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Ooh, That Smell

Death is messy. Aftermath cleans it up.



Brian and Kevin Reifsteck talk little as they work, wiping tiny flecks of blood, skull, skin, and brain matter from the walls, ceiling, and floor of a west-suburban bedroom. They wear disposable, boot-shaped plastic bags over their shoes, latex gloves, bright yellow Tyvek suits, and T-shirts that say Aftermath, Inc.

Jason Kiefer, the crew's foreman, kneels on the floor where he's torn up a section of carpet and tile, staring at a dark stain on the subfloor. It's directly below the spot where a man in his mid-50s killed himself with a small-caliber pistol the night before.

The dead man's elderly mother opens the door. "How's it going in here?" she asks with a strained smile.

Jason tells her that the stain is just glue--no body fluids leaked down to the subfloor, which means it won't need to be sealed or removed.

"OK," the woman says, shaking her head as she surveys the room. "Whatever needs to go can go. I'm not gonna use this room for a while."

Jason, Brian, and Kevin put whatever can't be cleaned into plastic-lined cardboard boxes marked "biohazard." There are already four large, pinkish-red chunks of brain in a box in their truck outside, along with the section of bloodstained carpet. On the wall directly across from where the man apparently knelt or sat to shoot himself in the head is a framed picture of Jesus, grieving alone on the moonlit Mount of Olives the night before his betrayal. Brian wipes dust and a couple spots of something pink from the picture, then puts it in a plain cardboard box with other untainted or cleaned items that the family will keep, including three pairs of 40-by-30 men's jeans, a baseball cap that says Arizona State 1997, an empty canvas rifle bag, and a box of documents topped with a bill sent to the dead man and his building company.

"Hey Jason, what about this?" Brian asks, holding up a roll of architectural plans for a house. The outermost sheet is smeared with blood, but nothing has soaked through to the other pages. After a brief discussion, the three men decide to tear off the stained sheet and put the rest in the box with the other salvaged stuff.

A woman's chat-room nickname written on a slip of paper lies next to a dusty computer monitor. "Whatever you do, don't turn off the computer," Jason says. "They're gonna look for E-mail." He says the man didn't leave a suicide note. The closest thing to that is a computer printout of "The Paradox of Our Time," a widely distributed on-line essay wrongly attributed to George Carlin, that's lying conspicuously on the printer. "We've learned how to make a living," it reads, "but not a life; we've added years to life, not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We've conquered outer space, but not inner space....These are days of two incomes, but more divorce; of fancier houses, but broken homes."

It's a relatively tidy suicide, the cleaners say. Because the victim used a small-caliber pistol to do himself in, he splattered only one side of the room. And his corpse was discovered and removed shortly after it had fallen, so body fluids didn't have much time to leak out and soak into the floor. No biomatter seemed to make it over to the computer or to the stereo and into its cooling vents, so it won't smell like cooking meat the next time it's turned on.

Brian wipes dust from a few more items on the desk--an alarm clock, a cordless phone, a small lamp, a 1979 football trophy that's also a pen holder--and leaves them there. "Sometimes," Jason says, "most of this is just a regular cleaning job."

After two and a half hours Brian lays the tools they've used in a line on the floor and sprays them on all sides with a hospital decontaminant. While Kevin starts to pack up, Jason goes to find the mother.

In the living room the dead man's ex-wife, children, siblings, and other relatives smoke and talk about good and bad times: playing together as kids, drinking too much as adults, achieving relative sobriety, losing a wife to cancer, and now losing another family member to booze and depression. One woman says, "This family's roots were fertilized with alcohol."

The mother is in the kitchen. "There's clothes and stuff in the closet," she yells into the living room. "You can all go through and take what you want." Another son enters the kitchen, and she tells him, "You've got a bunch of clothes to go through in the basement."

"Those are all going to Goodwill," he says. "I'm not taking them."

She turns to Jason.

He says, "OK, here's your copy of the contract," and hands her a pink paper.

"You're not gonna cheat me, are you?" she asks, grinning, as she takes the paper and barely glances at it.

"No, I'm not gonna cheat you," Jason says, returning a slight smile. He reminds her that her home-owner's insurance will foot most of the bill.

"They don't always cover costs," she says. "They told me last night insurance won't cover natural deaths--only suicides."

"This was a suicide, ma," says the dead man's sister, a middle-aged woman with puffy, red-rimmed eyes standing on the other side of the kitchen. She crouches and covers her face with her hands for several seconds.

"For the life of me, I can't figure out why he did it," the mother tells Jason. "I had just given him his clothes, and he went into his room and put them away. Then I heard this 'Boom!' I thought he'd fallen--he'd been drinking again. I came in here and found him. I thought he was asleep. I kept yelling 'Wake up!'" She pauses. "I just don't understand."

When she pauses again, Jason says quietly, "It's unexplainable. Just so you know, it's not a reflection of you. It's nothing you did."

She nods, then says she'll probably move now. "I'd lived here alone for 26 years, and then he came. And now he's gone again. I just don't understand."

Aftermath--one of a small but growing number of companies around the country that specialize in cleaning up after suicides, murders, accidents, births, long-undiscovered deaths, animal infestations, and other events that leave biomatter most cleaning companies either won't or can't clean safely--was founded in 1996 as After Crime Cleaners by Chris Wilson and Tim Reifsteck. They'd been friends since grade school in Sterling, Illinois, and for years had wanted to start a business together. When Wilson got his bachelor's degree in business from Eastern Illinois University, he moved to Naperville, where Reifsteck was finishing his final year in marketing at North Central College.

Wilson had just started a newspaper-subscription-sales company when Reifsteck's teenage neighbor committed suicide in his bedroom with a rifle. They didn't know the family well, but they volunteered to help. "The family looked for approximately six to eight hours for somebody to clean it up," Wilson says. "Restoration companies and so forth who used to do this aren't really doing it anymore because of AIDS and hepatitis B. So we just kind of helped out the neighbor, just went into it blind. We knew that we should be wearing some type of protective gear. We just had gloves, like the industrial-strength gloves and so forth."

As Wilson and Reifsteck worked, they realized that they'd discovered a market niche and decided that they had the stomach to make a living in it. They started researching the idea by calling restoration, carpet-steaming, and housecleaning companies, which in the past had occasionally mopped up blood with little more than shampoo or soap and water but now had enough flood and fire cleanups to keep busy without the extra health risks of removing human remains. Reifsteck says, "We talked to a lot of different people who said, 'Yeah, I've done it a couple of times, but I don't wanna do it. The only time I'll do it is if for some reason I may have known the family.'"

They also called likely experts in the handling of potential biohazards--hospitals, health departments, paramedics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency--though the experts could tell them only about rules and procedures for protecting employees who mop up more easily cleaned environments such as hospitals, factories, and ambulances, not how to clean blood and other remains from carpets and walls. The two got certified by OSHA as qualified to handle blood-borne pathogens (which included getting a series of three hepatitis B vaccinations), got licensed by the EPA to haul medical waste, learned about chemicals that kill a broad spectrum of viruses and bacteria, and began to patch together the methods of their new trade.

Eventually they found other people who specialized in cleaning biomatter-tainted nonmedical settings, including a firefighter in Florida and a forensic investigator in Baltimore who did the work on their days off. They too were fairly new to the business and still learning how to properly clean and disinfect surfaces such as tile and washable-paint walls. And they were still learning about porous surfaces such as wood floors, which can't be completely cleaned if fluids have soaked into them and therefore must be either removed or decontaminated and sealed so odors and stains can't seep out.

After eight months of research, Wilson and Reifsteck went out on their first paid cleaning job. "We started out with a shop vac, mop and broom, scrapers, buckets, rags, and a variety of decontaminant chemicals that we had gotten from a local janitorial service," Reifsteck says. "There's really no book to go by. Everything's self-knowledge here. We taught ourselves with a lot of trial and error, unfortunately."

One of their early lessons was that blood, like any fluid, has a way of finding small cracks in an apparently sealed tile floor. And once through a crack, it can seep down through wood subfloor, into wood support beams, and even through the ceiling below. If it's not properly dealt with--as it often isn't--it can emit a smell for years.

Reifsteck says he once worked for a family whose grandfather had lived alone and had died in a first-floor bathroom and lain there undiscovered for about 11 days. "They said, 'We had another person in here. He cleaned the floor up, said everything was fine, and said to give it a couple of days. To take some coffee and burn it on the stove--that'll take care of the smell.' Well, the smell wasn't taken care of a week later, so they called us."

When Reifsteck saw a small crack in the bathroom's tile floor, he asked to see the basement. On the white basement ceiling directly beneath the bathroom, he saw two small red dots. His crew removed the tile and subfloor, and found a large amount of blood that had soaked into the layers of building materials, including a puddle of blood that was still drying atop the basement ceiling.

They also learned that unattended deaths create the most challenging cleanups. There are the stomach-churning smells of rotting meat and old excrement, and there are often maggots. In the most extreme situations the cleaners wear hoods, full-face masks, and respirators. Reifsteck says, "We'll have situations with an unattended body where the maggots have actually crawled up on the walls, and as you walk into the room--and we're in these suits--they're actually dropping onto you. You're gonna hear them--tick, tick--hit you as they drop off the ceiling."

One of their early cleanups was at a house in Chicago where a man's corpse had lain for two years while his mentally disabled daughter continued to live there. The father had apparently died on the first floor, and his body fluids had softened and partially eaten through the hardwood floor below. Eventually they'd dripped through to the basement floor. The daughter had sealed the door to the room with the body in it with duct tape and had placed some 350 air fresheners around the house, but Wilson says that when Aftermath workers arrived they could smell death outside the building. The cleanup required them to cut out the section of floor where the body had rotted and to discard everything in the house.

It doesn't take long for an undiscovered corpse to get messy. "After approximately a day and a half to two days, if the body has lain there unattended, it bloats and then it actually explodes through its navel," Wilson says. "A lot of people don't understand that. That's why there's so much of a mess to clean up when we have an unattended death scene. And not only does the smell gross you out--it just attaches itself to everything in that room. That's why the room has to be wiped down three different times--to decontaminate, disinfect, and deodorize." Carpet, draperies, and upholstered furniture that haven't been touched directly by body fluids can become infused with the stench of a long-undiscovered body and have to be discarded.

A couple who called Aftermath for another unattended-death cleanup said their house had been permeated with a faint stench since they'd bought it two years earlier. A neighbor who overheard the conversation said a previous occupant of the house had died in a back bedroom and had lain undiscovered for about ten days. "Our technicians went in there, and on the floor we could literally see a discoloration of the wood," Reifsteck says. "That's where they were getting the smell from."

Wilson, now 28, and Reifsteck, 29, rarely participate in cleanings anymore. They work full-time--out of their homes, an Aurora warehouse where they keep their truck and supplies, and a shared conference space in a downtown Chicago office building--fielding calls from people in 12 midwestern states and attending to job assignments, billing, marketing, and other business matters.

Kevin, who's 25, and Brian, 20, are Tim Reifsteck's brothers, and Jason, 28, is a longtime friend. They make up Aftermath's latest cadre of usually young, mostly part-time, on-call employees. Before going out on their first job, employees must log 12 hours in Aftermath's training program, watch a 15-minute blood-borne-pathogen safety video that OSHA requires, and complete a series of three hepatitis B shots. They get another 30 hours of on-the-job training before they can call themselves technicians, and they make from $25 to $32.50 an hour, depending on their experience, the difficulty of a given job, and whether the service is to be completely paid for by a client (or the client's insurance company) or provided at a deep discount or pro bono.

Aftermath regularly does cleanups for the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Park District. They recently removed nearly 1,200 hypodermic needles from an island in a Humboldt Park pond.

But most of Aftermath's cleanups are on private property, and most are covered by insurance, though property owners and insurance agents often don't realize such services are covered. Aftermath has charged up to $10,000 for a cleanup. Wilson says that many insurance companies balk at paying higher fees to cover what they consider a basic cleaning service, yet most of those same companies wouldn't sell Aftermath coverage because the frequent contact its employees have with blood placed them at too high a risk. They did find an insurer, CNA, but the coverage is expensive and only adds to their operating cost.

When they're out on a job, the cleaners treat anything that's been touched by any body fluid or tissue as a potential biohazard. They start by spraying everything in the room with a decontaminant hospitals use to kill the germs that cause tuberculosis--they're some of the toughest microbes to kill, so the spray will also kill HIV, hepatitis viruses, fungi, and other pathogens. They wait at least 25 minutes for it to work--they say OSHA requires waiting 20--then they videotape and take photographs of the site for their insurance records.

When they begin to clean they first remove any items that are tainted and uncleanable, putting them in the biohazard boxes, then they wipe washable surfaces three times with cloths dipped in diluted solutions of decontaminants. "A decontaminant will kill what it touches on the surface," says Wilson. "But if there's a pile of blood here and you just spray the surface, it's not killing what's under that. So we hit everything three times to guarantee that when we are done with that scene, that it is dead--that everything has been wiped clean."

Wilson and Reifsteck say they've been given conflicting advice by medical and scientific experts about the virulence of various pathogens. They say many experts have told them that how long microbes survive outside a living body depends in part on the environment; warm, humid rooms, for example, might let them live longer than cool, dry ones. Despite the notoriety of tuberculosis and HIV, Wilson says he and many other cleaners are more concerned about hepatitis, which he's been told can survive in dried blood, saliva, or other body fluids and reanimate if the medium gets wet again. "Hepatitis B, if it's improperly cleaned, has the ability to resurface six to seven weeks later," Wilson says, "and can be a health hazard for up to seven years after that."

Many public clients call Aftermath rather than test theories about the virulence of pathogens with their own cleaning employees. Reifsteck says, "We get called in a lot to police departments to do cells in which a prisoner had stated he had tuberculosis." Wilson adds, "We have to go in and wipe everything down, bring in a fogger. We get a lot of calls for cleanups with just blood--blood and vomit. I mean, police don't want to touch it."

Like colleagues across the country, Wilson and Reifsteck distribute their business cards to police and police chaplains--hoping they'll call if they need cleanups on police property or at the homes of police officers and hoping that occasionally they'll pass the cards along to victims of crimes and accidents. But the Chicago Police Department, like most big-city police departments, has a policy prohibiting employees from referring families of victims to any for-profit service.

"As soon as you drop off your cards at a police department, most of them take them and throw them away," says Wilson. "They know they can't refer it--it would be like them referring an attorney. In the suburbs, they're running their places a little bit different than the city. They'll give out our name or another company's name because they understand the family's in need of it. And they're dealing with this like maybe once every month, compared to Chicago's dealing with it every day about five, six, seven times."

In many parts of the country police and emergency workers wouldn't even know of a company that does Aftermath's kind of work. For 18 years Ron Gospodarski worked as a paramedic in New York City and saw many families at a loss over what to do about the messes left after victims of accidents and crimes were removed. "We had to leave people who were dead, and we had to leave blood and all this stuff behind," he says. "We had family asking all the time, 'Who's gonna help us clean this up? Who can we get?' And there never was any answer." That's why he started Bio-Recovery Corporation.

He says it wasn't just blood or discarded examination gloves left behind after police and coroners finished investigating a scene. "It was things you wouldn't even possibly imagine: brains, skulls, pieces of--I mean, you name it. And that's terrible. But they won't give you the name to call someone that'll come clean it up--isn't that bizarre?"

Gospodarski is also president of the American BioRecovery Association (ABRA), which a few "bioremediation" companies founded in 1996 as a way to network and begin to set ethical and technical standards for the emerging industry. They invited other companies they considered ethical and professional enough to join them, and now ABRA has more than 40 members, including Aftermath. Members talk shop on the phone and over the Internet, and once a year they hold a convention.

"We share everything," says Wilson, "all our information, talking on the phone and E-mailing each other with different ideas, better ways of cleaning something, different techniques of cleaning up--maybe a stain on the wall, if it's a stucco ceiling, or something like that. We just pass on that information to each other. We all kind of have our own set ways that we train our employees. Nobody has a perfect one."

Wilson and Reifsteck say they consider OSHA's 15-minute video presentation inadequate for medical- or trauma-scene cleaners, and they think the agency's mostly complaint-based enforcement is too lax to make sure people who are paid to clean up biomatter do it safely, whether they're apartment-building janitors or cleaners with bioremediation companies. "This is an industry where a lot of people are falsely informed," Reifsteck says, "and where OSHA, unfortunately--due to how rapidly this business has started to grow--hasn't stepped in and said, 'Wait a second, we've gotta revise this,' because these situations that we're going into don't occur in hospitals."

Reifsteck says Aftermath disposes of any biomatter-tainted stuff it collects--along with the protective clothing and cloths that touch it--as medical waste, but that's not the norm. "A regular carpet-cleaning company went in and did a suicide cleanup at this house--took the mattress, wrapped it up, went down to the neighbor's house, put it out in their garbage." The neighbors' garbage hauler refused to touch the bloody mattress and suggested they call Aftermath to get rid of it. "Dogs will eat that stuff," Reifsteck adds. "Cats will get into that stuff. It's a health hazard all the way around."

Beverly Albarracin, a medical-waste specialist at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says there's no state law prohibiting anyone from throwing blood-stained furniture--or body parts, for that matter--into the garbage. Under Illinois' waste-disposal laws, human biomatter is regulated only if it's "generated" as part of a medical treatment or diagnosis. IEPA also considers used syringes and other potentially contaminated home-health products medical waste if they're removed by a commercial cleaning service but not if they're tossed out by the person who used them.

Dawn Metzler, whose family's Servicemaster franchise in Elk Grove Village has done plenty of bioremediation jobs since they got into the cleaning business 12 years ago, says she'd never toss a blood-soaked mattress or internal organs into the regular trash. But she says that not everything stained with blood has to be disposed of as medical waste. "It depends," she says. "Once it's out of the body, pretty much after 48 hours anything that was alive is dead."

Albarracin says that in the past couple of years she's had calls from nearly a dozen people across the state asking what the IEPA would require if they were to handle trauma-scene waste, but she's never heard any discussion in Springfield about changing the medical-waste standards to cover trauma-scene biomatter.

So far, California is the only state to adopt laws that specifically address the industry. Passed in 1998, its Trauma Scene Waste Management Act requires bioremediation companies to register with the state and to follow specific rules on cleaning trauma scenes and disposing of human remains. It also requires that trauma scenes on outdoor public property be cleaned by registered companies, rather than left for rain to wash away or hosed down by firefighters (as is often the case in Chicago).

The regulations led to a proliferation of bioremediation companies in California, up from a handful in early 1998 to 69 this year. They've also led to attempts by companies to cooperate--and to scuffles over turf. Jack McGurk oversees registration of bioremediation companies for the California Department of Health Services. "Some people have been overly aggressive," he says. "We had this one practitioner that was using our department's logo on their business cards." The company was telling potential clients that they were "with" the police and the health department, until a competitor called to complain about the misrepresentation. McGurk says, "It's like being a kindergarten cop sometimes and trying to keep peace in the sandbox at recess."

Elsewhere in the country, ABRA members are lobbying state and local governments, asking them to require professional cleanups and better disposal of biomatter from injuries and deaths that occur in public places. Phoenix's municipal government recently contracted with a bioremediation company to provide proper cleanup of trauma scenes as a city service.

ABRA also wants to make its members easier to find. An 800 number for ABRA's directory of members is now listed along with other emergency numbers in the front of BellSouth and GTE phone books used in much of the southern U.S. "We've gotten a lot of phone calls," Gospodarski says. "The police departments, public-safety agencies love it, because now they can just say, 'Look at the front of your phone book,' and they don't have to worry about this conflict of interest, this patronage type of thing."

Of course there's always the Internet. ABRA's site and other Web sites offer information about bioremediation companies around the country as well as contact information. Some companies also offer training and tips about getting set up in the business, and at least two sites sell T-shirts that refer to "The Grim Sweepers." One shows the grim reaper holding a broom, the logo of Scene-Clean, in Tenafly, New Jersey. Asepsis Technology in Healdsburg, California, offers a T-shirt showing a cartoon of a suited-up bioremediator preparing to enter a room where a man lies in a puddle of blood, vapor lines rising from his torso. The company also sells a line of "Grim Sweeper specialty wines."

It's not an easy service to pitch. "Marketing is by far the hardest thing about this," Wilson says. "Just like a funeral home, it doesn't lend itself to it." He and Reifsteck used to have a van with After Crime Cleanup, Inc., painted on the side, but they found that most customers didn't appreciate something so conspicuous in their driveways. They changed their name to Aftermath after a consultant pointed out that most of their cleanups were of messes left after suicides, natural deaths, and other incidents that didn't involve murder. Their current vehicle, a white 12-ton truck, is unlabeled.

For about two months last year they ran a commercial on WCKG FM, the classic-rock station. "We did the radio just to see what kind of response we would get," Wilson says, "just to throw the name out there." The commercials didn't attract any customers, but Aftermath did get about 2,000 job applications. They now market directly--sending letters, cold-calling, following up on referrals--to funeral directors, clergy, property-management companies, and other people and businesses that deal with survivors who must clean up after messy deaths.

Metzler says her family has never had trouble marketing their bioremediation services, which account for $200,000, or a quarter, of their business. She says police in Elk Grove and other suburbs refer trauma victims to them, and they also get jobs from their industrial and commercial customers--in stores, hotels, restaurants, and factories, where accidents, suicides, and crimes frequently happen.

Last year Aftermath hired a consultant, Susan Murphy Milano, to work with Aftermath clients who need more than a cleaning company. In 1989 Murphy Milano's father shot her mother and then himself in the apartment her mother had rented when she left him six months earlier, and Murphy Milano had to clean up the mess after their corpses had been removed. She later founded On Our Own and Hear Our Cries, two agencies that help women trying to escape their abusers, and often wound up helping families clean up the blood of murdered or injured clients. Now she helps Aftermath clients find funding to pay for cleanups--insurance or government compensation--and gives them information about grief and trauma counseling and other services. "I never got it out of my head after my parents died that I couldn't find a [cleaning] company," she says. "And I never got it out of my head that providing services to these other people, these other victims--there wasn't anybody to do it."

Murphy Milano also speaks to public officials and community groups, trying to persuade them that cleanup can be a serious business. She and Wilson and Reifsteck have been pushing for better training for janitors at schools, police stations, prisons, malls, and apartments who might have to wipe up anything from vomit to the remains of murdered tenants. They say that janitors can be trained to safely clean up smaller messes, but they believe that larger messes should be left to companies like Aftermath. They also believe that emergency workers should be trained to be less cavalier around human biomatter, pointing out that paramedics, police investigators, and coroners often track through body fluids at crime scenes without shoe protectors. A friend of Murphy Milano's may have contracted hepatitis B from helping clean up blood at a trauma scene, and she wonders how many police and emergency workers are unwittingly risking their own and others' health.

Reifsteck has a picture of a carpet stain in the shape of a fallen body, a stain police departments and other emergency workers call the "halo effect." The carpet was in a house in a western suburb where a body had lain unattended for about two weeks, and Aftermath was called to do the cleanup. A woman living across the street called city hall to ask what the people in yellow suits were doing, and a member of the city council, who was also chair of the city's board of health, showed up to see what was scaring the neighbors. Reifsteck says, "He walked in there in his suit, into this smell that would literally make most human beings throw up. Flies were buzzing everywhere. He literally--with his brand-new loafers--stands on top of those bodily fluids and says, 'I've seen worse.'"

Wilson says Aftermath has cleaned up after several police officers, paramedics, and firefighters have killed themselves. "They go into this thinking, 'This is my job. I can't complain that I can't eat anymore. I'm getting depressed because I saw this guy die the other day. This is my job. This is what I'm getting paid for. I can't complain about that.' There's hope out there for them, but they don't say anything."

Reifsteck and Wilson know that their own employees--and their families--can be overwhelmed by the job. They insist that employees report any signs of "critical incident stress syndrome," which include irritability, depression, nightmares, insomnia, and the inability to eat certain foods. "Some of our workers can't eat rice because it looks too much like maggots," says Wilson, "or they can't eat red Jell-O because it looks like blood. It can come and go at any time. So when we have that happen with one of our employees, we have to take them in--they need counseling on it."

Wilson says he's occasionally been unable to eat some foods, and he once had a nightmare in which he found his wife and baby daughter murdered. But he insists the problems didn't last long enough that he wanted counseling. None of the current Aftermath crew say they've had problems like his so far.

Metzler says she's more distressed by her own kids' illnesses than by what she sees at trauma scenes. "I know it sounds awful, but it doesn't bother me," she says. "But my daughter throws up--I can't deal with it." She says some suicide cleanups are strange because the individuals are so careful not to make messes. "They've done everything they could to make it easy. We've had people put newspaper all over the windows, all over the walls. Put tarps down on the floor for a hanging. Yeah, that's kind of bizarre."

Cleanup workers usually have the most difficulty coping with murder scenes. Wilson has Polaroid photos taken in 1998 of a living room in a small apartment in northwest Indiana. Near the TV is a rocking chair and a shelf of CDs and children's videos. The scene would be tidy and comfortable if everything weren't splattered with blood and tissue. A nearly intact brain and part of an intestine lie on the carpet, which also has several burn marks and large bloodstains.

Reifsteck and Wilson say a man who got tired of being teased by coworkers about a longtime friend's affair with his ex-wife burned down his own trailer, then went to his ex-wife's apartment with an AK-47, planning to kill her and himself. He shot his way into the apartment and found her and the other man there together. He forced her to watch as he shot at the man's limbs until they were severed. The man lay in agony, begging to be killed, and he finally did kill him, shooting him so many times that he decapitated him. He tried to set fire to the man's genitals, then made his ex-wife leave, perhaps deciding not to kill her because they'd had a child together. After a two-hour standoff with police, he shot and killed himself.

"You could just feel, when you came in the door, the hate," Wilson says. "You can't believe somebody would do something like this. And there's still the smell." The police investigation took five days, though the bulk of the corpses was removed shortly after the man killed himself. More than the usual amount of biomatter was left behind. Reifsteck says three of their workers quit after cleaning up the gruesome scene. "We were completely unprepared to perform this cleanup the first day we got there," he says. He and Wilson had been at a friend's funeral mass when they both started getting multiple pages from their cleaners. "We'd been told that it was bad, but what they saw was by far the worst scene that they'd encountered. If we'd had better knowledge of what had happened we would have counseled our guys about everything they'd be seeing when they entered--intact brains, intestines, bones embedded like a grenade had gone off."

Reifsteck says he's trained four employees since April, none of whom is still working for Aftermath. The longest anyone besides Kevin, Brian, and Jason has lasted is ten months.

Aftermath employees have cleaned up the scenes of some high-profile crimes, including the Naperville house where Marilyn Lemak killed her three children in their beds and wounded herself before she called 911 for help, and the home in Gurnee where in 1997 a man shot and killed his wife, his two young children, and himself with a 12-gauge shotgun. In both cases the Aftermath workers had to deal not only with a horrifying mess but with pictures of smiling families on the walls and crowds of neighbors and journalists waiting outside to pump them for news of what they'd seen inside. But most of the remains Aftermath cleans up are of people who died as anonymously as they lived.

On a cold Thursday morning in February, Kevin, Jason, and Brian are at a CHA high-rise next to the Eisenhower Expressway near Garfield Park. The building houses mostly seniors, though there's a growing number of younger tenants with children. When the elevator doors open on an upper floor there's a strong stench of rotting meat and disinfectants. Kevin says the smell isn't nearly as bad as it was when he showed up the previous night to clean the hallway outside the apartment.

When workers were removing the corpse of an obese tenant--bloated from lying undiscovered on his bathroom floor for around a week--it apparently fell off the gurney and exploded in the hallway outside his apartment. "The guy weighed about 450 pounds," says Kevin, "and his body had probably expanded to twice that size. So it would be hard to get a body bag over him."

CHA janitors had tried to clean the hallway. But blood and other fluids had seeped down through cracks between the tiles, and they squirted up whenever someone stepped there. People who lived on the floor would tiptoe along the edges of the hallway, trying to avoid the worst spots. "All these guys on this floor had rugs and whatever they could stick on their side of the door so the smell wouldn't come into their rooms," says Kevin. "It's just bullshit how they take care of these people here."

Kevin has already cleaned the walls and ceiling of the public hallway and has removed about ten feet of tiles to get at the blood and other fluids under them. Jason has run an ozone generator for several hours in the closed space in an attempt to reduce the stench and to deprive of oxygen whatever microorganisms survived the first round of chemical sprays.

The door of the man's apartment has a "Made in USA" sticker above his last name. Inside, Brian, Kevin, and Jason have mopped up the coffee-colored blood and the shiny yellowish cholesterol that ran from the bathroom, down a short hallway, and under the front door. Now they're emptying the closet next to the bathroom so they can remove whatever blood seeped under its contents.

"He was a war veteran," says Kevin, a veteran himself. He adds sarcastically, "Good thing the government took care of him."

"He had to be at least 50, because he was in Vietnam," Jason says. "He was single."

"Kind of a swinger," Brian adds, as he pulls from the closet a woman's dress shoe that's a different size from the previous one he found, which was a different size from the one before that. He also finds a bunch of pictures of nude men and women. And he and Kevin find men's and women's clothing in several sizes and styles and an old Wang computer. They laugh when they see the brand. They put whatever might be tainted into plastic bags and plastic-lined boxes that they haul to their truck, and they dump the untainted junk into a Dumpster rented by the CHA.

Jason pulls an old photo album, labeled "Vietnam Scrapbook," out of the closet, flips through it for a minute, then, reluctant to throw it out, puts it in a kitchen drawer for some other stranger to find. Inside the scrapbook is an index. The page listed as "Pictures of MY LADY" shows a smiling young Vietnamese woman. The one listed as "Pictures of me and my partners" shows three robust young men in military fatigues with big guns and little kids.

The apartment was a mess long before the man died. The walls and ceilings are yellow with grease, cigarette smoke, and "rust sweat," which Jason says is common on long-unwashed ceilings in metal-framed buildings. Scattered about are half-eaten meals, unwashed dishes, dirty clothes, cigarette butts, broken furniture, a poster of a black Infiniti, a 1999 calendar of classic cars, the scraped-up driver's-side door of an old Cutlass Supreme, Kendall Polygard II disposable underpants, a shopping cart, a dirty mattress with no sheets, condoms, an empty gin bottle next to a 7UP can, an empty package of Marlboro Lights, a broken hockey stick, an NRA membership form, an issue of Parenting magazine, toys from fast-food meals, a business card for a vocational-rehabilitation specialist at the VA hospital in Maywood.

A note taped to a cabinet in the kitchen says, "Gone for renal cleaning. Return around 7:45. Dark & Lovely." There are two empty medicine bottles prescribed to people with two different last names, neither of which matches the last name on the front door. Floating in the toilet is a wrapper labeled AccuSure Maxi-Comfort Ultra-Thin Needle.

Joe (not his real name), a lean, fit-looking man in his 70s who lives in a tidy apartment across the hall, says the last time he saw his neighbor alive was the previous Thursday. He says bad smells had always wafted out of the man's place, but they began to intensify that Friday and soon became unbearable. "A guy next door, he sprayed in the hallway to get the smell out," Joe says. "It smelled like rotten food."

Joe says he didn't complain to the building's managers. "You can't even tell the management," he says. "They don't pay any attention."

He says people arrived on Monday to remove the body. "I really don't know who. They had on masks and things. I really didn't try to see 'cause, as I said, that smell was awful strong. I didn't open the door, you know. They were bumping the walls with the body. I just heard something fall, and they had to pick it up again." When he finally opened his door he saw the walls and floor covered with blood. "I guess it busted open, and it--shew!" He didn't leave his apartment until after CHA janitors mopped the hall, and then he heard the tiles make squishing sounds as he walked on them.

Joe says the building was clean and well managed when he moved into it in 1987. At that time only seniors lived there, and volunteer floor captains regularly checked on their neighbors. But a few years ago the CHA started moving younger tenants into the one-bedroom apartments. "The few seniors here, they're afraid to go out at night and walk the hallways. I don't see why they've got all them thugs and dopers and prostitutes and everything," he says. "There's some people living around here got three or four kids. It's unsanitary. It's not the kids' faults. Then they bring these SSI people in--they use drugs."

He says some of the younger tenants are nice, but he didn't approve of his late neighbor. "He had so many people going in and out of that apartment--a lot of people had keys," he says. "He actually didn't stay there. He stayed in another apartment down there with somebody else."

Joe says Aftermath has done a good job so far, and says he can handle what he's seen. "I was in the navy, and I've smelled dead people before."

Kevin says nothing he's seen working for Aftermath has been as troubling as what he saw when he worked as an army medic and was unable to save wounded colleagues. "That's a lot harder because it's more personal," he says. "I mean, I don't know who this guy ever was. I never met him. But when you train with somebody and you met his family and his kids, it's a different situation."

Kevin and Jason say the most stomach-wrenching scenes they've seen often involved maggots. "How 'bout the cleanup at that one house where the hair was moving?" Kevin says to Jason, then explains, "It was actually the top of her scalp separated from her head, and the maggots were up inside the scalp. It wasn't actually crawling, but you could see it was like somebody was kneading it with a hand. That was pretty gross. Jason was the one that picked it up--he almost lost it."

They both say they've never thrown up, but they've come close. "Like yesterday, in here," Jason says. "When we first got in the bathroom I had a fireman's mask on and everything--full breathing apparatus. You can't smell anything when you have those on--and once you take it off it hits you."

After several hours of cleaning and cool breezes from the open windows, the smell's almost gone. Jason, who's using a power saw to remove a section of drywall in the bathroom, from the floor to about a foot above it, suddenly hits a metal base that runs along the floor behind the walls. "We're gonna be here for fuckin' seven hours the way those are laid in there," he says.

"That's gonna be a big job," Kevin agrees. "I mean, all around the whole bathroom."

Jason is the only full-time member of the crew. Their workload fluctuates--60 to 80 hours one week, then nothing the next couple of weeks. When they're not cleaning for Aftermath, Kevin and Brian help set up newspaper-delivery crews for Wilson's subscription-sales business. They've all worked long enough to figure out what times of the year they'll be busiest. They see a lot of suicides around the December holidays and a lot in February. "Well, it's tax season, when people find out how much they actually owe the IRS," Kevin explains. He says hot spells bring plenty of cleanups of unattended natural deaths. "Summertimes, you've got mostly the older people that don't have air conditioners."

Jason says he doesn't usually mind the work. "I work with these guys all the time," he says. "That's good." But none of the current crew members plans to stay in this line of work long. As Kevin says, "It's not a career that you actually, eight years old, sit there and say, 'That's what I want to do.'" He laughs.

Chris Wilson and Tim Reifsteck say they plan to make this their life's work. They now spend almost all of their time trying to get the word out that their service exists, training employees, arranging cleanups with grieving family members, and haggling with insurance adjusters over bills. Reifsteck says, "Our goal is to continue to grow this company so that we don't get these phone calls that we get every week--where a family member calls us crying on the phone that they had just found out about our company, and their 16-year-old son had committed suicide or their 35-year-old husband had committed suicide, and a family member had to perform that cleanup."

Wilson says that's what keeps him in the business too. "You just feel good about helping the family. We get thank-you cards. Family members are hugging us sometimes when we leave. They're just so grateful, because if we weren't there, who was gonna clean it up?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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