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Demand grows for crime scene cleanup crews

July 20, 2005
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July 19, 2005 - (AP) - The stench assaults the nose and creeps into the back of the throat, rotting food, cat urine and decay. Dale Cillian stood in the bathroom doorway and surveyed the grisly scene.

"Yeah, this is bad," he said.

The woman in her 60s died on the bathroom floor of her Chandler home. Her body was discovered two months later. What first looked like a discarded wig was actually her scalp. The tile was black with decomposing body fluids.

"We're going to have to disinfect every square inch of this place from the ceiling to the floors," he said, eyeing a hovering swarm of flies.

Cillian is in the business of cleaning up what bodies leave behind. His Gilbert-based company, Biopro, has mopped up 14,000 crime scenes, suicides, methamphetamine labs and biohazards during the past 20 years. It's a hands-on job in which cleaners must deal with bloodborne diseases and toxic waste, not to mention the stomach-churning nature of the work.

But as the demand for these services grows across the nation, the industry remains for the most part unregulated by state and federal agencies.

Compassion is perhaps one of the most important requirements for the job, said Cillian, who spent several years as a Phoenix firefighter before retiring earlier this year.

"People don't understand the mental aspects we have to deal with -- the grieving families, when you go into a house and look at someone's pictures on the mantel," Cillian said. "One of the worst things is the kids, when you see their toys or pictures. It's really hard. Not everyone can do this, and do it passionately."

Cillian must hire carefully to screen out morbid curiosity-seekers.

"There is nothing that some people want to do more than get into a crime scene," he said. "They need to be really honest, keep their mouths shut, work odd hours and are always on call."

At the company's office in Gilbert, videos of real-life deaths, called "Faces of Death," and videos of autopsies are piled on a conference table. The footage is used as a training tool to desensitize employees to the gore.

Some of the unforgettable cleanups include a man who committed suicide by jumping through a wood chipper, the brutal murder of an entire family and the bullet-riddled apartment where Chandler police officer James Snedigar was killed.

And then there is the hepatitis, AIDS, bodily fluids and airborne diseases to worry about.

"Someone takes a shotgun to themselves, and a few hours later there are still things floating in the air. You don't know what disease someone's going to have," Cillian said. "And meth labs -- those are nasty chemicals. That stuff just doesn't go away. It gets trapped in the walls, in your lungs."

Biopro cleaners rely on a nearly $1 million inventory of safety and cleaning equipment for protection. The storehouse is stocked with oxygen masks, full biohazard suits, ozone machines, heavy duty carpet shampooers, ultraviolet lights and everything to support a full-scale cleanup operation in the middle of nowhere.

For centuries, the grisly cleaning responsibilities fell to fire departments, funeral homes, neighbors or churches, which often did it at no cost as a way to help grieving families.

But in 1985, Cillian said he became the first in the world to turn the service into a business venture. The idea came when no one else would clean up an apartment in his complex where a man had been dead for nine days. So he did it himself.

In the last decade, several others have followed his lead and the industry continues to grow. Sharan Godwin owned a janitorial service before starting Phoenix-based Crime Clean Decontamination 12 years ago.

"I've been around livestock all my life, I've de-horned bulls. Blood doesn't bother me," Godwin said.

Several companies sign contracts with police departments, who give them the bulk of their business. Cities usually foot the bill to clean up car crash and crime scenes in public places. Insurance companies usually pay for anything inside a home. But getting paid isn't always easy. Godwin often battles with property management companies over bills.

Cillian is one of a few specialists in the country certified in the new threats of anthrax and biochemical warfare. If disaster strikes, he may be called to lead a cleanup operation on a massive scale.

No state or federal agency oversees the crime scene cleanup business in Arizona. The only permit required is a Maricopa County license to transport contaminated materials to a special hazardous waste dump. And the only agency keeping tabs on decontamination companies is the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

Mark Norton, an assistant director of the department, said he has cited companies for not wearing gloves, not having training on bloodborne pathogens or for using electric cords in wet conditions. Under state regulations, cleaners must have training on personal protection equipment and bloodborne pathogens, but there are no regulations that specify the content or duration of training. And if the company doesn't have employees, it does not fall under state scrutiny. Cillian said he hopes to bring a law here similar to one passed in Louisiana to hold the iindustry more accountable. All Louisiana decontamination businesses must be licensed through a special state board that can fine companies for code violations or revoke their licenses. Sometimes apartment janitors or motel maids will be asked to clean up suicides, which is not only a public health issue, but could affect them mentally if they aren't used to dealing with violence.

"They aren't trained in bloodborne pathogens, they don't wear masks or they put biological waste in Dumpsters illegally," Cillian said. "And we can't just have the fire department hose it down and it washes into retention basins, or into a park where kids play."

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