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DELIVERANCE

IN THE GRIM FIELD OF MORTUARY TRANSPORT, DENVER'S LOREN NEWTON TAKES A BACKSEAT TO NO ONE.TALES OF THE BODY SNATCHER LOREN NEWTON SPECIALIZES IN ADMINISTERING LAST RIDES.

It is still well before lunchtime, and Loren Newton is on a road west of Denver, headed toward Morrison for his fourth corpse of the day. He is at the wheel of his car--a big, bizarrely retrofitted station wagon that, at the moment, has no body in the back. He is thickening the air inside with smoke from a stream of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and, in a high, pencil-thin voice, talking about the drawbacks of his job.

There are, as he sees it, really only three. First there's the driving--the traffic, the endless cycle of highway reconstruction, the idiots out there just waiting for a chance to run you off the road. There are the hours--Newton's on call most of the time, getting interrupted at lunch and the movies, often missing out on a good night's sleep. And then there are the decomps. The decomps are the worst of all.

"We had one commit suicide in the garage," Newton says. The victim had inhaled carbon monoxide. "He started up the car and let it run. He was in the backseat, and it was a two-door. A really tight fit. And he had been in there for a month or two.

"Just the smell of it, having to get in and get this guy out of there--I've tried to forget about it. Completely covered with maggots. All but falling apart. Of course, the car was trashed; you'd never be able to get the smell out."

One ponders this a minute and then asks the obvious question: How could you stand it, Loren? Why didn't you quit right there and walk away?

"You just hold your breath," Newton says blankly, staring through the smoke at the empty highway before him. "It's all you can really do when it's something like that."

Loren Newton, 57, is a bodysnatcher. That's slang, of course, like "ambulance chaser" or "shrink" or "ink-stained wretch," a little joke among those who make their living in this macabre trade. With customers, Newton uses the more polite term to describe his line of work: "mortuary transport."

M&M Transport Inc., the company Newton operates out of his northwest Denver home, holds what may well be the city's most unusual service contract--the one regarding corpse removal. "The service to be undertaken," the contract reads, "shall be as follows: the removal of dead human remains from point of origin within the city and county of Denver and transportation to the coroner's office, Denver General Hospital..." Newton's had a lock on the contract for more than a decade, even though it comes up for renewal every year. "Nobody bid against me last time," he says.

Newton or one of his drivers is called to every murder, every suicide, every unexplained or accidental death that occurs in the city. He's seen it all: assassinations, decapitations, immolations, shotgun slayings, hangings, beatings, drownings, dismemberments, falls, fatal drug overdoses and one woman who killed herself by locking herself in her freezer. Just recently, he came across a body that had lain undiscovered so long it was dried up like a mummified Egyptian pharaoh.

"For the most part, it's enjoyable work," Newton says. "It's not really what you'd call a glamour job, but it's interesting. All the morticians I've ever met are extremely nice people."

Newton exits the highway and continues toward his destination, a Morrison nursing home. This run isn't for the city; it's for a mortuary in Golden. Since the coroner's office alone doesn't generate enough volume to keep him in business, Newton also contracts with funeral homes all over the metropolitan area, picking up corpses from their deathbeds and whisking them away to be cremated or embalmed. Newton won't say what he charges the mortuaries, but his fee for the city is $45 per body. M&M averages about seven runs a day.

Newton's car, a used Chevrolet Caprice with a cracked windshield and more than 64,000 miles on it, doesn't look like a hearse. It's white, first of all, and from the outside looks like it might just as well be carrying a group of kids to soccer practice. Inside, though, it's clear this is a vehicle with a special purpose. Across the back lies a sheet of wood outfitted with rollers for coffins, on top of which rest two collapsible gurneys. There's also a lightweight stretcher for maneuvering the dead around tight corners or down narrow stairs.

Newton pulls up to the nursing home, checks in and is directed to a room down a long corridor. The woman at the desk doesn't say so directly, but it's clear she'd rather have Newton be discreet and not use the front door. He returns to his car, pops open the back, extracts a gurney and wheels it around to the rear.

In the room, the body of an old woman is lying beneath the covers on the bed. She is skeleton-thin, and her open eyes stare from hollowing sockets at the ceiling above. Newton walks to the bed and gently slides the pillow away; the woman's neck is so stiff that her head hardly snaps back. He removes the bedclothes and then wraps the corpse in a white sheet he has brought with him. He draws the gurney close and then, gingerly, lifts her off the bed.

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