Business is Booming for Crime Scene Cleaners
Bill Muir was burning out as an operations manager for a beverage company and started looking for another career. When his brother-in-law used a handgun to kill himself, Muir decided to clean up his sister's place.
Her gratitude for his gesture of grit and kindness gave him an idea. Five months later, Muir became a crime-scene cleaner.
"I wanted to start helping people," he said one recent afternoon before fielding a call to clean up a homicide scene. "And seeing my sister's face after … I knew this is how I can help."
Bill Muir of Bio-One, a company that specializes in biohazard disinfection and decontamination, unpacks cleaning supplies and specialized gear as he and technician Vince Petronzio, right, arrives to clean up an apartment in Chicago, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, following a natural, unattended death of an individual.
(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
In starting Naperville-based Bio-One Chicago last year, Muir and his wife, Dawn, joined the ranks of a profession that blends the demeanors of a funeral home director and grief counselor with a construction contractor who has a strong stomach and intimate knowledge of biohazard disposal. It also is a largely unregulated profession experiencing steady growth, fueled by increasing fear of contamination and disease, and awareness that the services exist, experts say.
"It's a hard thing to do," said DuPage County Coroner Dr. Richard A. Jorgensen, who uses Aurora-based Aftermath Services LLC to clean the county morgue. "It's something that's little-understood."
Bio-One, Aftermath and other local companies are called to homicides, suicides, unattended deaths and the homes of hoarders. Sometimes, they are asked to clean the interior of cars and trucks where a trauma has occurred. Sometimes they are called to clear a meth lab.
"When people ask me what I do, they say, 'wow,' and then they get really interested," said Dan Reynolds, a lieutenant in the New Lenox Fire Protection District who started Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup in 2007 with his wife, Kelly, to supplement his income. "But I don't think they understand what all goes into it. They don't understand the emotional side of it."
Potential clients are enduring the worst time of their lives, cleaners say.
"Nobody calls me on a good day," Reynolds said. "Trying to understand what they're going through is a big part of it."
When a cleaner arrives on a site, bodies are gone but the dreadful signs of what happened remain, including body fluids and matter on floors, walls and ceilings. Insects, rodents, feces and overwhelming odor also can be present.
Reynolds recalled a job several years ago, when he was called to a murder scene in a third-floor apartment on Chicago's South Side. The victim had been dead for several days, during which time the sink overflowed, flooding the third-floor unit and apartments below it.
"We were out there for a couple weeks," Reynolds said.
Muir handled a recent, notorious crime scene: the murders of six family members in a brick bungalow in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood on Feb. 2. Five employees worked for 12 hours to restore the home, Muir said.
At a church service for the victims, Diego Uribe, a relative, hugged Muir and praised him for cleaning the home, Muir recalled. About three months later, Uribe and his girlfriend were charged with the killings.
"I was dumbfounded," Muir said.
Both pleaded not guilty in June and are scheduled to return to court Sept. 14.
Graphic scenes can crowd the minds of cleaners, and the most jarring of those images involve child victims, Reynolds and Muir said.
"You have to be really good at removing yourself from the situation," said Reynolds, 42. "Once you put it in terms that you're there to do a job and help the family, it becomes a little easier."
Muir, 48, said he copes with the most nightmarish scenes by visualizing how loved ones of the victim want the room to look after his work — as if the victim never occupied it.
"That basically takes me right out of it," he said. "You gotta go back to always helping first."
Nobody calls me on a good day. Trying to understand what they're going through is a big part of it.— Dan Reynolds, co-founder of Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup
Many companies, few regulations
Crime- and trauma-scene cleaning companies trace their roots to the early 1990s, said Andrew Yurchuck, president of the American Bio Recovery Association, an industry trade group. In the early days, a dozen or so companies existed, he said. Today "500 to 800 companies specialize in it" nationwide.
Contamination awareness is one reason, Yurchuck and others said. Perhaps just as powerful were the feature films "Cleaner" in 2007 and "Sunshine Cleaning" in 2009, which center on main characters who clean up after a trauma.
The movies raised awareness, industry representatives said, as did social media. Companies flooded the market about seven years ago.
"There are very few barriers to entry," said Tina Bao, senior vice president of marketing for Aftermath, the Aurora company with 24 locations throughout the country. "Anyone with a bucket and a mop" can open a business, she added.
Other reasons for growth include property managers' increasing unease with cleaning contaminated units, and more municipalities pushing to clear dangerous residential hoarding.
The result, local crime scene cleaners said, is that business has nearly tripled in recent years.
To clean up after a homicide or suicide, workers venture into a home wearing biohazard suits, often with breathing apparatuses. Their feet are wrapped in durable coverings; their gloves taped at the wrist.
Eliminating biohazards is a multi-step process that uses proprietary chemicals. Muir described four stages that start with an enzyme to open cells, then another material that kills bacteria. That is followed by a "Formula 409 on steroids" for cleaning and a polish he called "kind of like a glass cleaner on steroids."
Biohazards are disposed of in specially designed plastic bags that go inside containers and eventually are destroyed with pressurized steam sterilization.
Cleanup costs of most homicides and suicides confined to one room range from $1,500 to $3,000, Reynolds said. Doing the same for an unattended death — in which the body has been decomposing for days — is more complicated, he added. Those conditions often force cleaners to remove and rebuild floors, walls, ceilings, even ventilation ducts and fans to eliminate odors, fluids and other matter.
Companies must comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for their employees, and the Environmental Protection Agency dictates biohazard disposal.
But crime scene cleaning remains a largely unregulated industry, and disputes over estimates and final bills occur.
Sometimes those disagreements rise to litigation. Aftermath was sued in Texas in 2012 by families who claimed the company low-balled estimates for work that ended up costing much more. The case was settled in 2014.
Bao said Aftermath, purchased by a private equity group in late 2012, "essentially is a new company" that has established more thorough and transparent procedures for potential clients.
A Bio-One employee begins to work at the home where six people were found murdered on the 5700 block of South California Avenue in Chicago on Feb. 10 2016.
(Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Rewards of tough job
Crime scene cleaners say the work has made them more aware of violence but also given them a greater respect for life.
They have been amazed at the viciousness people can display — and impressed at the emotional strength of those enduring loss. They say the work has instilled in them the importance of kindness and helped them avoid getting aggravated by life's smaller tribulations.
"There are days," Reynolds said, that "make you lose your faith in humanity" and he thinks about leaving the business.
"But then something happens with a positive outcome," he added. "You get somebody to smile for the first time in a week. There's something very rewarding about that."
Muir said he has shed stress-related maladies that plagued him in his previous job, and is healthier and happier since making the career change.
"I feel better about everything I do now than I have for the last 46 years," he said. "I'll never leave."
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