- Hundreds of businesses now specialize in cleaning scenes of crime or trauma
- Ex-firefighter says the look in a widow's eyes at a suicide scene stirred him to a new career
- "This is not a job for everyone," he says, "I don't care how big, strong and tough you are"
- Fees for cleanups can be as high as $5,000, but sometimes, it's free
Ron Gospodarski remembered the gory details: The victim was beaten to death, perhaps with a baseball bat. There was blood spatter everywhere. "A very bloody scene," he recalled.
Gospodarski wasn't the lead detective trying to solve a homicide, nor was he a forensic investigator looking for scientific evidence.
He was there to clean it up.
By his count, Gospodarski has handled thousands of crime scene cleanups across the New York City area over the past 15 years. "Probably six to 10 jobs a week," he said. From stabbings and suicides to freak accidents and multiple murders, he has seen it all.
Gospodarski's line of work is unique and not for the faint of heart. His company, Bio-Recovery Corp., specializes in crime-scene and biohazard clean-ups, a cottage industry that goes to work after the body is gone. "You see the blood stains, the gloves that the EMS threw on the floor," he told CNN, "the police put up this crime scene tape, nobody can come in here. And then they just walk away from it."
As private enterprises go, crime scene cleanup businesses were virtually nonexistent a couple of decades ago. Today, there are hundreds of companies around the country that employ trained technicians to sanitize and decontaminate locations where a violent crime or trauma has occurred. Many of the companies also provide cleanup assistance with hoarders and decomposing bodies.
The work is macabre, but it also carries an element of fascination. "We are like voyeurs," Gospodarski said. "We look into people's lives and see what people on the outside want to see. We see the good things and the bad things, and that's the way life is."
Still, there are certain aspects of the job that continue to sicken him, and they don't come from the dead.
"I've stopped being amazed by people," Gospodarski said. "We've been in places where we're cleaning up deaths and there are people sticking their heads in the door asking if they can rent the apartment. It's bizarre."
Cory Chalmers was a young firefighter in southern California when he entered the crime-scene cleanup business. "I came up with this idea just from responding to calls and from seeing some of the horrific scenes we'd be leaving behind for families to deal with," he said.
One incident, the suicide of a man who had shot himself in the bathroom of his home, stood out for Chalmers. "The wife was just screaming hysterically," he said. "As we walked out, we passed the woman. Just the look in her eyes, I couldn't stand it anymore. That was the one that pushed me over the edge and made me want to do this."
Chalmers started his company, Steri-Clean Inc., out of his garage. Seventeen years later, he has a staff of 22 people, is contracted by more than 48 cities and will soon be franchised to other states.
"This is not a job for everyone," he told CNN. "I don't care how big, strong and tough you are. It's really a mental thing."
Fees for cleanups range anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, Chalmers said. Who ends up paying the bill depends on a variety of factors. In some instances, homeowner's insurance will cover the costs. There are also administrative codes and statutes in certain states and cities that mandate local police and fire departments provide the clean-up services.
When his crew enters a crime scene, "The first thing we do is make contact with whomever is meeting us," he said. "We talk to them and see how they are doing. We make our way inside wearing full protective clothing, disposable Tyvek coveralls, respirators, eye protection, thick gloves, and we set up a 'cold zone' outside the protected area."
"We have bio-hazard bins, lots of rags, disinfectant, we have our laminator that we spray on surfaces that turn white if blood is detected. We have an ozone machine that gets rid of any odor in the air."
An ozone system is a key component for most cleanup crews. For $3,125 you can have one shipped to your home.
"Deodorize human decomposition jobs with zero call-backs," reads a caption next to an image of the product. It's being sold by Amdecon, a school based in Florida that offers crime- and trauma-scene cleaning courses to students around the world.
The school's founder, Michael J. Tillman, said he has helped teach cleanup techniques to more than 1,500 people in 16 countries.
"It's been very successful," he said of the business. "It's not for everybody, but for those that it's appropriate for, it's a great way to get into the industry."
Tillman's foray into the trade began after reading an article about how a couple of detectives were providing after-hours cleanup services to families with loved ones who were killed.
"I wanted to be able to say that I left the world in a little better condition and that I helped a lot of people, and that I made good money doing it," he said.
"It's a very emotionally rewarding business and a very financially rewarding business," he said. "It's just extremely hard work and if you don't have that switch where you can turn off your emotions, you can't do it. It's not for everybody."
Chalmers said he offers counseling to his employees if he detects changes in behavior or attitude.
While it is a business, Gospadarski said there are some cases he'll do for free. "If the people don't have money, they can still call us," he said. "We will still do the job, we would never turn a family away, ever." Compassion is essential for the cleanup crews, whose peculiar profession has also provided them with an unusual perspective on life and death.
"You never know when your time is going to come," said Chalmers. "It doesn't matter if you are a gang member getting shot or someone walking to the dinner table. Everything can be dangerous."