Every year, roughly 40,000 people die in Minnesota. For some, it’s weeks or months before anyone finds them. Meet the crew who comes in to clean up the mess.
Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions that may be unsuitable for some readers.
Last winter, in a small home on the Twin Cities suburban belt, a man stood up against his living room wall and shot himself in the head. His body lay there while the seasons changed to spring and then summer, while the nearby school recessed for the year, while his neighbors went to and from work. Nothing indicated the owner of the home was decomposing in his living room, save for the thick plastic wrap left on the windows long after snowmelt.
When his mortgage payments lapsed, a contractor sent from the bank came by and rang the doorbell. Nobody answered, so he left, oblivious to the corpse just feet from the door. No one found the man until the bank finally came to foreclose on his home. It was six months after the suicide by then, maybe seven.
In late summer, Nate Berg comes to assess the damage. He’s a tall, burly guy with a short beard, his face half-covered by a particulate respirator, similar to a surgical mask. He has tattoos on his forearms that read “Drew” and “Chandler,” the names of his sons.
Berg can tell a lot from what he sees. A trail of blood leads up to a bullet hole near the ceiling and splatters across the adjacent wall, indicating the man shot himself through the right side of the head. It must have been a low-caliber firearm. With a higher caliber, brain matter would have ricocheted around the walls and made an even bigger mess. A piece of skull sits on the brown carpet in front of the couch. Berg turns it over with his heavy wader boot as he looks around. There’s a fingerprint brush left on the television, meaning police probably investigated the death as a homicide.
The body is gone. What remains is what Berg calls hair soup: when the brains and other leftover material come together to form a single substance. This is a particularly gruesome specimen.
“That was definitely his head,” Berg explains, bending over to get a closer look, pointing to the hair soup. The power has been shut off so he illuminates it with a light on his cell phone. He extends his hand, wrapped in a latex glove, to tissue hardened on the wall. “A piece of brain right there.” He points down to a deep black puddle of coagulated blood. “That would be his torso.”
Dead flies litter the home, which is going to add significantly to the estimate. Because here’s the thing about flies: They don't just consume decomposing bodies; they spread rotten blood and pieces of tissue, in this case far beyond where the man once lay — onto the Stephen King book collection, the box of trophies for dart throwing, the wooden signs painted like American flags that say “Welcome.” That means this whole level could be contaminated. Berg’s crew can sanitize the furniture and throw it in the garbage, but the rest of the job is going to be much more involved.
“Your body starts to break down in a week,” Berg explains, motioning to the remains on the floor. “We'll cut 24 inches out on the sheetrock all the way across to get at the floor behind the wall there. So it will be a pretty extensive cleanup.”
In Minnesota, about 40,000 people die every year. Many are not discovered for weeks or months after their death. In the biohazard cleanup business, these are called “decomps,” and they’re the most laborious jobs. “The best way to describe a decomp clean is peeling layers off an onion,” says Berg. “You just gotta keep pulling back those layers until you don’t find anymore body material.”
Berg is the president of Scene Clean Inc., an Osseo-based company that specializes in this type of work, along with suicide and murder cleanups. After the worst happens, after the investigators and paramedics leave, their job begins.
It’s a complicated business. The government regulates cleanup and disposal methods, and the crew usually works in dangerous environments where safety is paramount, requiring them to wear heavy hazmat gear. The cleaning process itself is extremely meticulous, frequently involving sophisticated demolition and construction to remove biomaterial inside sheetrock and floors.
Scene Clean’s job is to make a home look as if a death never occurred. After more than three years in business, Berg and his employees have worked hundreds of jobs. They talk casually about the trade, even though the details of their work are the stuff of horror: the job near Lake of the Woods where the blood dripped down the coffee shop walls from the apartment upstairs; the murder-suicide before Christmas where they found the turkey still thawing in the sink and table set for a family dinner; or the call where the teenager took a break from filling out college applications to shoot himself.
“I learned early on not to look around much,” says Jen Berg, Nate’s wife, who also works at the company. It took her many spectacles of human tragedy to learn that.
The value of this cleanup is often more than aesthetic. Dead bodies spread contaminants and diseases that could put other tenants at risk. Minnesota law doesn’t require a home seller to disclose a suicide or natural death to the buyer; many of their clients are banks or family members trying to sell, and it’s imperative that not a drop of blood or odor is left behind.
In other cases, the most important part of their work is psychological. In many of Scene Clean’s jobs, the family or close friends of the deceased still live in the house where the person died. It takes only a single blood splatter to serve as a constant reminder of what tragic thing happened here.
Berg didn’t grow up wanting a career cleaning up after deaths. For most of his life, he dreamed of helping the living.
A Wisconsin native, Berg’s family moved to South Minneapolis when he was 2 years old, and later to Brooklyn Park. When Berg was 5, he witnessed a car crash outside the lawn of his parents’ apartment. He watched enthralled from his bedroom window as a Hennepin County ambulance arrived and two men in brown uniforms loaded the victim in the back and, in his youthful eyes, saved the day. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be a paramedic.
Berg began taking EMT classes in high school, and earned his certification before he even graduated. Afterward, he attended college to get his paramedic license. It was the late ‘90s, long before veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan would bring public awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The instructor didn’t skirt the mental toll of the job, Berg recalls: Put on your uniform and leave your emotions in the closet.
At the time, Berg didn’t pay much attention to these grim warnings. He was young, tough and following his dream.
He spent 12 years working 911-response, first for a hospital in Monticello and later for North Memorial Hospital in Minneapolis. In that time he married Jen, his high school sweetheart. They had Drew in 2003 and Chandler a few years later.
Early in his paramedic career, while working in Central Minnesota, Berg responded to a water rescue at a lake in the town of Princeton. Berg and his partner arrived on scene before the police or fire rescue teams. Bystanders frantically told him a young boy had gone under water just offshore, near a lifeguard boat, and never came up. Procedure dictated Berg couldn’t go in — he had to wait for the other emergency responders to arrive. He was still new to the job and didn’t want to get in trouble. So he waited.
It would be 45 minutes before the rescue team arrived and suited up. They found the child's body lifeless, lungs full of water. The hardest part for Berg was watching them pull the boy from the exact spot the family had seen him go down.
“If I would have just gone in, he probably would have been alive,” he says. “That one — it stabbed me right in the heart.”
The bad jobs still haunt him: The young man so distraught over car troubles that he attempted to kill himself by jumping out of a tree, snapping his spine on the ground just feet in front of Berg; the car crash on the highway that killed three kids, and Berg had to sit in the back of the ambulance with their bodies for hours until responders could clear the scene; the guy Berg talked out of killing himself on the way to the hospital, only to find him on a call weeks later sitting in his car with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette, dead from exhaust fumes in his garage.
By the time Berg took the job with North Memorial, it was the mid-2000s, and violent crime rates were rising in Minneapolis, especially among young people. Some days Berg would be so busy responding to calls he wouldn’t get a chance to eat in a 12-hour shift.
The job began to wear on him. He was angry. He dreaded what the next day might bring. “He was just really tired all the time,” recalls Jen.
He likens the work to standing on the stage of a play. He could see behind the curtain — a dozen shootings and assaults throughout the city in a single night — and he could see what the audience saw — the occasional high-profile case to make the evening news.
“It doesn’t affect you right away,” says Berg. “It’s like a glass, and over the years it starts to build up and build up and build up.”
It wasn’t just the traumas. There were also the callers who had no business wasting emergency services, like the one who dialed 911 for a harmless garter snake bite.
Berg was responding to one of these types of calls the day he decided he couldn’t take anymore. It was summer 2008. He and his partner were sent to transport someone to detox. On the way, a car plowed into another driver in a turn lane right in front of the ambulance. He could see right away that it was bad. But procedure ordered them to handle calls on a first-come-first-serve basis, so Berg’s partner drove around the accident toward the detox call. It was like slow motion as they passed the horrific accident. Berg can still see the bystanders rushing to the scene, staring at the ambulance in dismay as it passed.
Berg decided he wasn’t going to make the same mistake he’d made at that lake in Princeton so many years earlier. “Turn around,” he told his partner. “I don’t care if we get disciplined later, we’re turning around.”
It was one of the worst trauma cases he’d ever seen. The driver was trapped in the car. Berg went to work on him while firefighters tried cut him out with an electric saw. He stuck a breathing tube down the man’s throat and felt his lifeless and dislocated jaw. Berg couldn’t get a breath. He’d later find out that the impact of the crash killed the driver almost immediately. Berg returned to the station still reeling from the incident and his supervisor began to lecture on breaking policy.
“I was so angry,” recalls Berg. “I just remember, I look at him and I’m like, ‘If you even fucking bring this up again I will quit in a heartbeat.’”
“So here’s the notes for the order,” says Berg. He’s sitting at a glass table covered in tools and dust in Scene Clean’s new headquarters, a former glass-repair shop in Osseo, reading off his phone. “‘House used as a barn. Full of animal feces, dead animals, mice and is unsafe. They used the house for a barn. The basement and the garages are full of feces, at least 6 inches deep.’”
He shakes his head. "That's just nasty."
This is the other side of the business: severe cases of human and animal waste, hoarding, and various other complicated odd jobs, like tear-gas cleanup after a police raid. They’re considering branching out into meth, decontaminating homes once used as labs.
When the business started, most of their calls were for hoarding jobs. Now it’s about three-quarters crime scene and decomps.
People always ask how he can stand seeing such gruesome spectacles. He tells them the hard part of being a paramedic was to know so much about a person and watch him or her suffer, and, in many cases, die in front of him. In this job, he tries to know as little as possible.
“It’s never once affected me like when I worked the streets,” he says. “It happened, it's done with, it's over. Now let’s help the others left behind get past it.”
The idea for Scene Clean came in 2009 from a fellow paramedic who knew Berg was desperate for a career change. It made strange sense. He liked working with homes and construction projects, and he was already a member of the brotherhood of emergency responders, so he knew he could tap into the network to help get the word out.
He spent months coming up with a business plan. He’d have competition, but most other cleanup businesses specialized in water, fire or mold damage, and he saw room for a company focused mostly on death. By summer 2012, he had his plans in order and certification from the state. He was only missing one piece: the money to back it.
For advice on investors, Berg turned to Randy Carey, whom he’d known only a few months. In the early days of doing 911-response, Berg began dabbling in real estate to make extra money. Carey ran the brokerage that gave Berg his license, and the two hit it off when Berg came to renew it.
As it happened, Carey was looking for a new investment. After reading over the business plan, he told Berg he’d go in as a partner.
“He was ready to go,” recalls Carey. “He had the background. He had the business plan. And it just seemed like it was a good move.”
Carey’s work history was nothing like Berg’s. He’d spent most of the ‘90s running a telecommunications company. In the early 2000s, he started the real estate brokerage in downtown Minneapolis. Cleaning up after dead bodies would be an adjustment.
“I’ve tried to lead more of a white collar career,” says Carey, “and we’re always walking around in shorts and T-shirts and bloody fingers.”
The first job came from a tip by Berg’s neighbor, who knew someone from church in need of such a service. A few nights earlier, her boyfriend had been alone at her apartment and a vein burst inside his throat, a symptom of a rare disease called esophageal varices, caused by chronic alcoholism. She arrived home to find him dead. Before he perished, the guy had rushed around the apartment throwing up blood uncontrollably. It was everywhere: the living room, bathroom, hallway and bedroom.
Berg didn’t have a staff yet — technically the business wasn’t even open — so he and his brother-in-law took the job. They spent three days scrubbing the apartment, cutting out the carpet, removing bloodstained sheetrock.
Scene Clean was in business.
The blood and other body matter didn’t bother Berg. He had seen much worse as a paramedic. But the same didn’t go for Carey. He still remembers the chill from seeing his first jawbone on the floor of a suicide job in the early days of the business. “You’re seeing brain matter, sometimes in gobs. And someone’s gotta clean it up. So, if you’re the on the scene, it’s you,” he says. Even after seeing all he’s seen, Carey still occasionally finds himself cleaning up after a suicide and wondering what the hell was so bad that a person’s only way out was a bullet.
In those last months of 2012, Scene Clean worked eight jobs. In 2013 and ’14 combined, they worked 170. This year, business has been picking up, and as of early December, the crew has already worked 157.
The company now employs 16 people. The hiring process is difficult. Applicants deluge Berg with resumes, but he knows most couldn’t handle the gruesome realities of the job. Almost all of the staff come from backgrounds in emergency response or military. To help make the job easier to stomach, Berg advises them not to think about what they’re cleaning during training.
“I just tell them,” he says, “‘all it is is ketchup on the floor, with maybe some macaroni.’”
Water has a way of finding the lowest point in a house. When a pipe breaks, water will seep through carpet and soft wood and into the foundation. If the leak is big enough, it will soak into the trusses and infiltrate the level below. And so on.
The same goes for a dead body. After decomposing for weeks or months, the material will saturate the flooring. It’s dangerous to inhale and takes only a hot day for the smell to resurface. In cases like this, Berg and his crew can’t just clean the house — they have to rip the thing apart.
Berg received such a call earlier this summer. In an idyllic neighborhood in the northern suburbs, a few blocks from a high school, where families laugh and walk their dogs and children hold lemonade stands, a morbidly obese man keeled over on the floor of his living room. Six weeks passed before anyone found him. In this time, liquids from the body leaked into the subfloor, the basement and the insulation.
When Berg arrives at the house, the body is gone. There’s a boot print on the door where police kicked it in. Drag marks lead to the entrance. There are patches of dead grass outside, burned by the acidity of spilled body fluids. All that’s left of the body is a thick layer of pink sludge and a whole lot of flies. There’s a clayish substance mixed into the matter, which Berg explains is fat. He can tell instantly the guy suffered from diabetes. He later confirms this by finding needles and insulin in the house.
“Diabetics' bodies have a stronger odor when they decompose,” he explains. “There’s certain diseases that smell stronger.”
This is one of the biggest jobs Scene Clean has ever worked. It will take hundreds of man-hours to complete. They begin by running a device called an “Ozone Generator” overnight, which oxidizes every living thing, killing the flies and dulling the smell. Next they go to work clearing the place out, which is a tall order, given the late owner was a hoarder. They spend an entire day in hazmat suits and masks going through the house and systematically throwing all his stuff away: his DVD collection, clothes and boxes of stereo equipment.
Still wearing his hazmat gear, Berg steps out to make a phone call and a woman walking her dog stops dead in her tracks and stares, frightened at the bizarre sight.
The next day, the house is clear, save for the fluids still in the living room, which they clean up with a squeegee and a shovel. They spray down the house with three types of cleaners.
Now comes the hard part: removing the floor. Given the extent of the decomposition, they have to cut a hole in the living room all the way down to the basement. Later they’ll have a construction crew come in and rebuild. It will be as good as new by the end, and the family of the deceased plans to sell it.
One of the crew members goes every 2 feet with a tape measure and makes a mark with a flathead screwdriver. He returns with a circular saw and cuts the softwood from wall to wall. Two others follow close behind with crowbars, prying up the pine wood panels. It takes some muscle to rip out the edges of the room, but as they get closer to where the body had been, the wet planks fall apart like rotted firewood.
As they rip up the floor, the smell resurfaces. Stale death is impossible to describe; there’s nothing else like it. It’s a foul and pungent odor, so strong that it sticks to their clothes even through the suits. “If I get caught checking [a decomp] out without a mask I can hold my stomach for about 90 seconds,” says Carey.
The crew takes the contaminated wood, wraps it in three layers of plastic and stuffs it inside boxes specially certified for hazardous material. Later they’ll take the waste to a company licensed to get rid of it. This is one part of the job that is strictly regulated. The boxes can hold 35 pounds of material and proper disposal is expensive. “That’s probably about a thousand dollars worth of biohazard material right there,” says Berg after the first layer of floor is ripped up, pointing to a stack of boxes.
During the cleanup, Berg asks about a news story that broke when he was driving to work that morning: In Virginia, a disgruntled ex-TV reporter shot and killed two of his former young colleagues on air, filming the whole thing with his cellphone and posting it to Facebook. Upon hearing the details, Berg shakes his head in disgust.
“Jesus, this whole world is going crazy,” he says, and he goes back to cleaning up after the body.
On a late-October afternoon, Mike Tonn, a new part-timer at Scene Clean, drives the company’s diesel pickup two-and-a-half hours north of the city to a house in Paynesville. Tonn has a square jaw and wears a North Face hoodie and baseball cap. His trade is construction, making him among a minority of Scene Clean workers who don’t come from an emergency-responder background. Cleaning up after dead bodies, he says, is an exciting change of pace.
“It’s more interesting than pretty much any other job I’ve been at,” he says. “It’s always different, ya know?”
Tonn pulls up to a pink stucco home on a quiet block adjacent from an elementary school. It’s another suicide cleanup. A convicted sex offender on the run from police had been squatting in this foreclosure this summer. In September, a contractor from the bank found him hanging by the neck from the banister. The bank hired Scene Clean to dispose of the mess so it could put it up for auction.
It was a relatively small job. They removed the banister, ripped out and rebuilt a few steps below where the body hanged and deep cleaned the area around it.
Tonn comes now to put on the finishing touches. He rips up the remaining carpet on the stairs. He goes to work measuring the torn up banister and saws a few boards in the back of the truck; he uses them to build a makeshift wall, a safety precaution so no one falls down the stairs. The whole thing takes about an hour.
By the time he’s done, there’s no evidence that anyone ever died here. For that matter, it doesn’t look like anyone has ever lived here, either. The house is left eerily empty, save for some dead flies and large clumps of dust. There are no pictures on the walls or dishes in the sink. All of the faucets have been shut off and sealed in preparation for the winter.
The only evidence that a family did once live in the house comes in an upstairs bedroom, just a few feet from the banister. It’s painted deep blue, with a trim of soccer balls and baseballs on the wall, presumably for a young boy. The closet door is ajar, and on the inside, someone has stenciled a message with black marker: “I wuv you.”
As Tonn loads the equipment back into the truck, kids from the nearby elementary school laugh as they pile into yellow buses to head home. A man emerges from the house next door and looks at the blue pickup with a logo reading, “Crime, Tragedy & Bio-Hazard Specialists.”
He holds his glance for only a second before climbing in his car and going about his day.