Without a Trace
The old man died slumped over the arm of his couch while watching television. Two weeks later the cops kicked in the door and the coroner removed his body.
He was a man of letters: Wittgenstein, Russell and Kierkegaard lined his shelves. He had a fondness for simple landscapes, or at least for simple paintings of them. He liked to make bread.
An uncashed check sat atop a messy dining room table. Piles of trash filled the back bedroom. The tub was covered in scum.
His body was gone, but not completely. Fluids had been left behind as the corpse began disintegrating, and someone needed to clean them up.
"After about 15 minutes, once you pass, you lose all bodily functions," says Robert Demaret, whose company, USA Decon, is one of a handful of local outfits specializing in crime scene and trauma cleanup. He's a tall, affable guy with blue eyes.
"When your heart stops pumping, whatever position you're laying in, all your fluids go to the point of gravity and eventually your skin starts letting everything out. You don't necessarily just," he pauses, "your fluids don't necessarily just come out of your orifices."
Blood, sweat and tears -- not to mention bile, chyme and mucus -- leak from your body after death. Ashes to splashes, dust to crust. And that's just for a run-of-the-mill end of the road; suicides and homicides make things even messier.
No matter how someone goes, it's not going to be the cops, the coroner or the mortician who cleans up the mess after the body is gone. It's going to be the family or the landlord, unless they decide to call in a pro. And that's where people like Demaret come in.
He's a death cleaner.
Every job in the business is a little different, but the old man's passing left a peculiar set of circumstances for Demaret and his partner in grime, Johnny DiGulio, a clean-cut former accountant with wire-rim glasses.
After the authorities notified the deceased's relations, his family drove into town and tried to tackle the mess themselves. They chucked the blood-stained couch behind the apartment's parking lot (close to a pathway used by neighborhood kids), chopped out the carpet with a butcher knife and tossed it in the Dumpster. They had emptied half the kitchen's contents before grief took over and they decided to call someone.
"One contained area has now become three," says Christian Cadieux, a Toronto-based cleaner who was in town and decided to go along.
The trio had to neutralize all three scenes, clearing out anything the fluids touched and disinfecting the hell out of everything else. They cordoned off the Dumpster with red biohazard tape, knowing people would probably ignore it and throw trash in there anyway, and quarantined the other areas before heading up to IHOP for some food and water. And then it was time to put on hazmat suits and get to work.
Demaret went after the couch with a razor blade, pulling out fluffy clouds of padding overcast by feces. Half the sofa was covered in bodily fluids -- a state of affairs that wasn't unnoticed by the flies.
"The maggot process is repetitive," he mumbled through his protective mask. "One fly lays a hundred eggs, a hundred flies hatch."
Mixed in with the bugs and blood were screws and staples, plenty of opportunities for him to puncture his rubber gloves. It would've been hectic enough without the East Texas sun bearing down while he was covered head to toe in protective equipment. Soon he was drenched in sweat, and no matter how much it itched, he wasn't able to touch his face.
"All it takes is a dried flake of that blood to get in your eye, your nose or your mouth, and you have an exposure incident," says Cadieux, who was on indoor duty, disinfecting the entire apartment and dealing with the mess left on the floor: a few clumps of bodily fluids that looked like wet dog food.
He paced around the apartment, atomizer in hand, spraying everything he could with a product called Get the Odor Out. Death left the man's life wide open, and Cadieux made sure to disinfect and deodorize all of it.
Decomposition releases a bevy of gases, hydrogen sulfide and methane being the two stinkers, and there's always the risk of hepatitis B, which has been known to live outside the body for weeks. Just opening the windows wasn't going to cut it.
Back in the parking lot, DiGulio was crawling around in the Dumpster, trying to fish out the discarded carpet. "I went and got a master's so I can work in a Dumpster," he quipped. "Butcher knives and bloody carpet. It's like they're setting me up."
With several years' experience among them, the trio was done in a few hours. The job was nothing like the time the team worked through the night cleaning up the remains of a shotgun suicide in a garage covered in junk, or when they went to New Orleans post-Katrina and had to deal with the remains of eight or nine people who'd been abandoned in a hospice during the storm. That was the time they found a box on the roof full of emergency amputations: a femur, a knee joint, a bunch of decomposed flesh.
"They just left the tissue and bones in a box," says DiGulio. "It was kind of rough."
The team never learned exactly how long it took the folks to die or, for that matter, how the hell the box of flesh ended up on the roof.
It's not a death cleaner's job to ask questions.
Crime-scene and trauma cleanup services have been around for a while, but the public has been slow on the uptake.
The business got its start in the mid-'80s, according to Dale Cillian, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association. Companies began dotting the nation in the '90s, and the last few years have seen explosive growth, although getting the word out hasn't been easy. The bereaved often don't realize the cost of cleanup can be covered by homeowners insurance or even the state's crime victims' assistance fund.
"Most people just think they've got no choice but to do it themselves," says Eric Thode, former chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party, who worked in the death-cleaning industry for several months after being laid off by Enron. "I can't even imagine, if you have just lost a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, some sort of family member, that the next thing you have to do is go in there and clean it up."
Thode handled mainly suicides, and one sticks out in his mind. A father led him into a house, pointed at a pool of blood and said, "This is my daughter." While Thode worked in the bedroom, he could hear the man yelling in another part of the house at no one. Eventually the man came back, hurried Thode along and locked the bedroom door behind them.
"I realized then that he hadn't told his wife yet," says Thode. "He wanted it completely cleaned up before his wife came home."
Another suicide he did got reclassified as a homicide, he says. Thode cleaned up after Dan R. Leach, a.k.a. The Passion of the Christ Killer, who hung his pregnant girlfriend to make it look like suicide (a trick he learned from CSI) only to confess two months later (after watching the Jesus movie).
What got Thode were the decomposition jobs, the thought that sometimes it takes weeks for neighbors to realize someone has passed. "The mail was overflowing; the mailman never thought anything weird," he says. "The newspaper person who delivered paper after paper -- you kind of realize sometimes how disconnected people can be."
The rate of human decomposition varies according to the environment, but the Houston heat definitely helps speed things along. You body is full of millions of micro-organisms that live on after death, and it doesn't take long for the little fellas to go after your intestines. Around the same time, your dead cells begin releasing digestive enzymes and the body starts eating itself. Then come the maggots.
Every local cleaner has horror stories, but perhaps no one more than David McGahan, a registered nurse who's been in the biz since 1993. McGahan got his start when his friend's sister "was robbed, raped and bludgeoned to death," he says. "It was true baptism by fire."
McGahan has a blond flattop and a measured manner. He runs Special Needs Cleaning Service with his mother, Marilyn Johnson, who does the books and occasionally suits up.
"All these people, boy, they'll read these old murder mysteries and watch these homicide shows and just carry on; you can't even get them to go to a funeral home and look at a dead body," says Johnson. "There's just nothing pretty about death."
And nothing too private, either, or at least that seems to be the reasoning behind the family's Web site. There's a link for photos, but when you click you're told, "We would not allow any photos to be shown if this were to happen to one of our family members or friend. Therefore, we elect to show our clientele the same respect."
Johnson didn't feel right about letting the Houston Press on a job site, but McGahan did sit down over lunch to talk about his experiences.
"I have a good reputation," he says. "I've been around a while. So at this point I suppose I'm doing something right."
He says he's figured out subtle differences in how to treat linoleum, wood, Sheetrock, metal, plastic -- pretty much anything that'll soak up fluids. He prides himself on his odor control, his discretion and his stomach.
"There's not much I haven't seen," he says softly and matter-of-factly.
There was the suicide where the recent divorc plopped down in an armchair in the living room and blew his brains into the kitchen.
The pool of blood hidden beneath the floorboards of a Ford Ranger.
The crackheads who killed a woman and left a baby crying for days.
The neighbors who stole a dead man's car.
The piles of shit.
"I have found fingers," he says. "I have found noses. I've found parts of teeth. I've found toes, eyeballs. I mean, I found part of a finger in a soup."
"I have to treat it like a business," he continues. "I have to keep my psychological distance."
Death cleaning has its perks.
The pay's pretty good, typically somewhere between $500 and $3,000 per job. You're rarely stuck in an office, or at least not your own. And there's always plenty of variety.
"One day I could be handling a Web site, developing training materials and cleaning up a suicide," says DiGulio. "You're never going to get stale."
DiGulio says he feels a serious sense of accomplishment every time he turns a horror show into something presentable.
He remembers his first cleanup, about a year ago, back when Demaret had decided to diversify his mold remediation business. DiGulio volunteered to help, and the two drove down to a house in South Texas where a man had begun decomposing. While they were inside dealing with the stink and the heat, the man's brothers sat outside drinking and crying, making it a little difficult for the duo to take breaks.
"I lost nine pounds in one day," says DiGulio. "It looked like a lot of it came from my face."
They loaded up the van with boxes of bio waste, showered in a truck stop and drove back to Houston. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, but DiGulio kept at it, often calling in sick to his accounting job after working on a cleanup through the night. Last month he quit the corporate world and devoted himself full-time to USA Decon. People die at all hours, and a cleaner has to be available.
Marketing is always a problem for startups, but it's more acute with trauma cleanup: You can't exactly walk up to a mom and tell her you'd like to clean up the mess in the event one of her kids decides to commit suicide. You can place an ad in the Yellow Pages under "Crime Scene and Trauma Cleanup," but you mainly rely on referrals from funeral homes and first responders. The business is out there.
According to the Houston Police and the Harris County Sheriff's Department, there were 403 homicides throughout the county last year, up from 334 in 2004. Add in the 399 suicides recorded by the medical examiner over the same two years, and you've got a lot of messes to clean. All an aspiring entrepreneur needs are some chemicals and equipment, maybe a little insurance for protection. It's not like Texas has tons of regulations to get in your way.
"We could go in there, we could bag this up in Husky bags and take it to a landfill and dispose of it," says Demaret. "It happens every day. Even though it's not really enforced here, we choose to do it the right way."
All the cleaners interviewed in this story say they go the extra mile, bagging everything in clearly marked containers, driving it back to the shop and having a licensed transporter take it to an incineration facility.
Anything questionable has to be removed. A drop of blood on the carpet often indicates a large puddle on the concrete underneath.
"When in doubt, pull it out," says Demaret.
The Texas Department of State Health Services doesn't regulate crime and trauma scenes. The waste isn't considered medical. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality doesn't deal with it unless something goes wrong in transport.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards kick in when apartments and hotels try to send employees in to clean up bodily fluids -- anyone in there is supposed to be blood-born-pathogen-certified -- but every cleaner has been turned away from a job where he knew the janitor was going to be the one mopping up the slop. Without decontamination materials or protective equipment. Just a bottle of bleach and the orders to make the room rentable again.
"I can go to a suicide at a hotel room, pick up a handful of human brain tissue and completely, legally put it in the regular trash to be set out on the curb," says Michael Tillman, owner of Amdecon, an Irving-based trauma cleanup service. "But you take a bloody Band-Aid at a hospital: It has to be treated as medical waste. I can take a mattress that's totally saturated in blood and set it out on the curb for trash pickup, and it's perfectly legal."
It's tough to tell which of Tillman's 15 photos is the most gruesome. Perhaps it's the bright red aftermath of a suicide in a strip-center office, complete with the caption "Right now there are no regulations regarding the disposal of this blood, tissue and skull fragments. Would you like to rent this office space next?" Or maybe the bloody bathtub: "Texas law does not require this to be cleaned and decontaminated by properly trained personnel. Texas law does not even require that a disinfectant be used."
Tillman would like to see a system set up like the one in California, where all trauma scenes are regulated by the state and can be entered only by workers with permits. He acknowledges this outcome would be good for his business, but says he's in the industry because he cares about what's happening to the waste.
"We've done homicidal shootings at convenience stores, and it if wasn't for us disposing of the hot dogs that were right next to the person being shot, they would've been sold."
Tillman thinks change will come soon, but perhaps only after a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving a high-rent apartment and its next tenant, or maybe when a lawmaker "goes to a convenience store one morning, gets a cup of coffee and a hot dog that's been splattered with blood from the night before."
You have to be trained and licensed to be a barber, an electrician, a plumber. But anyone can be a death cleaner.
"Thirty years ago, yeah, it was just blood," says Tillman. "I mean, it was gross, but it was just blood. But now we know better. Because of HIV. Because of hepatitis B. Because of hepatitis G. I mean, we know better. We can no longer plead ignorance."
When people find out what David McGahan does for a living, they always ask two questions: "How do you do it?" and "Do you have nightmares?"
His answer to the first: "You can do it or you can't. It's black and white."
His answer to the second: "No."
But he is tormented by what he's seen people do to the defenseless.
"I've seen children huddled up in a closet, scared, and shot," he says. "When it comes to children, it's always tough. It's very hard."
Death cleaners employ a variety of coping mechanisms on the job. When disinfecting the old man's apartment, the boys of USA Decon passed the time talking about how the investigators on CSI seem too beautiful to wear protective equipment. Eric Thode says he used to pretend the messes were something else entirely, although this method proved especially difficult in the case of shotgun suicides, which inevitably left a spray of brain, hair and teeth.
"That was getting very human at that point," he says. "It was no longer just a mess."
No matter how he copes, a death cleaner can never forget he's dealing with a biohazard. To do otherwise would be to put himself and the public at risk. Demaret once met a woman at a meth-lab remediation class who accidentally got stuck with a hypodermic needle while cleaning up after a shootout between a dealer and the cops.
Almost as bad as getting infected is "the fear of not knowing, because when you get tested you've got to wait, like, six months to find out," Demaret says. "It's definitely a scary reality of what can happen, but that's the choice we make when we go in and do these, and that's why we work as safe as we do."
A death cleaner also can never forget there's probably a family grieving in the next room, waiting for the visitor to leave so they can begin mourning the memory of the deceased rather than the mess he left behind. Dealing with the families can be the hardest part, although some say it's also the most rewarding.
"We erase the footprints of the death angel," says Marilyn Johnson. "Once we get through with cleaning, you'd never know anything ever, ever happened."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.