Crime scene cleaners do the dirty job so others don’t have to
By Michael McFall
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 23 2014 09:53AM
Shane Woodworth tells himself that it is just blood.
The 10-year crime scene cleaner does not want to think about the life story. He does not want to think about whom the mess belonged to, before the violence. He just wants to make it disappear and help the loved ones move on.
Woodworth and other crime-scene cleaners keep people from having to clean up for themselves the aftermath of murders, suicides and the like.
The job was not Woodworth’s initial calling in life. He had apprenticed to become a funeral director, but when he met the families, he was stunned to find out that neither the police nor the medical examiner removes the aftermath. So when the Salt Lake City-based Crime Scene Cleaners Inc. went up for sale 10 years ago, Woodworth bought it.
"We can fill this niche that other restoration companies don’t want," Woodworth said. "We clean what nobody else will or wants to."
For Jon Welch, of Utah Disaster Restoration Services, his motivation was a tragedy that occurred in his neighbors’ basement, one that the neighbors are still suffering from after having to clean up the scene themselves. That was about 30 years ago.
Welch decided no one should have to go through what they did.
"We’ve done this enough that we understand a lot of what [the loved ones] are going through," Welch said. But for them, it is just another job, and that separation makes them effective.
When Woodworth walks by soccer trophies on display, his mind does not go to the games that the victim and his own children would have played together. The cleaner’s biggest competition are neighbors and fellow church members who want to help in the wake of a tragedy but do not realize what they are getting into on an emotional level.
"People figure that they are deer hunters, they deal with blood, but they get involved and then feel like they can’t back out. It’s different," Woodworth said.
Still, the emotions of the people left behind run high, too, and they run the gamut.
Sometimes loved ones are in complete disbelief and talk about victims like they are about to come home from the store, Woodworth said. Others are relieved, such as when the deceased had been abusive and talked about committing suicide for a long time. The rest are either in shock, are crying so hard they can barely speak or are furious and direct that anger at whoever is there, Woodworth said, "so you become a punching bag."
As with the aftermath, the cleaners approach the loved ones as professionals. They listen, they sympathize.
"It is tough," Welch said. "The first thing is we listen to what they have to say. … [But] we don’t offer any advice or counsel. We just express sadness, we’re sorry that this happened to you. We’re sorry for your loss."
Not only is the ordeal an emotionally heavy one, but also blood-born pathogens and communicable diseases are a constant risk. Not only that, but the floors of a drug addict’s home can be littered with syringes, rotten food and feces — both animal and human, Woodworth said.
Police and fire departments do not clean up crime scenes after they are done investigating; the onus falls to the shaken loved ones. The emergency responders will advise the homeowner that crime scene cleanup crews are an option, but they do not recommend any particular cleaner, Welch said.
As a public agency, the police do not want to show favoritism toward any private company, said Salt Lake City Police Detective Cody Lougy. The police do recommend people hire professionals, though, especially given the biological dangers, Lougy said.
Homeowner’s insurance tends to cover the cleanup — under "explosions," of all things, Woodworth said.
When the cleaners show up, they arrive in unmarked vans and exercise discretion so the neighbors do not necessarily know what happened.
Woodworth’s handful of employees usually stay only six to eight months. Most of them are training to become police officers or firefighters, or pursuing criminal-justice degrees, and they want the opportunity to get past the yellow tape. Welch does not see that kind of turnover, but his operation is smaller — it’s just him, his partner and one employee.
The aftermath and the emotions are not what burn people out, though, Woodworth said — it’s the hours. The cleaners are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is a chance they will spend Christmas removing the last, violent moment of someone’s life.
But Woodworth, Welch and veterans like them keep at it.
"It’s more motivating to stay. If I didn’t do it, someone who knew them well would," Woodworth said. "It’s a service that very few people can offer."