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ON THE LAW

Death Scenes Make for a Grisly Job

Those who scrub down gruesome crime and natural-death sites fill a growing niche.

April 18, 2003|Hilda M. Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Mike Nicholson can stomach the most gruesome of death scenes -- from victims of violent crime and suicide to decomposing corpses -- without so much as a grimace.

He even brings a grim sort of humor to his work -- such as his account of a man who shot himself in a sporting goods store.

"There were parts of him everywhere," Nicholson said of the 1999 suicide.

"He did it at the sporting goods desk, but he made it all the way to fishing."

As part of a growing industry of state-licensed cleaners, specializing in trauma, crime and natural-death scenes, Nicholson has wiped up a fair share of blood spills and maggots.

Armed with wire brushes and air filters, workers arrive at the homes, businesses or railroads where people have died, often the victims of violent crime or accidents. After authorities remove the bodies, it's their job to scrub the sites clean.

Though most people may shudder at the thought of working around the post-living, to Nicholson it is a calling.

He started his business -- Clean Scene Services -- in 1997 in response to families who mistakenly assumed the police or coroner's personnel would clean up after their dearly departed.

Relatives often had no recourse but to clean the mess themselves or to pressure carpet cleaners to steam away the stains.

Richard Walker grew up in a crime-ridden Pomona neighborhood, and knows firsthand about cleaning up the remains of a loved one. After a close friend was murdered by carjackers eight years ago, he helped clean the car.

"I was pretty shocked about what was left," said Walker, 33. "I thought the Police Department had somebody that helped."

Two years later, he opened his own cleaning company: Bio Hazorb in Rancho Cucamonga. He sees it as a service for people too traumatized by a friend or relative's death to think about cleanup.

Sympathetic reasons aside, hiring professionals is smart because working with potentially contaminated blood and other fluids can pose a health hazard, said Jack McGurk, chief of environmental services at the California Department of Health Services. Inexperienced and ill-equipped cleaners run the risk of catching diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis, he said.

Finding professionals is easier now than it was 10 years ago.

Six years ago the California Department of Health Services, under the Trauma Scene Waste Act, began licensing. Soon there were fewer than a dozen cleaners registered, compared with 107 in 2003, said Jack McGurk, chief of environmental services at the department.

Some are restoration companies that have existed for years and have added crime and trauma scene cleanup to their list of services.

Others, like Clean Scene Services, specialize.

Aside from registering with the state, the act requires that all companies take waste to a state-approved treatment facility or transfer station, where it is decontaminated or burned.

Some in the industry attribute the crime and trauma scene cleaning boom to television shows such as "Crime Scene Investigation" or documentaries about the field on cable channels.

"Today we're in a situation where there's a lot of hype," and people think it's an exciting career, said David Goforth of Sacramento. Enrollment for his training program has risen 31%, he said.

Other would-be entrepreneurs who have heard about the business assume it's an easy way to earn a generous buck, but don't know how complicated the work can be, said Kent Berg of the American Bio-Recovery Assn., a national organization of cleaners.

"People think it's a janitorial service and say, 'I know how to push a rag around,' but we're so far removed from that," Berg said.

For instance, true professionals know that the disinfectant used on concrete will not necessarily work on vinyl or on all types of bacteria, Berg said.

A bullet can spray blood and body parts all over a room, including small crevices. Good cleaners spend as much time looking for human tissue and body fluids as they do on scrubbing and wiping, he said.

And people who think they'll get rich are mistaken.

Jobs can range from a few hundred dollars for blood spillage confined to a small section of one room to thousands of dollars for a bad decomposition case that has spoiled carpeting and flooring. But profits can be slim when the costs of materials -- air filters, protective suits, gloves and other expenses -- are subtracted from the gross.

Advertising also can be a problem. Most telephone books do not list the profession, and some companies are listed under janitorial services. County and city officials refer home and property owners to the phone book or the state's list of registered companies.

Some of the more established companies, such as Clean Scene Services, rely heavily on repeat clients.

But the job shouldn't be about the money, said Carol Nicholson, who once joined her husband in the grisly trenches of crime scene cleanup. Now that business has improved, she takes care of billing and phone calls.

"We really do care about what we're doing. Who would want to clean up after their father or mother after they are found in a mess?" she said. "I wouldn't want that to be their last memory."

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