A Dirty Deal

Fred Schutt is a cleaning specialist.  He wades into situations most people wouldn't go near, not even if they were wearing full-body suits of inch-thick rubber.

I caught up with Fred at his office in Toledo.  He was getting ready to go out on an estimate.  Some guy had parked a $135,000 18-wheeler in the lot at a local strip mall, climbed into his sleeper, and sometime during the night, drawn his last mortal breath.

A week passed before the body was found.  The odor gave it away. The police did the standard investigation and decided the guy died of natural causes.  The body was hauled off to the Lucas County morgue; a few days later, the trucking company's insurance called Fred.

“'It's a mess,” Fred says.

“There are fluids that have to be removed, along with all kinds of insects. You've got to figure this guy was lying there in 90-degree heat and all that humidity for seven days.  I'll probably have to strip the cab down to the bare metal, disinfect and go from there.

“But when I'm done, it will be 100 percent safe for the next driver to get back in the cab.”

Fred is 35. For most of the previous 15 years, he was an X-ray technician at Mercy Hospital in Toledo.  But another hospital bought Mercy late last year, turned it into an outpatient facility and gave Fred a pink slip.

This past January, Fred went into business for himself.  He calls it CrimeSweep Cleaning Services.  It's one of only about a dozen such companies across the country that specialize in mopping up after murders, suicides, accident scenes – anywhere something untoward has happened that involves potentially infectious organic or otherwise toxic waste of one kind or another.  Like blood.

He puts on his respirator, fluid-resistant gown, goggles and matching latex accoutrements; packs up his biohazard gear, his mops, sponges and industrial-strength disinfectants; and makes like Mr. Clean.  For this he charges anywhere from $200 to $400 an hour, depending on the depth and stubbornness of the stain in question.

It's the kind of work that requires a blend of tact and elbow grease.

“You have to be delicate when dealing with families. On the other hand, you have a job to do,” he says.

“I had a case a few months back.  An elderly man died at home, fell over and landed on his face on a furnace grate. Of course, body fluids sink to the lowest point.  As a result, all his body fluids ran into the grate – I believe the human body contains five quarts of blood – and down into the ducts to the furnace.  So I had to disassemble the ductwork and clean the insides of the ducts.

“'But here again, some time had passed before the body was discovered. And, naturally, the family was very upset.  I told them they didn't want to be there while I was working; that I'd call them when I was done.

“I can't take away the bad memories.  But I can take away the reminders.”

So far Fred has had only eight paying jobs.  But he's getting out the word.  His first paying gig was cleaning the belfry of St. Francis de Sales Church in downtown Toledo.  For more than a century, pigeons had been congregating and procreating there, and church officials were beginning to worry about the effect 128 years of accumulated pigeon guano might have on their roof. 

It took Fred and his crew three days to remove half a ton of droppings, which a nearby landfill handled as if it were asbestos – the droppings can harbor a lethal fungus that causes the lung infection histoplasmosis – and buried immediately.

Fred was in business for a week when Comair Flight 3272 crashed outside Detroit in January, killing 29 passengers and crewmembers.  He showed up at the airplane hangar that been turned into a temporary morgue and volunteered to disinfect the place after the bodies were removed because he figured it would be good practice.

In March, he submitted his name to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency's list of contractors to help disinfect homes after the record floods of the Ohio and Licking rivers, although no one called.

You don't have to think about it long to realize Fred has a dirty job. But, well, you know . . .

“Do I enjoy my work?” Fred asks. 

“Well, it's not pleasant work, per se.  But I believe it's important work, especially where crime scenes are concerned.

“I mean, the police come, take away the body and leave the mess for the family. That's not something the family should have to deal with.”

July 8, 1997