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Reader’s Watchdog: Grieving families shocked by cleanup company’s soaring costs

May 1, 2013

Here is yet another sad story about Aftermath, Inc

I have copy and pasted all that was on the link below for your convenience.


The past month has been painful enough for Cynthia Holtgrewe’s family. Last month, her teenage grandson took his own life by gunshot in Fort Dodge.

But that deep wound was made worse by an Illinois company that has been the subject of complaints to the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in at least a dozen states over staggeringly high prices and questionable business practices.

The company, Aftermath Inc., charged $44,000 for a day’s work at her daughter and son-in-law’s home.

Holtgrewe was further outraged after she learned Iowa law enforcement, county medical examiners and other first responders were referring families traumatized by suicides and homicides to Aftermath. And so the Bellevue, Neb., woman contacted the Des Moines Register Reader’s Watchdog to try to find out who was responsible.

“Somebody is getting money for referring customers to this company,” she alleged. “There should be some accountability for whoever pushed this company into their lives.”

Aftermath officials have steadfastly defended their pricing, and they did so again this week in the Fort Dodge case.

Company spokeswoman Laura McGowan said the price of biohazard cleanup depends on the size and scope of the work, but she contended the Fort Dodge family was involved at every step of the way.

“However, when you are dealing with something of this nature it is very intensive at a very emotional time,” McGowan said.

But my own search of court records and complaints to Iowa’s attorney general suggest Aftermath has had run-ins with numerous customers. And that was news that piqued the interest of law enforcement and the Iowa attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

“This is something we definitely want to look into,” said Bill Brauch, whose division has logged three complaints from Iowa families against Aftermath alleging unfair consumer practices since 2005.

Court records show Aftermath has obtained liens and judgments worth more than a half-million dollars against the homes and estates of Iowans who could not or would not pay for its services.

In Illinois, the attorney general’s office has mediated a dozen disputes over the past decade, most of them over the cost of services, according to spokesman Scott Mulford.

The company has been the subject of more serious lawsuits and investigations in Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts, after customers were stunned by charges of $20,000 to $40,000 to clean up biohazard scenes.

In a special investigation last month, news reporter Joce Sterman at WMAR in Baltimore tallied nearly two dozen complaints in Maryland and 11 other states.

Watch the TV report

Grief-stricken customers complain about high bills for crime scene cleanup

McGowan said people need to keep in mind the work is not simply cleaning.

In some cases, like in Fort Dodge, extensive steps must be taken to remove potentially infectious waste from homes.

In Fort Dodge, she said, workers had to remove pieces of a wall as they tried to clean up after the death.

“The challenge we faced was that the debris was scattered throughout the home because of how they removed the body,” she said.

But Rich Ross, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association, a national industry trade group, said he has been asked to compare Aftermath’s invoices on numerous occasions for insurance companies and has been an expert witness in court cases involving the company.

The company’s hourly rates are comparable to others in the industry, but he said workers inflate the time it takes so that the final bills are extraordinary.

“I wouldn’t hire them for anything,” Ross said. “I don’t know of any insurance company who has a good word to say about them.”

Estimate for work jumps to $44,000

Holtgrewe said her family’s nightmare with the company began shortly after her grandson, a high school student, committed suicide last month at home.

She said she did not want the boy’s name made public because the family is still traumatized from the event. (The Register traditionally doesn’t publish news stories involving suicides unless they occur in public places or the person involved is newsworthy, although in recent years we’ve written more about teen suicides in the state.)

Holtgrewe said she and the boy’s grandfather learned the news around noon on the day of the suicide and they drove to Iowa in one of the winter’s worst snowstorms.

She said the boy’s parents were given information about Aftermath and were told, “This is who you need to call.”

The company’s initial estimate of $17,000 to clean up the mess leaped to $44,000 after the first day, Holtgrewe said.

“We were at the funeral home the next morning when my husband pulled the company up on the Internet,” she said.

After reading of similar controversies around the country, the family and their insurance agent went to the house and kicked the Aftermath crew out.

The family, she said, wound up hiring ServePro of Fort Dodge to finish the job.

Afterward, the family claimed Aftermath workers took an antique Tiffany lamp, a jewelry box and the top off an antique dresser.

“They threw away clothes and things in other rooms, but anything electronic, they took,” she said.

McGowan said the reason for the high cost was that workers discovered biomaterial had permeated the walls.

She said the family authorized employees to complete the job, and they consented to the charges. She said company officials also inventoried items that had to be disposed of, and informed the family.

“At every point in time, we reviewed with the family when there was a change in material (used),” she said. “The family was empowered at every step.”

Marketing targets first responders

So who in Iowa recommended Aftermath Inc. and why?

I talked to Associate State Medical Examiner Michele Catellier, who consulted on the case. Webster County’s medical examiner on the scene was Dr. Dan Cole, she said.

I left messages for Cole four times, and he did not return my phone calls.

Catellier said the state recommends that counties tell families such services are available, but it does not recommend specific companies.

“We don’t even recommend providing a list,” she said.

Fort Dodge Assistant Police Chief Kevin Doty said Aftermath has sent cards to the department, which police use.

“If we have an incident that requires biohazard cleanup, we tell families this is a company that does it. But we don’t recommend any one company.”

Doty said he did not know if officers give out cards from similar companies.

Des Moines police give families a brochure when loved ones die. Aftermath is the first company listed among a half dozen companies that do cleanup work.

“Maybe we will have to reconsider that,” Sgt. Jason Halifax, a department spokesman, told me.

McGowen, Aftermath’s spokeswoman, said the company does market to first responders “like any other company would,” but it does not offer financial incentives for referrals.

Consumer oversight is nonexistent

Workers in the biohazard industry are subject to OSHA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules. But neither the state nor the federal government has established regulations that protect consumers in such situations.

Ross, the industry expert, said the national Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification is establishing industry standards.

Most biohazard companies don’t give estimates upfront because workers don’t know the scope of the job until they get started.

Ross said jobs can range from $3,000 to $15,000 because of their scope, but bills of $30,000 to $40,000 would be highly unusual.

“You could almost rebuild the parts of the house for that much,” he said.

Aftermath workers have claimed they need to be “out of their suits every 15 to 20 minutes and then rest between 20 to 40 minutes because of OSHA standards, and that’s not true,” he said.

Household items should not have disappeared in the Fort Dodge suicide, he said. “Hard stuff can be cleaned to a point where infection is not possible,” he said.

“This industry does have a few bad apples. But this one is the big boy on the block,” he said. “They are really good at marketing. They tell people they are there to care. And I tell you, it’s ridiculous.”

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at or by calling 515-284-8549. Read past reports at


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