The Cleaner

Brent Riddle got the call. He was only 16, a high schooler in Bothell. On the other end, he heard his friend Andrew’s mother. He’d watched Andrew recede into depression and isolation lately. Andrew didn’t have a father in his life. Now, Andrew put a gun to his head. He’s in the hospital. The house is a mess. Blood all over.

Do you think you could come over and take care of it?

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it,” Riddle says now, almost 20 years after the incident. “It was pretty serious. He had dragged himself from room to room [before] his sister found him.”

Riddle didn’t really know what he was supposed to do. He brought over bleach and spray bottles, 3M pads, demolition gear. He wiped down the floors and walls, cut out sections of carpet and linoleum, threw away some furniture.

“It was kind of a rude awakening, to see that firsthand,” he says.

But, looking around the house, he was glad he’d been there.

“There’s no amount of money that could put you in the position to clean up your brother, your loved one, your father,” he says. “That’s kind of, in a nutshell, how we got started.”

A few years later, Riddle and his brother launched a company called Med Tech, to do the kind of work nobody in their right mind would volunteer for. The company moved to Spokane in 2000 and — like about half a dozen similar companies in the area — responds to grisly, gross and tragic calls for help across Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Like the call Riddle got from a Whitman County jail. An outgoing inmate in solitary confinement had smeared feces all over his cell as a kind of farewell present.

Or the hoarding case on the West Side. A woman with some mental problems had been living there for years, he says, before she suffered a heart attack and the state intervened. There was stuff — just stuff — everywhere. It took eight trucks to carry it all away. Mice and rats ruled the place.

On her bedroom floor, he found the outline of a dead dog.

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

But most of the 10 to 20 calls he handles each year are suicides.

He’ll get a call like the one in 1991 about his friend. (Incidentally, Andrew, whose name has been changed in this article, survived). But now, when he goes to work, he shows up with a trailer full of tools and chemicals. Usually, a family member will let him into the house.

Sometimes they come in with him. Sometimes they ask him to remove things they don’t want the rest of the family to see.

He says he tries not to look at family photos in suicide cases. “I don’t like to put a face to the person who’s left this world,” he says. “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but it makes my job harder to do.”

Still, Riddle will take extensive pictures, for insurance. Then he puts on his full get-up. Police have already gone over the scene, so he’s not concerned about evidence (although an overlooked bullet will prompt a call to the local precinct). He just sets to work, picking up the pieces (“I’ve picked up all kinds of things that I’m not going to go into detail about”), killing any lingering organisms, spraying, wiping, scrubbing. He’ll tear up carpets and sub-floors, pull up trim and bust down drywall.

Then he’ll start to put it all back together again: new floors and carpet, fresh coats of paint — often in sunnier, more vibrant shades than before.

Then he takes more pictures.

“The ‘afters’ are amazing. ‘Did that happen here?’” he says. “The ‘before’ is something that would make somebody sick to their stomach.”

Not him, though. Riddle says he tries not to bring the emotional toll of his work home with him, that he’s found a way to shut off the pain, for the most part. He credits his Christian faith with helping him to put the person’s death in perspective.

“I know there’s life after death,” he says. “Or I hope there is. I like to think that those people are still around.”

It’s not always so easy, though.

“That’s not saying I’ve not cried on the way home from a job. I’ve had to pull over and just, you know, cry,” he says, pausing. “The hardest jobs have been the ones where fathers have left their children and their wives behind. The sole provider of the home, things are too tough and they end up leaving this world. I see what it does firsthand because I deal with the wives and the children. I see the kids’ rooms. That’s the most difficult. “

But that, he says, is why he does what he does: to help those families move on.

“I have a soft spot in my heart, so I’m able to befriend these people and not only do the job but to comfort them and give them a peace of mind,” he says. “I love people. I want to help people. If I need to sit and have coffee with somebody before a job gets done, I will. I know what it takes to recover and heal and go through the grieving process.”

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