True Crime Podcast
Where’s the Pied Piper when you need him? One couple’s act of mercy rapidly gets out of control and becomes an infestation that spreads beyond their own walls and into the neighborhood. Season 2 of the Cleaning of John Doe kicks off with Oh, Rats! A true story of a different kind of hoard that closely rivals our listeners’ favorite episode, The Cat House. Was it worse? Listen in and you be the judge.
True Crime Podcast Oh, Rats! S2E1
Welcome back! Before we dive in with our story, I wanted to address a couple things. First and most important I wanted to clarify that this podcast isn’t meant to teach the ways of cleaning up crime scenes. I’ve gotten numerous messages telling me to stop talking about my personal life, about our workers etc and go back to teaching about the cleanup process. Our desire to start the podcast initially was to enlighten people about our industry. It’s shocking to learn that people don’t know about it and get stuck cleaning up the aftermath of a loved one. That’s something no one should ever have to endure. There is a reason we don’t get very detailed about the cleanup process in our show. If you’re looking to get started in this line of work do your research and find a reputable, hands on training facility. If you’re serious about it, then invest the money to do it right.
Next point I’d like to clarify won’t be applicable to my loyal listeners and it might be too little too late for the other guys. But based on some feedback we’ve received on a couple episodes I wanted to put this out there and address it broadly.
I admit, there are a couple episodes that came off as highbrow, full of myself or as someone put it, a 30 minute commercial for our company. This isn’t an advert for our company by any means. We don’t mention our company name (although it wouldn’t be hard to find), we only service Southern California so we’d only be reaching a small handful of people. That said, if anyone is in need of cleanup services I’m MORE than happy to speak with them, help them through the process of making sure they don’t get taken advantage of. If they are in our service area I’d be more than happy help in any way I can.
Regarding the highbrow comments, the purpose was to paint the picture of our newbie mentality, to really drive in the fact that when we started we felt we were untouchable, we genuinely felt like we were the only good guys in the industry (based on everything we were encountering when doing our research). We absolutely did let our heads get fat! However, as the episode unfolded we were knocked back to reality and humbled – the take-away was the lesson. As we’ve gone through this journey we’ve learned a lot and we’ve grown. We wanted to point out that we’re not perfect. We do make mistakes and we will continue to do so. But we learn from those mistakes. We could have harped more on the lesson and less on how invincible we were, but at the time of writing the episode it didn’t seem necessary.
As mentioned in our Q&A and in past episodes we have met some honest cleaners and we’ve even referred work their way when we can’t get to a job. We’ve come a very long way in the 10-11 years we’ve been doing this. Although the stories shared are not necessarily done in chronological order we try to take you on our personal journey and really let you inside our heads. Share our mindset, thought process, challenges etc. We’re not trying to just tell a story, we want you to experience it as though you were there with us.
Now, I don’t bring any of this up for reinforcement that those critics are bad or wrong or anything of the sort. They are entitled to their view point. I try not to engage in negative feedback but I felt these 2 issues came up enough that I wanted to address them. For all my longtime listeners and people just finding our show I want to thank you for giving us a try! Words really don’t do justice to my appreciation and gratitude but I am so happy to have this opportunity, I love interacting with all of you on facebook and twitter. I’ve met some amazing people and I feel like we are all one big family. Thank you so much for all the encouraging words of support and thank you for excitedly anticipating each episode drop. All of you awesome people out there make this such an enjoyable endeavor which something that is much needed in our line of work. I’m truly blessed to have the honor of being part of such an incredible community! Now, without further adieu.
Hoarding. It has long been an epidemic brought to light only within the last decade. Until now, it’s been a deep, dark secret hidden behind locked doors and rotted curtains.
With the release of multiple TV shows that have thrown back the sha
des and shone a spotlight on the condition, hoarding has become a common topic. Yet despite this spike in popularity, it still remains a condition that is little understood – if at all. The one thing that is understood is that it is much more of an epidemic than initially thought.
Typically, one might think of deep piles of trash and narrow pathways between boxes stacked to the ceiling. Although this is common, it’s not always the case. A hoard can be as big as an entire house or it can be as small as one bedroom. Perhaps you’re familiar with the scale that is commonly used ranging from Level 1 to Level 5. However a hoarder is ranked, there remains one constant: the compulsive keeping of things. It can be trash. It can be online shopping. It can even be animals such as cats or dogs. This story is one of the latter. Sort of.
I received a call from a lady – we’ll call her Cathy – who needed help with a situation. She was a hoarder and was told to get her house cleaned or she would be faced with fines and possible condemnation. I told her not to worry and that this is a situation we help with all the time. We set an appointment to take a look and give her an estimate.
When we arrived at the house, Cathy met us at the side gate and led us around to the back of the house where she further explained the situation.
Cathy and her husband were both biologists and they had worked in a lab for quite some time. This lab happened to be one where they performed various tests and experiments on rats.
Through their time there, they developed an emotional attachment to the literal lab rats they worked with. When the lab was done with the subjects, standard protocol was to euthanize them. Because of the connection they developed with said rats, Cathy and her husband decided they would spare their new friends and take them home instead.
This activity started out with just a few rats. Then a few more. Then a few more and so on and so on until the cages they kept them in became so many that they had to start stacking them. When they ran out of room, they threw away the furniture and lamps from the living room to make way for more cages. Then it was the dining room. Eventually it became the hallways and bathrooms. It got to the point where they had so many rats that there just wasn’t enough room for any more cages so they were just let loose in the house. And, to be fair to the caged rats, she decided to let them out so they could all be loose and free.
Cathy’s neighbor had just moved in and immediately noticed rats in her yard and in her driveway and even in her new house. After speaking to a couple of the other residents in the area, she determined that the rat problem was stemming from Cathy’s house. She thought Cathy and her husband were just feeding the wild rats and thereby creating the problem. So, she decided to report her to the Health Department believing they would give her a cease and desist order on feeding the rats and that would put an end to it.
The Health Department, however, determined there was no law about feeding rats and just asked Cathy to cut back her trees. So her neighbor then contacted Vector Control. They came out and they took a look but they were only concerned with some stagnant water in the backyard that provided a healthy breeding ground for mosquitoes. So they told Cathy to fix that and then left.
The neighbor at this point was left with no other recourse. She had young children and was afraid to let them play in the back yard for fear of them being bitten or contracting some disease. So, she had contacted the local news. The media, being the media, immediately picked it up and came out and did a story on it. After airing it on the evening news, the Health Department decided they would step in and do something about it.
At this point, they realized the problem was beyond a simple feeding of local wildlife and instead focused their investigation on and inside of the house. This is where the real problem was discovered and they ordered Cathy to get it cleaned up or they would condemn the house. They gave her a deadline and said they would be back to ensure it had been handled.
This is where we came in. This is a situation many of our clients are faced with and we have successfully cleaned out hundreds if not thousands of homes. I then suggested we take a look at what we were dealing with and she finally led us into the house.
Rats. Why did it have to be rats? The sickeningly sweet odor of rat urine filled my nose even through my face mask. It was not hard to see why. The walls were covered in a thick layer of dirt and filth 3 feet up from the floor – this was from the rats rubbing along the wall as they navigated the literal rat maze inadvertently built out of cages.
Where there wasn’t filth, there were holes where the rats had chewed through the drywall. The cages that were stacked almost to the ceiling were equally covered in urine and indeterminable filth. Rats were seen scurrying behind boxes and around corners as we made our own way through the labyrinth.
Other than the now disused cages and an occasional piece of furniture here and there, there wasn’t really any trash. It was as if, even though they couldn’t get rid of the rats, they could at least throw out their garbage.
Although the kitchen was free of any cages or major debris, it was still as filthy as the rest of the house. The counters and cabinets were coated with a thick brown layer of what I assumed was rat urine. I wondered to myself how these guys managed to a) not get bit or contract a disease and b) how did they eat? I sincerely hoped they weren’t still preparing and eating out of this kitchen. I don’t say that out of judgement but out of genuine concern for their health.
We headed upstairs – being mindful not to put our hands on the grime-covered handrail. At the top of the stairs, there were 3 bedrooms. The first one – to the left – was an office. At least…it had been. Now, it was a rat nest – a giant rat nest. The floor was completely hidden beneath 2 feet of chewed and torn bits of paper, insulation and anything else the little critters could get their teeth onto – which is just about everything. The desk that had once been placed prominently was now barely recognizable as the desktop. It managed to barely remain above the mass of rat confetti.
Did you know that rats’ incisors never stop growing? If they didn’t constantly gnaw and chew on various materials to file them down, their teeth would grow and begin to spiral and twist to the point where they are no longer able to chew or even close their mouth and they die of starvation.
Not only do their teeth never stop growing, they are about half as hard as diamonds. There is a scale called the Moze Scale. It is used to determine the hardness of various gemstones and minerals. Diamonds rank at 10 on the scale. Rat teeth are at about 5.5 – harder than copper or iron. They can chew through plastic, glass, concrete, cinder blocks and even steel – given enough time. Of course they don’t eat these materials which is why they leave behind a hodgepodge of litter and debris.
So, it was no wonder that the wood furniture, drywall, studs, electrical cords and everything else in this house had holes chewed through them.
With rats bouncing along and behind furniture and zipping across the floor, we went into the next bedroom. This room was the least affected area of the entire house, but was still infested and damaged just the same. Empty boxes and unused cages were scattered about the room.
The final bedroom was Cathy and her husband’s room. The bed was surrounded by boxes, cages and plastic bins filled with various items they had attempted to keep away from the rats – to no avail. The bed itself, however, was free from debris. It was also free from pillows, blankets or even sheets. The only covering on it was a waterproof cover that, naturally, hadn’t been spared from the nibbling.
I should have mentioned earlier, but in the office, hanging on one of the grime-covered walls were Cathy and her husband’s doctorates that had been awarded by a fairly prestigious university. This may come as a bit of a shock, but it is not uncommon for hoarders to be doctors, nurses, teachers and even psychiatrists. I’m not saying that every one of them is a hoarder, but a decent percent of our hoarding clients have been a professional in the aforementioned fields. Just some food for thought.
Anyway, so after having seen the whole house, I told her we had seen what we needed to and we would prepare a bid and get it out to her posthaste. We got into our car and headed back home.
Ethan and I were discussing the job and what it was going to take to get it cleaned out just like any other job. It was something you might expect us to be taken aback by but, if you’ve been with us for a bit, you’ll remember we did the cat house. The only thing different here was the animal involved. That and the fact that we wouldn’t be cleaning this house very deeply.
Now, when I say cleaning, I am referring to the actual scrubbing of walls, floors and other surfaces. This house would need major repair more than any cleaning we could offer. But, we would still get it to the point where it would be somewhat livable so that it wouldn’t be condemned.
We prepared the quote and sent it to her and awaited her response – which wasn’t long, given the urgency on the situation. She called us back the next day and accepted our bid. We scheduled a roll-off to be delivered the following day and alerted the crew.
The dumpster was delivered and we arrived at the house ready to work. During the estimate, Cathy had seemed eager to get going and get this situation taken care of. But, realize she and her husband are hoarders and they will feign cooperation right up to the very moment stuff starts being thrown out. Then it becomes, “That’s still good. We can keep that.” “Oh, I need that.” “Why does that need to be thrown away? I can still use it.” Etc., etc.
Although, I will say that in terms of the rats, she was being surprisingly cooperative. She had, within the last few days, began poisoning and capturing the rats and placing them into some of the cages, where they would remain until they finally died. She made it very clear to us that if we came across a rat, just let it be and let her know. If it was close to death and could be caught, she would come and take it.
We needed to constantly remind her that she was on the cusp of being kicked out of the house that she had lived in for over 30 years and if she wanted to prevent that from happening, she needed to let us do what we needed to do. She consented but asked us to be discreet.
Now, discretion is a large part of our job. Usually, when someone is violently murdered, kills themselves or even goes undiscovered after passing from natural causes, word gets around the neighborhood. Especially when police, fire and ambulances are swarming the house. So, we’re not exactly hiding anything but there’s no reason for us to draw attention to it. Our vehicles are unmarked and we move quickly and quietly so as not to draw unwanted attention – all out of respect for the grieving family.
That being said, when you have a 20 foot long, 8-foot high metal bin parked in the driveway and a crew of guys moving back and forth emptying trash cans full of debris, one can only be so discreet. Not to mention the fact that not only did the entire neighborhood know about the situation, it had recently been on the evening news. It had literally been broadcast to the entire city and then some. But, yes, we would be as discreet as possible.
I had Ethan start by breaking down and flattening all of the rat cages as the rest of the crew brought them out. Had this not been done, we would have filled the entire roll off with nothing but cages. He had to clip the corners and collapse it and then stack them all up, which sounds pretty simple, but there were so many cages that it took him half of the day to finish.
While Ethan was working on that, we made our way into the house by removing and disposing of anything that was beyond repair or not worth trying to salvage. By the end of the first day, the ground floor had been cleared out. The upstairs would be where the real work started. That was where the heaviest areas of detritus were.
The roll off had been completely filled up and would be switched out the next day and so we started packing up and getting ready to head out when Cathy asked us if we could tarp the roll off. I told her when they come to pick it up, they have their own tarps they put on it so that nothing blows out or anything like that. She was more interested in hiding the badly damaged and soiled furniture and trash we had thrown away. She claimed that the neighbors were very nosy and she didn’t need them poking around her stuff. As I mentioned, this was no secret to anyone in the area, even before we showed up. Based on the smell radiating from the roll off, I highly doubted that anyone living in this upper middle-class neighborhood would want anything to do with anything in the roll off, but of course, we obliged and used a couple of tarps to cover the top of the roll off.
Day two really separated the men from the boys. Everyone on the crew was sick of the rats, sick of the smell, sick of fighting Cathy on things that need to be thrown away…there was very little about this job that was not sickening. But everyone showed up and everyone continued to work.
By now, there were tons of rats that had ended up in the few cages that were retained. Each cage held about 12-15 rats. There were only a few here and there that still had enough ability to move around a little bit. Others could only lay there as the poison coursed through their bodies and whittled away the remnants of their tiny lives. The rest had signed off to the big cheese wheel in the sky.
This in no way is meant to convey that they were all caught because that is far from the actual scene at that time. The cages were humanely full but there were quite a number of rats that had either not been caught – but still poisoned – and then there were those that seemed to have managed to avoid the bait altogether and still remained energetic in their jumping and whisking about as their once-peaceful home was becoming a fight for survival.
To prove the point of how close Cathy’s attachment to these vermin was, as we worked, she came in the room we were currently working on to check on our progress with an armload of rats, a few perched on her shoulders and one on her head. And realize these were not the cute pet rats you find at Petco – these were the rats you would expect to see in a sewer or the ones you hoped to see caught in a trap – they were brown and about as big as guinea pigs.
Cathy thought it was a great opportunity to show us just how friendly these rats were. “See? They’re very nice. They’re not pests.” She even offered to let me hold one! I politely declined. In all honesty, I felt really bad for her. It seemed her heart was in right place, but the situation escalated out of control. I’m pretty sure that’s how most animal hoarding starts. It’s kind of sad, really. Regardless of the good intention, these situations rapidly result in animal cruelty and it’s very unfortunate for all parties involved.
Anyway, I couldn’t say if it the rats were really as friendly as they seemed or if it was just the toxic bait they had ingest making them lethargic, but either way, I was sincerely wigged out. I don’t even like pet rats, but these…these were wild, dirty and most likely disease-infested rats. I had to try real hard not to run out of there screaming.
I have cleaned up cat hoarding, dog hoarding and even bird hoarding. On some level, I can understand those. Cats and dogs are soft, loving and companionable. Hell, who doesn’t want to roll around on the floor with a massive litter of puppies? But, rats? This was a new one for me. I mean, I’ve seen rats at hoarding houses but they were merely uninvited guests, which the homeowner could do nothing about due to the hoard. This was a couple who were keeping almost nothing but the rats! I had only heard of this one other time but didn’t have any personal dealing with it. It was eerily similar to this situation.
In 2008, the LA Weekly broke a story about a couple who had just moved into a home in LA’s highly-sought Pacific Palisades neighborhood. Their first morning in the home, they were greeted by 2 large rats in their garage that appeared to have no fear and behaved as though they had every right to be there.
After having called an exterminator and discovering that he was very familiar with the house – he had worked for the previous owner for the exact same problem – they discovered their neighbor was the source of the quote-unquote “friendly” rats.
The owners were elderly sisters – identical twins, as a matter of fact – and had lived there since 1958 (50 years at that point in time) and have been feeding the local wildlife from the first day they moved in. However, rather than some unnaturally strong attachment to the rodents through daily exposure, their connection was spawned by deep religious beliefs and literal translations from the Good Book – presumably the part about “Thou shalt not kill.” Although they reportedly loved to eat chicken, so you’re guess is as good as mine. According to court records, one of the sisters was quoted as saying, “If you’re afraid of a few rats, read the Book of Revelation.”
This is the portion of the New Testament that prophesies the second coming of Christ or, in other words, the Apocalypse. So, was she just saying, “What’s a few rats compared to demons and fire raining from the heavens?” Or did she actually mean she would bring it about by creating a new plague with an army of bold rats? Unfortunately, nobody is really quite sure, but it sure is a creepy thing to say.
Anyway, the new homeowners, having children, unable to keep up with the invasion of rats from next door contacted the Health Department. It turns out, they knew about this house as well. They had known for years. Apparently, whenever Health officials came out to the house, one of the sisters would greet them and then quickly get rid of them by claiming they had already contacted an exterminator – which we all know was BS.
Of course, this continued for years. Health would come out, they’d be placated and away they went. Again and again and again. Despite the obvious risk to, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Public Health, the Health Department for whatever reason was unsuccessful in stemming the tide of rats and the new owners were left with no choice but to take matters into their own hands and file a civil suit against the pair of rat keepers. It was rapidly settled out of court and, although nobody knows the details of the settlement since it was kept confidential as part of the agreement, the rat problem had been resolved. Bubonic Plague Part II averted.
I was struck by the uncanny similarities to our own little rat house here. New neighbors move in and complain about rats. Local government unsuccessful in handling it for whatever reason despite obvious risks to public health. Numerous justifications from rat hoarders… If I had read the story about it and left out the location and identity of the hoarders, I myself would have sworn it was the same story.
Anyway, back to our story, here. We started in the office as that seemed to be the worst room. It wasn’t extremely deep but it was packed and so was almost akin to chipping away at rock. Scoop by scoop, we eventually cleared out the room. Naturally, since all of the furniture in the room had been buried, trampled and chewed, there was no saving it and it all had to be disposed of. Once we removed the carpet and padding, you couldn’t even tell it had ever been hoarded – except, of course, for the voluminous rat holes in the walls.
Everything else from this point was pretty much like any other hoarding job. It was scooping up trash and throwing it in the roll off. That and dodging rats. One of our guys picked up a large, half-eaten plastic bin and out jumped a rat. I don’t care who you are: if you pick up a box and a rat jumps out, it’s going to scare you. So, he did what anybody would have done – he dropped the box.
The rat, having pulled off his inadvertent prank on our guy hit the floor and ran towards the nearest shelter which happened to require him to run underneath the very box he had just leaped out of – but not before said box mashed him into the hardwood floor. The box was full of old VHS tapes (ask your parents if you don’t know what those are) and so was rather heavy. I’m sure you can do the math.
We approached the end of Day 2 with all but a small amount of trash left and just the cleaning. As I mentioned, we were not going to super deep with the cleaning, but we were still cleaning and disinfecting the kitchen and one working bathroom, which was a task in and of itself so we would need one more day.
The last day was split into two crews – half to complete the trash out and the other half to start on the cleaning. One of our crew had to use the bathroom before they started cleaning. He went in and closed the door and was very soon heard shouting: “Oh, my god! What the fuck?!” He came running out (luckily after zipping his fly) and told us what had happened. As he was peeing, a rat hopped up on the back of the toilet and slowly stood up on its hind legs, looked him in the eye and started chewing on his own tiny little paw. He chewed it quickly and to the point where it was half hanging off. It was at that point where our guy yelled and ran out.
Naturally, we told Cathy about the poor little guy and she went in and scooped him up and put him in his own cage. Even though it may have felt like a crazy zombie rat, this strange behavior was most likely due to the toxic treat each rat had doubtless gotten into by that point. Nonetheless, it was understandably a disturbing occurrence.
He shook it off and we got back to work cleaning. It was hours and hours of scrubbing and rinsing and spraying and wiping but we finally got the kitchen looking good. The cabinets were chewed and scratched, tiles were missing from the counter, some of the cabinet doors were hanging by a hinge and there was a whole slew of other repairs that were needed, but it was clean!
As we were coming down the home stretch of the job, a couple of Health officials stopped by to see how the project was coming along. I had the guys continue working while I met with them and Cathy. Apparently, they weren’t really used to seeing houses like this actually get cleaned, because they seemed very surprised and shocked that we were even there working. Not to mention the tremendous progress we had made.
Cathy was very nervous and so to help ease her concerns, I spoke to the officials and made sure that what we had done and were doing was sufficient to keep the house from being condemned. Of course the answer was, yes. They asked for some cards and we happily handed them out.
They took a look around the house and spoke briefly with Cathy to make sure that the rats really were being eliminated. Once they had seen the evidence that they were and had all their questions answered, they thanked her for complying and then us for our work.
After they left, Cathy was expressed her gratitude for our efforts and for helping talk with the Health Department guys. It was no problem, considering that our main goal was to prevent her from being kicked out of her home. I mean we are there to help, that’s what we do.
It was a little late when we finally completed our cleaning. I had the guys pack everything up while I did a final walk through with Cathy. As I was checking everything, I went to open a door and she quickly stopped me and told me not to worry about it. It was just a closet and we didn’t have to worry about it. I said ok and continued through the house.
Well we had finally done it and her home was safe. She and her husband desperately needed a contractor. Hardwood would have to be refinished, drywall replaced and no small amount of painting, but it was clean. Mostly.
I still to this day wonder what she had in that closet that she so desperately didn’t want me to see. If I had to guess? Well, I let’s just say I would be surprised if we were called back do it all over again.
The Cleaning of John Doe is written by my husband Ethan and is produced by Resonate Recordings.
If you would like more information visit our website at thecleaningofjohndoe.com or join the Cleaning of John doe discussion group on FB. You follow us on twitter @JohnDoePodcast If you’d like to support the show visit Patreon.com/thecleaningofjohndoe. We have different levels of support with different awards for each. Also, don’t forget to subscribe on apple podcast, google play, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. That concludes this week’s episode but while you’re waiting for our next episode to drop you might be interested in one of the following podcasts:
Recommended True Crime Podcast in this episode: Southern Fried True Crime
Other True Crime Podcast Episodes
True Crime Podcast: Episode 1
True Crime Podcast: Episode 2
True Crime Podcast: Episode 3
True Crime Podcast: Episode 4
True Crime Podcast: Episode 5
True Crime Podcast: Episode 6
True Crime Podcast: Episode 7
True Crime Podcast: Episode 8