MARIEMONT, OH - Hours after her sister was shot and killed, Denise Sparks was handed a stack of papers to sign.
Her signature would allow a crime scene cleanup company to begin working on her sister’s home.
But it also nearly cost her $57,000.
"Imagine the emotional state that myself, my aunt and my uncle were in right after something like that,” said Sparks’ nephew Erich Stegmaier. “A contract was put in front of our face."
Sparks’ sister, Camille Reynolds, was killed Jan. 16, 2011, in her home in Mariemont, Ohio, a planned community just outside Cincinnati.
Her estranged husband, Dennis Reynolds, shot her point-blank multiple times.
Leaving his wife of more than 20 years dead on her kitchen floor, Dennis then turned his gun on himself and pulled the trigger. He survived with stitches across his face where the bullet entered and exited.
He later pleaded guilty to murder charges and is currently serving a prison sentence.
The morning after Camille’s death, Sparks signed a contract with Aftermath , a nationwide crime scene cleanup company.
A three-person crew then spent a week cleaning the Mariemont home, which included the remediation of tear gas fired by police during the stand off. The crew removed things like blood-soaked floorboards, but the work did not involve replacement.
A few days after giving the company the highest marks for their work, the murder victim's sister got the bill.
It totaled $56,909.24.
But Stegmaier said the contract his aunt signed made no mention of total price, just rates for materials and hours, such as $285 per worker, per hour.
“There was no estimate given. In fact, they had us sign some documents waiving right for estimate, waiving the right for a three-day period to let us think about it," Stegmaier said.
Not giving an estimate for cleanup services is something Aftermath has done multiple times, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said.
- Not providing customers with a three-day right to cancel.
- Not providing customers with an emergency waiver provision of the three-day right to cancel that complies with Ohio law.
- Not providing a written estimate of the cost of services.
- Not providing a choice of estimate form that allows the customer to opt out of an estimate.
Faced with these violations, Aftermath agreed to pay $10,000 to the state and provide its customers with a “choice of estimate.”
Less than four months after signing the agreement with Cordray, Aftermath was called to Camille’s homicide scene in Mariemont. The company had a new contract, including a section where the customer was supposed to explain why they were waiving a three day right to cancel in their own handwriting. Sparks signed the waiver, but the required explanation was left blank.
“(Aftermath told us), ‘We're not going to do an estimate here, we need to get to work right away. Just initial it for us,’" Stegmaier said. “They did not offer an estimate."
After receiving the bill, Sparks’ insurance company refused to pay the nearly $57,000, claiming Aftermath billed an "exorbitant amount of money for a job other contractors would have done for a fraction of the price."
Aftermath then filed a property lien* on Camille’s home.
“It was definitely a bully move,” Stegmaier said. “It's a move to kind of bully you, and say, ‘Look, we mean business.’"
NewsChannel5's sister station WCPO's I-Team spoke with Aftermath Vice President Tim Reifsteck, who defended his use of property liens in this case.
Reifsteck said if his company didn’t file the lien within 60 days, it would give up the right to collect fees from the sale of the home.
"We're notifying them that our time is running out to protect ourselves," Reifsteck said.
After this case, Reifsteck said Aftermath stopped placing liens on the homes of customers.
"It's not the right thing to do,” he said. “And even though we were trying to protect our interests, and we spend a lot of money at these jobs – especially large jobs – it’s not the right thing to do."
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) in Chicago, where Aftermath is headquartered, gave the company a C-minus rating .
Nine of 13 complaints filed against Aftermath over the last three years were for not giving an estimate, while assuring customers the costs would be covered by insurance, Chicago BBB President and CEO Steve Bernas said.
"(Aftermath) was recommended by a chaplain, a police chaplain, so they felt comfortable dealing with an organization that is referred to by somebody in authority," Bernas said.
Stegmaier said no one in his family called Aftermath after his aunt’s homicide.
He said a Mariemont police officer made the call.
That same officer
stood by the family as they looked over the contract, Stegmaier said.
"When you have a police officer standing there, and a representative of the company standing there, saying they've done this lots of times and it's always covered… you trust them,” Stegmaier said. “You have to."
In a letter written to Sparks , the Mariemont officer who recommended Aftermath said he was aware her family asked the company how much the cleanup would cost.
“The Aftermath crew advised that (the cost) was unknown at that time, but not to worry, that it would be billed to the homeowner’s insurance company and it would be taken care of,” officer Chris Warner said in the letter.
After Sparks was billed, Mariemont Police Chief Richard Hines issued a notice to all members of the department to no longer recommend or contact Aftermath for any cases.
Reifsteck had a strong reaction to Hines' decision.
"We failed,” Reifsteck said. “We failed. There's no other way to respond to this except we failed as a company."
Reifsteck said Aftermath has since changed its policies and settled with Sparks’ insurance company for less than half the original price.
After the airing of this investigation on NewsChannel5's sister site WCPO in Cincinnati, Aftermath's Chief Marketing Officer Dana Todd issued a response . You can read the full text of that statement here .
* A lien is a notice attached to property informing everyone that the property holder owes a creditor money. Before the owner can sell the property and give clear title to the buyer, they must pay off the lien.