FORT WORTH — It was the worst moment of their lives. It has been followed by months of prolonged pain.
"He was just as nice as he could be," said Steve Randall, talking about his 30-year-old stepson, Aaron Wilks. "Big, burly guy."
Aaron had just left the Army. After four years as a medic at a hospital in Hawaii, he was unemployed, divorcing, and depressed, yet he hid the pain from his family.
On March 11, 2012, he called his mother, his sister, and his brother and told them "goodbye."
Wilks then shot himself inside Randall's home in Toyah, Texas.
A sheriff's deputy Randall knew found a cleanup crew willing to come to West Texas to clear the shooting scene. Early in the morning on March 12, a Fort Worth-based team from a national company called Aftermath was in Randall's driveway.
Randall recalled talking to one of the Aftermath employees.
"He told me, 'We're not a cleaning company; we're bio-hazard removal,'" Randall remembered. "He was talking and I wasn't listening... I mean, this was 10 to 12 hours after my son had done this. I wasn't really paying attention to what he was saying."
Randall signed a contract and the cleaning began.
A few months earlier, in Grand Prairie, another heartbroken family went through the same thing.
"He showed me the contract; it was several pages long," said Ricardo Donato.
He signed a contract with Aftermath on November 6, 2011 after his 20-year-old son, Shane, shot himself inside the family home. A police chaplain told Ricardo to call in experts to clean, and Aftermath was there within hours to remove carpet and clean walls.
Donato said an Aftermath employee told him it would cost $4,000 to $5,000.
"And I said, '$4,000 to $5,000 to clean up carpet?'" Donato recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, but don't worry about it.' Told me that twice. 'Don't worry about it.'"
Donato said he was being told not to worry because insurance would cover the expense.
Weeks later, Donato's insurance company called him. They wouldn't pay because the bill was $22,019.58.
"It can't be true. You can't charge $22,000 for that little bit of a cleanup," Donato said.
The itemized bill shows three employees worked inside Donato's home for 10.5 hours at a rate of $275 and $285 per hour. Supplies cost $3,580.70. Six "bio boxes" cost $391 each. There was a $700 equipment fee and several other charges.
Donato was furious. Randall said he had an almost identical experience.
"They were hired to clean up after my son's suicide, quoted me a price of $5,000 to $8,000," he said. "I was very, very surprised when I got the bill ... $43,711.93," he said.
Randall plans to sue. Donato already is.
Five Texas families have filed suit against Aftermath, Inc. and its three Forth Worth-based employees.
Attorney Ted Lyon, former state senator and state representative, has taken the case.
"They take advantage at a vulnerable time, then come back and prey on them to the tune of 40 to 50-thousand dollars to clean up a room," Lyon said. "It's wrong. Just wrong."
Lyon's firm said at least 15 Texas families have had or currently have a lien on their home because of an unpaid Aftermath bill. The Texas Attorney General's office has been contacted and is investigating the claims.
The employees named in the lawsuit from Aftermath's Fort Worth office did not return our calls, but Aftermath's corporate office in Illinois did.
They stand by their fees, saying estimates are difficult because the extent of work that needs to be done isn't always known before a project begins.
There is a paragraph in the contract stating that, and explaining, "cost numbers are not binding on Aftermath." That paragraph requires initials by the customer.
Aftermath said its primary mission is "to provide families with compassionate assistance during a difficult time. As the leading bio hazard remediation company for over 16 years, we have worked hard to develop a sophisticated, science-based approach to remediation."
Aftermath said employees follow strict safety guidelines, keep customers informed as costs rise, and get those customers' approvals — in writing — after a job is complete.
"There are no hidden fees," said Aftermath's statement. A spokesman said Aftermath's local employees "did everything right."
The Donatos say they asked fellow members of their suicide support group, and no one in that group received a bill higher than $2,500 for cleanup.
No one else used Aftermath.
Both the Donatos and the Randalls said this experience is only adding to their grief.
"I just want to move on, and I can't," Randall said. "I can't get past it... not while this is hanging over my head."