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.
Newton covers the woman again with a thick blue blanket and straps her down on the gurney with two belts. He is finished now. He pushes the gurney back out to the car, shoves the body in back and climbs behind the wheel, ready to head for Golden.
"When they're stiff they're a lot easier to handle," Newton says later. "You know, with rigor mortis. You don't have the arms and legs flopping all over the place."
Newton is a slight man with thin hair, a phlegmy smoker's cough and luminescent gray eyes. It's been about fifteen years since he first got into the "removal" business, something that happened almost by accident. He used to be in linen sales--peddling uniforms, towels, napkins and tablecloths to gas stations and restaurants. He knew a guy who worked as a driver for M&M Transport's previous owners, and, one day, out of "interest or boredom or whatever you want to call it," decided to go out with him on a ride-along. "I didn't have anything better to do at the time," Newton explains.
That day, Newton says, the pair were called to the Coors glass plant in Wheat Ridge, where an employee had drowned in a gigantic vat of sand. It was not difficult, Newton discovered, for him to deal with death. "I believe it's all in the mind," Newton says. "The first time I went out I just said, `It's not going to bother me; it's not going to bother me.' I said that all the way over there, and it didn't."
Shortly afterward, he became an M&M driver. Shortly after that, he bought the company. Newton is vague today about what motivated him to get into the body-transport business. "I really don't know how it happened," he says. "It just did."
Since then, he says, he has always had trouble finding good help. He likes to employ three drivers--one part-time, two full-time--but often he'll hire someone only to have them leave within a week or two. "I've had a lot of people quit because they couldn't handle this type of work," Newton says. "Couldn't deal with the decomposed and the smelly ones. I don't expect anybody to stay until they've been here for a while."
One M&M casualty was 23-year-old Brian Fichter of Arvada. Fichter, one of Newton's bowling partners, signed on as a driver two weeks before Christmas last year. His first day at work was his last.
Fichter says he was fine for most of the day, during which he rode along with Newton on a get-acquainted-with-the-job trial run. Then, in the late afternoon, the men were called to a basement apartment near the 16th Street Mall.
"We were pulling up, and Loren saw the fire truck and said, `That means it's a decomp,'" Fichter recalls. (Firefighters are sometimes called in to blow away the odor of a decomposing body with heavy-duty fans.) "The smell was real bad. One fireman followed us down [the steps] but he wouldn't [come inside]. He stayed outside the door gagging. When we walked in, the carpet was soaked with body fluids. We had to get [the victim] all wrapped up in the body bag. It looked like he maybe choked or something. [He was] laying out in the middle of the floor."
Fichter says he clenched his teeth and helped cart the body away. "But later on that night, I still had that smell in my lungs, and that's what bothered me," he says. The next day "I told [Loren] I couldn't handle it. I wasn't the right person for the job."
Newton acknowledges that even he has a hard time with decomps. "It can get pretty bad," he says. "It's just something you learn to live with. I probably get three, four, five a month. If it was a lot more than that, I don't think I'd keep doing it. Nothing smells as bad as a human body when it decomposes. I'd probably throw in the towel."
It takes more than an iron stomach to succeed in the world of mortuary transport. Tact is key. "You can't always be as gentle as you'd like," Newton says. "You don't want the family standing there watching you manhandle the mother or father or whatever. You have to diplomatically tell them to get out."
And you've got to make it look like you care. "You're meeting people at the very worst time of their lives," says Marvelle Hageman, co-owner of Hageman's Mortuary Transfer Service in Arvada. "We're taking loved ones right out of their arms--literally."
Marvelle and her husband, Bill, are among Loren Newton's few counterparts in the Denver area. Most of the work they do is for funeral homes, but they also have corpse-removal contracts with the coroner's offices in Jefferson and Adams counties.
"We love our people," Bill Hageman says. "If I can't come into your home and offer you a little sympathy and a little love and a little care, it's time for me to take this coat off and hang it up."
Back in the 1970s Hageman was a dispatcher for the state patrol up in Craig. Then he quit and went to work driving buses for Trailways. He drove all over the Great Plains--Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota. He spent many years making the trip from Denver to Casper and back, over and over again.
The son of an undertaker, Hageman decided to go into the mortuary transport business with his wife in 1987 with borrowed equipment and one used car. Now they've got five cars and three drivers working for them, one of whom is their son Dave.
"This is a ministry for us," Bill Hageman says. "We feel our Creator has called us to this work."
Dave Hageman, who is thirty, joined the company in 1991. He used to work at the Pepsi distribution warehouse in Limon, but moved back to Denver when a tornado whipped through town, destroying his brand-new trailer home and everything else he had. Dave does most of the Hagemans' long road trips; recently he transported a body from Steamboat Springs all the way to Laramie. Dave says he loves the work, especially the travel, but he has to be careful not to burn out. "It's tough," he says, "no matter how you look at it."
"It just takes a special type of person to do what we're doing," Bill Hageman adds. "One who's caring and compassionate."
Once, Bill Hageman says, he was called to the home of a couple whose baby had just died. Hageman asked his grown daughter to come along, feeling instinctively that the mother would feel more comfortable handing her child over to another woman. All the way back to the funeral home, Hageman's daughter cradled the baby in her arms.
Hageman doesn't like to go into detail about the gruesome side of his work. "There are times when it's very unpleasant," he says. "You just grin and bear it."
Like doctors, forensic pathologists, morticians and cops, people in mortuary transport can't afford to let the grief and death they see every day get to them. The toll would be too high, says Thomas Henry, chief medical examiner for the Denver coroner's office.
"Anybody that deals with death--I don't think `harden' to it is exactly the right term--but you have to be able to keep an emotional distance," Henry says. "You've got to keep that barrier up. The people that are good at it learn to walk the tight line between being objective and being compassionate, and stay somewhere in the happy medium."
Loren Newton's barrier has become almost impregnable. Once he was called to the home of a man who'd shot himself. When he got inside, he noticed a plaque on the wall with the victim's name on it--and realized the man was a brother from his Elks lodge. "I just deal with it," Newton says. "I've been doing it so long I guess I'm just blase toward it. I've gotten kind of immune, I guess, to death. That's a terrible thing to say, but you do."
At least the job is never dull. Newton frequently finds himself on the television news, since camera crews dispatched to homicide scenes often wait around for a closing shot of the body being wheeled away. "Lately they've quit doing that for some reason," Newton observes, "which doesn't hurt my feelings any. [My friends] get more thrill out of it than I do."
And Newton is often present at the aftermath of Denver's most notorious killings. He was called, for instance, to the Capitol Hill townhome of Alan Berg after the KOA talk-show host was assassinated in 1984 by a white supremacist group called the Silent Brotherhood. Seven years later he was inside the United Bank of Denver, picking up the bodies of four guards killed during a robbery in the so-called "Father's Day Massacre." Newton went to one murder scene where a man had killed his roommate and cut off his arms, legs and head with a jigsaw. Another time he cleaned up after a woman who carved her boyfriend into pieces with a butcher knife.
Thomas Henry says Newton and his drivers actually play a key role when it comes to homicides, since a botched job might well undermine a prosecutor's case. "They're essentially transporting evidence," Henry says. "If you want to be that cold about it."
Newton says he thinks about retiring. But he's not clear on what will happen to M&M once he leaves the company. Though divorced, he has a daughter and a son, each of whom, he says, could potentially take over the business. (His son, Dean, already has some experience in the field: He runs the crematory at Runyan-Stevenson Capitol Mortuary in Lakewood.) Or Newton might sell out. For the time being, though, he plans to keep at it himself. "I can't afford to retire now," he says. "I'm not old enough yet."
As for his own mortality, Newton says his years in the business haven't given him any special insights. "I believe in God, heaven and hell," he says. "This type of work has nothing to do with it; it's religion. As for the hereafter, I don't know any more about it than anybody else."
But he is at least comfortable with the concept of death. "I don't worry about it," Newton says. "When it happens, it happens.