me know when it's time to move on," she confides. "I love and hate my job at the same time. But at the end of my life, I'll know I made a difference.

"No, I didn't design a pretty dress that someone wore to the Oscars like I dreamed of as a little girl. But I'll be darned if someone is not going to remember me one day and say, 'During this horrible point in my life I met this really nice girl, and she really helped me out.'"

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.