Looks like a PBR man,” says Freak through the mask of his hazmat suit as the door to the tiny west suburban apartment swings open to reveal thousands of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in stacks, pyramids, piles, and every other formation imaginable. Unfazed, Freak grabs an industrial garbage bag and launches himself into a task so overwhelming it would make Sisyphus grumble.
From the look of the waist-deep rubbish leading down the hallway and into the bathroom, the deceased was also a Jimmy John’s man. A devotee of takeout pizza. A heavy smoker who rolled his own cigarettes, had a thing for Jim Beam, and owned a crossbow. A receipt from the public library for season 4 of The Big Bang Theory peeks out from under the clutter on the kitchen counter. The story of a man’s life begins to emerge, and that story ends on the bedroom floor with a brown-red stain in an unmistakable shape: that of a body curled in on itself.
The owners of Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup, Dan Reynolds and his wife of 21 years, Kelly, don’t care about the man’s story right now. They’re working the job with Freak, one of their nine employees, and if they notice the photo on the refrigerator of the deceased in happier times, smile as big as the giant bass he’s hoisting, they give no indication. They learned long ago not to get emotionally involved. Lose focus and mistakes happen.
At the moment, all they care about is that stain in the bedroom.
Part blood, part bile, part you-don’t-want-to-know, it’s the signature of a badly decomposed body—in this case, a body that had lain in this spot for three weeks before it was discovered and hauled out. By then, gases and tissues had leaked from various orifices onto the beige carpet and rotted into a toxic feast for microbes and insects. Even through the air-purifying safety of a full-face respirator, the meaty stench of death still invades.
That unmistakable smell, which Kelly calls the “sweet stink,” doesn’t bother the crew members. But they’ve all got their kryptonite. She’s not wild about spiders. Freak—whose real name, disappointingly, turns out to be Walter—can’t deal with cockroaches. Another employee gags when he sees writhing maggots. For Dan, it’s … well, nothing seems to bother Dan. It’s not like he wants to sterilize the home of a man who lost a game of Russian roulette to his son. Nor is he particularly itching to trench-crawl through a claustrophobic crawlspace to clear out the dead rats and cats. But he’ll do either if the job calls for it. He’ll do it carefully. He’ll do it proficiently. And then he’ll move on. That’s the deal when you run a company that specializes in the toughest cleanup jobs, the ones nobody else wants to touch.
After circling the bedroom stain for a bit, Dan glances through his mask at Kelly. Beneath his head-to-toe white Tyvek coveralls, boots, two pairs of latex gloves, and respirator, Dan, 42, looks like Pulp Fiction–era Bruce Willis. With her pink cheeks and cheerful manner, Kelly, 40, could pass for a college sophomore. Without a word, they go to work.
First they slice the carpet with an X-Acto knife to see if anything has soaked through to the padding underneath. It has. So they slash through that and find a thick layer of wood saturated with the same dark fluid. Next comes the circular saw, then the crowbar. After cutting and prying up the wood, Dan notes the dark streaks on the exposed joists and insulation panels. So he pulls up the insulation.
Now only five-eighths of an inch of drywall separates him from the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. Wayward fluid runs the length of a metal channel from wall to wall, but it hasn’t permeated the plasterboard. Which is a good thing, because the likely next step would have been asking the neighbor for permission to dismantle his ceiling.
Meanwhile, Freak has finished with the beer cans and has moved on to the kitchen, which involves its own horrors. The sink! The dishwasher! Good Lord, the fridge. Freak holds up a plastic box filled with the desiccated remains of what was once spaghetti, or maybe french fries. Soon he’ll be shoveling piles of garbage into the industrial trash bags.
Dan and Kelly remove all the soiled material from the bedroom and place it in three large biohazard barrels, which will eventually get lugged down three flights of stairs, loaded into a truck, and driven to CCSC’s facility in suburban Minooka. There, the barrels will be picked up by Clyde, a sweetheart of a guy from the disposal company LB Medwaste, who will drive them 300 miles to northern Wisconsin, where their contents will be ground up and placed in an autoclave. A high-temperature, high-pressure steam will pummel the waste, then the water will be squeezed out of it. If that water tests microbe-free, the waste goes to a landfill. If not, the whole process is repeated.
Between this and a follow-up visit, the CCSC crew will clean and chemically disinfect the entire one-bedroom apartment. They’ll remove the deceased’s furniture and every last possession, including the wallet they find in a pair of his pants and such curious things as a stack of a hundred $1 bills, each encased in plastic.
“There’s still a lingering odor,” the landlord will say the next day. Dan and Kelly will go back with a fogging machine to neutralize the stench that has penetrated the drywall, the doors, and everything else. All told, the job will require about seven hours of work and earn them $3,700. By the time the crew is done, this apartment will look and smell like any other—except for the patches laid down to keep people from falling through the gaping hole in the floor.
But right now, in PBR Man’s bedroom, Dan and Kelly are dancing. Not literally dancing, of course, but engaged in a silent ritual, working with the saw and the wood, anticipating each other’s movements, communicating mostly with gentle shoulder pats. There’s something tender, even romantic, about the whole thing. With hardly a word spoken, they’re collaborating, arguing, making up, adjusting. In the end, no one cares who is right; the job must simply get done. It’s the perfect microcosm of a successful marriage.
“I can read him like a book,” says Kelly after they have sprayed each other down with Lysol and are taking a coffee break near the truck. “Even under the hazmat suit.”
The intersection of love and toxic waste may sound like a stretch. But think of the most traumatic thing you’ve ever seen or survived. How desperately did you hug your spouse or child afterward, mulling over love and life and how quickly it can end?
Now imagine witnessing the trauma with your loved one. Then another trauma. And another, over and over. Two to three times a week, for nine years. Eventually, the hugs afterward may be less desperate, but the bond tightens into something tenacious that the rest of the world couldn’t possibly understand. “It’s made us better as a couple,” says Kelly. “We’re on the same page, and we don’t judge each other.”
It’s not like Dan and Kelly engage in passionate kisses while scrubbing brain matter off a couch or anything weird like that. For one thing, they’re endlessly professional. For another, the respirators would get in the way. But Dan and Kelly are in love. And Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup, the company they started 40 miles southwest of Chicago in 2007, is the glue that holds them together.
He’s a tough guy, an adrenaline-junkie firefighter in New Lenox—24 hours on duty, 48 hours off—and she’s an overprotective mama bear in Minooka. He skydives and rides a motorcycle with the vanity plate “No Legs,” a Forrest Gump–inspired reference to his firehouse nickname, Lieutenant Dan. She’s into scrapbooking and adores penguins. And they come together to clean up after the worst things (murders, suicides, plane crashes) in the worst places (meth labs, crack houses, disease-infected dorm rooms). In the Reynolds family, this is quality time. “I wouldn’t see Kelly for more than a couple hours every few days if she wasn’t a part of this,” says Dan. “Instead, we could be in the truck for eight hours together, driving to and from a meth lab in Wisconsin.”
“We call them meth lab date nights,” says Kelly.
They met working at a Domino’s Pizza in Naperville in 1994. She was a no-nonsense 18-year-old manager; he was 20 and a playful delivery driver. He asked her out on every single shift, and she always shot him down. Finally, their boss intervened: For the love of God, would you just go out with the guy?
By the end of the year, they were married. It was the kind of low-frills wedding kids without money have: no dance floor or fancy cake, their families taking bets on how long the union would last. A daughter followed a year later. A couple of years after that, a son. The young couple proved surprisingly resilient, feeling their way through parenthood while still getting to know each other. “We had so little life experience as individuals, and we had to figure it out,” says Kelly.
Dan did construction work and sold heavy-duty trucks before eventually becoming a firefighter, which satisfied both his lust for action and his desire to help people. He became known in the firehouse as a hard worker, a font of trivia, and a master practical joker. “He was always the one who woke guys up in the middle of the night with an alarm clock tucked above the ceiling tiles,” says Travis Lergner, a fellow firefighter and a five-year employee of CCSC. “Dan has a way of lightening the mood.”
As a firefighter, Dan saw his share of death. And he learned that cleaning up crime scenes often fell to the property owner or the victim’s next of kin, neither of whom was qualified for such a task. He noticed that biohazard removal companies had begun to crop up, often run by paramedics and firefighters, so he started his own, in his spare time. We can do it better than these guys, Dan told Kelly.
In a weeklong training class in Texas, CCSC employees got a crash course in microbiology: which disinfectants work better on certain microorganisms and the difference between sanitizing and sterilizing (sanitization removes most of the bacteria; sterilization is total annihilation).
The learning curve led to some embarrassing moments. In the early days, when the company often took on small jobs, it had one client who spilled milk in his SUV and left it there for days in the summer heat. The smell was driving him crazy. After trying five different types of deodorizers and other chemicals to eliminate the odor, Dan finally gave up. The man’s insurance company decided the best thing to do was total the vehicle. “That was eight years ago, and it still bothers me,” Dan recalls. “We couldn’t beat spilled milk.”
Panicked phone calls began to come in at all hours from people who needed help and had found CCSC online. Dan talked them through everything from cleaning up after a grandmother’s diarrhea to getting a curry smell out of curtains. He learned which respirator to recommend if a smell gets to be too much (Safety Works MSA 817663 multipurpose respirator, $39.99 on Amazon). He understood which callers simply needed someone to tell them it was going to be OK and which ones he could never satisfy, such as the lady who phoned at 3 a.m. to report that someone had smeared feces on the wall of her condo building. Would Dan drive 80 minutes to come clean it up for $20? He would not.
The family-run business grew into a lucrative enterprise through word of mouth. Knowing that the police provided many of the referrals, Kelly hustled all over the metro area, dropping off bottles of hand sanitizer with a CCSC label for officers to keep in their squad cars. Dan ran meth lab awareness classes for arson investigators. Insurance companies began to recommend CCSC to clients.
Meanwhile, crime scene cleanup, once a cottage industry, morphed into big business. First of all, it’s recession-proof. Second, crime shows and the 2009 movie Sunshine Cleaning thrust biohazard cleanup into the public consciousness. More than 500 such companies now operate in the United States, including dozens fighting for a share of the Chicago-area market. But, says Kelly, the competition hasn’t hurt CCSC’s business: “I hate to say it, but there’s enough work for us all.”
In retrospect, the industry’s growing pains were inevitable. Regulations vary from state to state, and still no single official certification exists. Stories of untrained companies gouging grieving families abound. (Homeowners’ insurance often covers the bulk of the fee.) In January, a cleanup company in Atlanta posted photos of its employees posing on the job with victims’ personal belongings. “It’s just my crew doing what they do,” the company’s owner told the local CBS news station. “And they have a good time doing it.”
This kind of thing drives Dan nuts. “These are tragedies,” he says. “So you put your head down and do what you need to do. Talk about it later. Joke about it if you have to. Whatever you need to cope. But not on the job.”
Despite 50-plus hours a week of dealing with vile scenes, such as feline corpses stacked in the cupboards of one cat lady’s kitchen, neither Dan nor Kelly has nightmares. If you were to see them at their favorite places—the gun range in Lockport or the penguin exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium—they’d pass for an ordinary couple. But if you listened closely, you’d hear that they were talking about not the penguins but rather what would happen if they screwed up an Ebola cleanup and contaminated an airport.
A man breaks into a second-floor apartment in Chicago, drugged out of his mind, and cuts himself with a knife. The tenants are home at the time, and one chases the bloody intruder through the apartment. Continuing to slice his arms and legs, the man sprints up to the attic to hide. He promptly falls through the floor, lands on top of a refrigerator in the kitchen below, bounces off, and jumps out the window.
Stories such as this may sound funny on paper. But one look at the before-and-after photos documenting the scene quiets any laughter. The dark streaks leading up the stairs. A thick stain in the attic where the intruder perched near the chimney. A crimson-smeared sneaker lying next to the fridge in a puddle of congealed blood. “The cops eventually found him collapsed by the garage,” says Dan, who used chemical foam to clean the blood. “I think he lived.”
We’re sitting at the Reynoldses’ kitchen table in their home on a quiet cul-de-sac, and the contrast between the spotless kitchen and the macabre images on Dan’s laptop is shocking. “This is a murder-suicide that we did down in East St. Louis,” he says, scrolling through photos. “Also a hoarder. He made himself a sandwich, killed his wife with a handgun, and went upstairs to the bedroom with a high-powered rifle. The blood’s all over the place—in the cracks, the vent. And when it’s a gunshot, you can’t just clean up what you see and call it a day. Sometimes you’ll get a cloud of mist that’s blood and tissue and brain matter that lands on everything in the area, or a fly will land on the body and transmit a little blood on the wall somewhere else. You have to treat everything in the area.” In one photo, the sandwich sits on a computer keyboard, uneaten.
With Kelly looking over his shoulder, Dan clicks to a recent foreclosure in Chicago, where the CCSC crew found tally marks written on the walls in feces and 30 gallons of used insulin needles mixed in with piles of garbage. They had to sift through every piece of trash with puncture-resistant gloves to separate out the needles. If you’re cleaning up contaminated blood, something as simple as a small cut on your finger could kill you years down the line. Removing the excrement took hours of scraping and scrubbing with detergents and surfactants. As for eradicating the smell, when nothing else works, CCSC uses a highly concentrated solvent called Last Resort. It’s applied with a fogger, and it kills everything. “It even kills the good bacteria in your digestive tract, so if you breathe it in, you better be near a bathroom,” Dan says. “I learned that the hard way.”
Next up: a heroin den. Photo after photo of syringes, condoms, and bloody mattresses. As the crew worked that site, squatters and addicts stared in the windows, casing the house. CCSC hired a marine gun range instructor as an armed guard. Dan and Kelly sometimes carry guns on the job themselves.
Meth labs busted by the police make up a significant portion of CCSC’s business. These don’t look like the gleaming drug warehouse on Breaking Bad; in fact, they’re pretty anticlimactic. A stash of little bottles of acids and chemicals. Lots of random cylinders and ground-up Sudafed. The crew identifies everything, then groups and packages it. Flammables in one place; acids in another. Bases, oxidizers, toxic chemicals—all separated per EPA regulations. Most modern meth labs can be hauled in two Rubbermaid totes in the bed of a pickup truck.
On and on the snapshots go, each worse than the one before. The bloody vomit of a hemorrhaging chemotherapy patient. A dead pit bull in a basement. The aftermath of a son killing his father with a battery-powered garden implement. And a foreclosed three-bedroom house in Richton Park so foul that it makes PBR Man’s apartment look like Buckingham Palace. Most of the shoulder-high garbage was soaked or frozen; Kelly describes standing on top of the pile and shoveling her way to the ground. That job lasted two weeks, and the trash from it filled four 30-foot-wide dumpsters. Surely, they must wonder how long anyone can live like this? “Nope,” says Dan. “You just get to the bottom layer and look at a newspaper. It’s usually 10 to 15 years for a deal like this.”
At this point, Dan and Kelly’s son, Jake, a rangy 17-year-old, wanders in to fix himself some breakfast, which he eats unaffected by the extreme grotesquerie nearby. He’s heard it all. So has Victoria, their 20-year-old daughter, though her threshold gets tested constantly. “Normal families don’t talk about piles of cat feces at the dinner table!” she protested during one especially graphic mealtime conversation.
“Those piles of cat feces put the food on the table,” Kelly shot back.
Despite the unfortunate imagery, she had a point. Together, Dan and Kelly net more than $100,000 a year from Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup. Add in Dan’s salary as a firefighter lieutenant, and they’re doing well enough to celebrate Kelly’s 40th birthday with a romantic getaway to Sonoma.
Dan closes the laptop and begins talking about a new program he’s leading in Shorewood, not far from Minooka. A couple of times a year, people can drop off their used insulin needles with CCSC for proper disposal. “We’re picking up the tab on that,” Dan says. “It keeps them out of the trash and keeps everyone safe.”
Kelly grins, adding, “And it’s good advertising for us.”
In one of Dan and Kelly’s wedding photos, she’s got teased nineties hair and a comically oversize bouquet. He’s got a crewcut, a crooked grin, and a pink bow tie. They look like just another pair of skinny American kids, all elbows and ears; if not for Kelly’s white veil, you would swear it’s a prom picture.
At the moment the photo was snapped, neither had a career, and the question mark of the future must have seemed pretty terrifying for two people who barely knew themselves, let alone each other. And yet anyone who stares at the image long enough would come to the same conclusion: They look strangely comfortable. And even if the world might take them to some pretty dark places, they will be fine.