Most of us don’t like to think about work while we’re watching a movie. But in Neal Smither’s case, it was while watching a certain movie that he first thought about a certain line of work.
Smither used to work in mortgage financing. Then, like so many, he was downsized. So he enrolled in mortician school, and eventually went on to earn as much as $50,000 before owning his own mortuary. But it wasn’t until he walked into a movie theater to watch Pulp Fiction that the idea really hit him. Toward the end of Quentin Tarantino’s cult film, John Travolta’s gun accidentally fires at close range on an unsuspecting backseat passenger, splattering human brains all over the Corinthian leather of Samuel L. Jackson’s car. While most theatergoers sat repulsed, Smither munched on Milk Duds, silently planning his next business opportunity.
There are plenty of jobs people see as particularly unsavory. Proctologist? Prison guard? An IRS clerk? Still, how can they compare to picking cranial fragments out of the ceiling, mopping up pools of blood, getting brain matter out of carpets, or having to dispose of a mattress that’s been soiled upon after a week-old dead body just finished purging its bodily fluids?
Crime Scene Cleaners Inc., the brainchild of 35-year-old entrepreneur Smither, specializes in cleaning up the aftermath of suicides, murders and accidental deaths. If the price is right, his employees would be happy (but perhaps that’s an exaggeration) to also clean up vomit, urine, feces, meth labs or even a potentially hantavirus-laden mouse found dead in your home. They will do it in any of the 18 states where they have offices. Give them a call. Perhaps you’ll eventually talk to Nathan Randall, one of their Utah representatives and himself a clean-up specialist.
“We go in to restore a chaotic scene back to its original form as best we can,” Randall said.
That includes light spackling, painting and reparation of damage done by bullets, or anything else involved in the death.
From the minute you first talk to Smither, you quickly realize he’s a brash, driven man who doesn’t sugarcoat matters. I’ve never left a phone message, no matter what hour of the day, that he hasn’t returned within five minutes. “Call me anytime. I’m a 24-hour-a-day guy, I don’t rest. … Can’t bear the thought of losing to anybody else in this business,” Smither says. “I hate to be beat or lose out on a job to a competitor.”
Randall knows this well. “Neal is going 900 mph all the time. If you have just 5 percent of his energy, you’d have more than most people,” he says.
Smither is a celebrity of sorts. He has been a guest on syndicated morning radio shows such as Howard Stern and The Bob & Tom Show. His company has been the subject of a short documentary making the rounds at film festivals. The Discovery Channel even dedicated a program to Smither’s company and others like it. He’s always ready with a sound bite, some of which can catch you off guard. “If you make it bloody, we’re you’re buddy!” he says.
Does the man like his job? “Let’s just say it satisfies all of my personality quirks,” Smithers offers.
Whatever that means. You might be afraid to ask. In an odd way, macabre humor, although seemingly tasteless and inappropriate, gets people like Smither through the daily grind of dealing with unimaginable, galvanizing horror. While never boring, though, the job eventually becomes as rote as anything else.
Does Smither have a morbid fascination with death? Not really. It could be that he’s just a practical man. “It seemed like a job I could do on my own, with stable job security,” he says.
He started Crime Scene Cleaners in mid-’90s San Francisco with, in his words, nothing but “myself, a Geo Metro and an American Express.” He drove around the Bay Area day and night, by himself, cleaning up stomach-churning messes, all the while promoting and advertising his services. That’s right. Advertising and promoting. Crass and unfeeling as that may sound, this is a business. It’s Smither’s livelihood, one that currently brings in several million dollars annually. His company contracts about 400 clean-ups a year in the Bay Area alone.
Few of us advocate suicide or murder. Smither certainly doesn’t. But the sobering fact of the matter is that people kill themselves, people kill others, and everyone else dies either accidentally, naturally or by disease. People die, period. In many cases, someone needs to clean up afterward. Smither would like it a lot if Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc., did the job.
You might wonder why a need for such an industry exists. Don’t police officers or government agencies do this? No. For the most part, it’s not their job. Just several years ago, the carnage left from crimes was usually cleaned up by friends and families of the victim or victims, landlords, maids or janitors. None of them were really qualified or prepared for the job, much less willing to perform it. The need for specialists to perform this kind of clean-up eventually grew out of necessity. Says Smither: “State governments didn’t want little Johnny playing in a dumpster where there was blood and guts, deadly diseases like hepatitis, or just gore in general.”
It’s a health issue, plain and simple. But there’s also the inherent “ick” factor. In the past, a victim’s family had to file for a one-time permit to dispose of the aftermath. “People would have to wait 72 hours to get the permit, while the mess and stench remained in their homes,” Smither says.
That wait, combined with the reality of the unwanted task of cleaning up after someone close to them had perished, was traumatic. Randall adds that anyone can clean up anything. When it comes to the dead, it’s a matter of disposing of it properly. “It’s a biohazard. That’s where you need someone licensed to come in. For example, once a body purges, the spinal fluid can be very toxic to another human if they breathe it in.”
While hospitals have had stringent laws for years in regard to disposal of such matter, it has only been recently that individual states have passed legislation. “I had the advantage of getting into it eight months before the state of California made guidelines. I made mistakes, learned what to do and what not to do,” Smither says.
Clean-up laws are only for individual jurisdictions, however, and guidelines vary from state to state. There is currently no federal regulation or standardization for these laws, though Smither predicts that will be implemented in the next five years. Randall says more regulation will come along when more people get into the act and mandate it.
Another problem with families having to clean up, aside from the possible danger, is the emotional turmoil it brings. “This is an unwanted task and can be hard on people—even when we do the job and family members are there, it can be rough. We have grief counselors free of charge for the family if needed,” Smither says.
Randall, a Utah native, came across this unique job about 18 months ago, while installing windows in Portland, Ore. It was there that he jotted down the company’s website address posted on one of Crime Scene Cleaner, Inc.’s, trucks, then e-mailed Smither to ask about a job. Randall, whose mother worked for the office of a medical examiner, was interested in forensics. He has also wanted to be a homicide detective for some time. This job, he figured, was at least in the neighborhood. Smither phoned Randall to tell him that, yes, he had an opening. But Randall would have to first acquire a contractor’s license, become bonded and insured, and receive training in the removal of hazardous materials. It took several months for Randall to get everything in order. All the while, he phoned and e-mailed Smither, hoping all his efforts wouldn’t be futile.
The choice location for Randall’s coveted new job soon opened up—in Utah. Since Randall hailed from the Beehive State, Smither asked him if he’d like to take it. Randall agreed, of course, then went to the Bay Area for a bit of training with Smither.
“I rode along with Neal and learned how to clean up, and take care of the business end of sales and advertising. I then went to Reno with him to clean up a meth lab, then to Salt Lake City to do my first job—a young man who committed suicide with a high-powered rifle in Sandy. I’ve been busy ever since,” Randall says.
How busy, exactly? “People don’t realize how many people, for various reasons, die every single day—a lot of them,” he says. “Someone’s got to clean it up.
“We’re usually the last people on the scene. With unattended deaths, there’s a mandatory investigation. The place has been roped off and investigated for a couple of days. Most agencies have left before I get there.”
That said, at least 30 percent of the time, the body is still around when Nathan arrives, especially with natural deaths and suicides that have gone undiscovered for several days.
They bid on jobs—with tact and compassion, of course. “I go in and assess what needs to be done and tell people what it costs. … It’s the reality of it all. I try to be as helpful as I can,” Randall says.
People usually don’t shop around, they just want the job done. “I’ve never been turned down from a job,” Randall says.
Like most contracted work, crime scene clean-up is a cash-on-delivery business. Cleaning up gory messes is tough, but not the worst part. “The hardest part of my job is asking for the check when I’m done cleaning up after their loved one who passed on—it’s no fun,” Randall says.
Fortunately for many families in Utah, he says, the LDS Church picks up the tab the majority of the time. “I’d say 80 to 85 percent of the checks I get are from bishops of the victims in the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if the person is active in the church or not, or even members. They step in and help, which is nice,” Randall says.
The only time a job doesn’t get immediate payment after it’s finished is in the case of a murder. In those cases, an invoice is sent to Crime Victim Reparations, a government agency which issues a check within 10 days.
Randall takes photos of every job before starting, and after he finishes. This is done for insurance purposes, and as a reference if issues or questions arise later regarding work he performed. They’re grisly photos, the kind that make you feel sorry for the poor saps working at the one-hour photo development shop.
“See this yellow around a large, mostly dried pool of blood?” Randall asks, showing the latest in a series of clean-up photographs. “That’s the plasma that has separated from the blood.”
He’s got a photo of a brain—post-suicide—resting on a tiled shower floor. Another shows all sorts of bone fragments. Yet another photograph shows the top of someone’s scalp, a bit of hair intact, stuck to a bloody wall. If you’ve ever seen someone get shot in a movie and thought the flying carnage was over the top, chances are you’re wrong. Dead wrong.
“High-powered rifles and guns at close range wreak havoc and cause unbelievable damage,” Randall says. He’s seen sights you wouldn’t think possible, like a tuft of hair from a shot to the head that actually drove halfway through the side of a cardboard box.
“A bullet from a 30.06 will mushroom once it enters the body and take with it anything in its path. A shotgun can rip your face off, but the buckshot will stay in the head, usually leaving the skull intact.”
How horrific and unbelievable can crime scenes be? Randall tells of one of their technicians in Las Vegas who was called to the site of a suicide. A man had jumped off the top of The Stratosphere on a hot summer day and hit the sidewalk with an impact so great that his spine was driven right through the pavement. It couldn’t be removed. Eventually, the area had to be torn up and cemented over.
Before and after a clean-up, Randall has to case the joint to make certain every nook and cranny is covered. It’s not always easy. “I once found a piece of brain I almost missed that had flown across the room and landed in a box away from everything else. I found an eye socket behind a door; a nasal cavity here, teeth there. I owe it to the family to make sure there’s not one remnant left,” says Randall, who’s happy to say he’s never been called back to a job. Nor has he ever gagged or thrown up at one.
There have, however, been circumstances where not everything can be restored properly. Sometimes articles—carpets, sheets, cushions—are so saturated with blood and matter they need to be totally removed. “I had a family that had a sewing machine covered in blood that they wanted to keep. I told them, ‘I’ve cleaned it the best I can, but you will have to take it to a sewing machine repair shop and have them open it up, because I guarantee it’s still not clean inside. … The same goes for speakers on televisions.”
Sometimes even the victims of suicide assist him in his job. “There are suicides where the victim had covered the entire room with Visqueen [plastic sheeting] before they shot themselves. Some have put a garbage bag over their heads before the deed to minimize the mess left behind.”
There are also instances where the victim didn’t die, but left a mess nonetheless. “I arrived at one job where a guy had shot himself below the chin, had part of his jaw missing, most of his tongue, and no neurological damage. He lived, and had considerable reconstructive surgery,” Randall says. “Apparently, when the paramedics arrived, he had changed his shirt, put on his shoes, and was waiting there with his arms folded—pissed off that he was still alive. While waiting for the authorities, he paced through every room in the house, tracking blood everywhere.”
The amount of blood left after a wrist-slashing is also voluminous. On the other end of the spectrum, a gunshot wound to the chest will hardly leave a teaspoon of blood, due to the fact that it’s sucked into the lungs.
Randall takes a pragmatic approach to every cleaning task. With every job, he asks himself how to best go about it quickly and efficiently. Once armed with neutralizers, protein-stain cleaners, assorted scrapers and rags, plus enzyme cleaners that kill blood-borne bacteria and pathogens, Randall gets to work. “It’s just a job—something I want to do well. But something I’ve done so often it’s really no different than me cleaning my kitchen anymore.”
The biggest, most bracing difference is the unmistakable aura of death in the room. “There’s a powerful and eerie energy in there that can’t be denied. You can walk into any room in the house and not feel it, then walk into the room where someone has died and you feel it immediately.”
Often during the clean-up, family members are in the next room looking for a picture to take to the morgue, still sobbing and shaken with grief. Still others stay far away, says Randall. “I have families that stay in hotels for weeks until everything has been returned to normal.”
Understandably, there are those who won’t step foot in the house ever again, and quickly put their homes up for sale. According to Smither, that’s the case when there is a murder or suicide in an Asian household in the Bay Area. “They almost always sell the house and get out of there because of superstition and bad karma,” he says.
It would be a huge overstatement to say this work isn’t for everybody. “I try not to dwell on it, and I don’t read obituaries. When I’m off work, I’m just chillin’,” Randall says. “Sure, I get sad. Especially when it comes to the deaths of little children. But because of my beliefs, it’s comforting to know they’re in a better place.”
Randall tells of a man who quit work to look after his invalid wife. The man ended up dying in his sleep, next to his wife. But she had no mobility, and couldn’t reach a phone only a few feet away. “She lay there for five days next to his body, which had swelled and purged its fluids. … She was severely dehydrated when they found her,” Randall says.
Of course, this kind of stuff gets to a person. While stoic, Randall isn’t devoid of feeling. “I’ve never broken down at a job, but I have gotten teary-eyed in the truck on the way home,” he says.
Death is a reality, and Randall deals with it better than most.
Once everything has been cleaned up satisfactorily, Randall loads up his truck with all the refuse from the job, takes off his hazardous materials outfit, and heads to the landfill. Randall eschews the red hazardous material, or “haz-mat,” bags. He says the sight of them freaks people out, making them nervous. He prefers normal, albeit heavy-duty garbage bags. Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc., has a contract with a sanitation company and has a “special handlers” permit where everything is either incinerated or disposed of in a location where the general public does not have access. It’s a good thing, too. If you’ve ever been to the dump, you’ll notice that there’s nearly as many people rummaging through rubbish as there are people getting rid of it.
The first time I met Randall outside of his apartment and near his truck, he had been busy. He’d just finished a “decomp” (removal of a decomposing body) outside of Utah and had come back to retrieve a dead mouse rotting in someone’s wall. By the time he was done, the landfill was closed for the day. The putrid mattress on which the out-of-state “decomp” had been resting would have to stay in his truck until morning.
Death does not keep banker’s hours. Randall is on call 24-7. He’s been interrupted while having dinner with his girlfriend, at three in the morning, weekends and in the movie theater. You name it. But Randall likes the non 9-to-5 flexibility, and the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a suit to work. A one-time “haz-mat” suit, which he wears during 95 percent of all jobs, will suffice. Once dressed for the job, he looks like a cross between a ’50s-era sci-fi movie astronaut and a beekeeper.
The sanitary precautions are necessary. Randall recently finished cleaning up a two-week old “decomp,” an indigent man who died in the apartments above the Manhattan Club. This, of course, was a mess. Especially when most bodies start to decompose in as little as seven hours.
“There were maggots and everything. When the IPS [body transport] came and picked him up, his foot popped and drained all over the place,” Randall recalls.
Blood, even when tainted, isn’t that dangerous. Unpleasant maybe, but not overly harmful. “Blood from someone with AIDS or other diseases is no longer contagious when it hits the air within a few short hours after someone has died,” Randall says.
Airborne diseases are a more serious concern. Certain strains of hepatitis, spinal fluid and the chemical residue of methamphetamine labs can be harmful or even fatal if inhaled. With meth-lab abatement, almost everything is a loss. If it’s porous, or can’t be reasonably triple-washed and sanitized, it’s all destroyed: televisions, stereos, furniture, everything.
“I’ve done meth-lab clean-ups where the walls are yellowish-orange and dripping with iodine and other meth chemicals,” Randall says. “You don’t even have to inhale the stuff. Your skin can absorb it and make you sick. Sometimes you tear down the drywall, leaving nothing but studs, it’s so bad.”
Randall says he respects the dead. Even though he usually doesn’t see the bodies (at least in their whole state), he feels a deep sense of obligation to the family, and a duty that the job must be done right and with a feeling of reverence. Smither hesitates before answering.
“I respect how people lived their lives, if they were good people. But a lot of these people who have been murdered or killed themselves are dirtbags, and have put people through hell. Many suicides are the final ‘screw you’ to the people left behind.”
It can be hard respecting those left behind as well. Smither has what he calls an “80-20 rule.”
“I’d say 80 percent of the family members I’ve dealt with are out for themselves. If they really cared, how come grandma lay dead on the floor for two months? Where were they then? I’ve seen people going through the drawers of the deceased, arguing over who gets what, while I’m still in the room cleaning up the blood,” he says.
Randall has had similar experiences. He has seen families argue over the deceased’s bank statements after finishing a job. But those cases are an exception. “Usually, I’m cleaning up while family members are in the next room crying, just torn apart,” he says. “I’ve done my share of consoling. Once I stayed on an hour and a half after the job was done; listening, trying to comfort the mother of a victim.”
There are hugs. “I’ve given a lot of those,” Randall says. “Most people are glad to see me there.”
But not always. During one job, Randall took his requisite photographs, then prepared to start cleaning. All of a sudden …
“The daughter of the deceased ran up and pushed me, screaming, ‘You insensitive f—ker! Get out of here!’ She was out of control, trying to hit me. Family members were holding her back. I understood why she felt that way, but I had a job to do. So I calmly said, ‘You let me get in there and do it, or I’ll have to call the police.’”
Later that same day, the woman apologized and gave him a hug. Then it’s on to the next job, driving around in a white truck with bright red lettering that advertises his services. “I get a lot of looks from people. Most think it’s some kind of a joke, or they don’t know what to think. A few think it’s insensitive,” Randall says. “But it’s not meant to be clever or in your face. It’s what the job entails. We have to advertise our services like any other business.”
Decorum or no decorum, advertise is what they do. Randall estimates that he gives out some 100-plus T-shirts a month. They’ve become something of a novelty.
“They’re big with police officers. They think they’re pretty cool—the thing to have,” Randall says. “We’re not in the phone book, and Smither doesn’t want us to be ambulance chasers. When I hear of a tragedy on TV or whatever, I don’t pursue it. We count on our relationships with the cops and others for calls.”
When Randall isn’t cleaning up crime scenes, he’s visiting mortuaries and handing out his card, networking with funeral directors, body-transport people, homicide detectives and anyone else who might benefit from his services. Smither has nationwide accounts with big-name hotel and motel chains. They generate a lot of business. A fair amount of crime, meth labs and suicides takes place in hotel and motel rooms. Especially in the gambling metros of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, places where people reach the end of the line after losing everything.
Their relationship with law enforcement is so good, in fact, that the company contracts with several agencies to clean out squad cars after prisoners have bled, vomited or urinated all over them. Randall recently cleaned a squad car after a detainee systematically licked and slobbered over every last inch of the car’s back interior. You can bet he hadn’t gobbled a bunch of Tic Tacs beforehand, either.
Driving back home at a rather fast speed after a clean-up job in Denver, Randall passed an officer by the side of the road. “He immediately pulls out after me. I slow down. And when he gets close enough to read the sign on my truck, he pulls away,” Randall remembers.
It mattered little whether or not the officer thought Randall was headed toward a clean-up. Randall just appreciated the fact that he narrowly avoided a ticket.
Both his family and girlfriend support him in his line of work. At the age of 25, he has a company truck, a gas card and a job he inexplicably loves and wants to hang on to. “I never want another job. I can’t imagine going into an office and staring at a computer screen all day,” Randall says.
He’s salaried. He gets bonuses. For most people, no amount of compensation would merit this kind of work. So, what does Randall see in it?
“I’ve never had a job where what I did mattered so much—where I could relate to people at such a level. I honestly feel like I’m doing a valuable and thoughtful service,” he says. “The medical examiner, the funeral director and myself are the last three people a victim’s family deals with in a tragedy. I want to make it as good an experience for them as possible.”
With all the apparent negatives that come with this line of work, and to some they would appear numberless, there is one benefit that might be easily overlooked: Friends never ask to borrow his truck when they need to move.