Police agencies rely on niche businesses to mop up scenes
Law enforcement officials say violent crime locations call for special clean teams
By KIMBERLY STAUFFER
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON CRIME SCENE CLEANING COMPANIES
• USA Decon: 713-850-0555, www.usadecon.net www.usadecon.com
CRIME SCENE TIMELINE
The following represents a basic timeline of events to show how crime scene cleanup crews play a role in working with local law enforcement.
•A woman is shot in her upstairs apartment after a fight with her boyfriend.
•Police officers, detectives and crime scene units arrive to interview, collect evidence and make arrests.
•The medical examiner must give approval after examining the body for it to be moved. Once police have finished, a funeral home or the medical examiner takes the body away.
•Once the scene has cleared, the crime scene cleanup crews begin their jobs. Depending on where the body was, how much blood was lost and if any furniture, carpet or walls need to be cleaned, the job can become quite extensive. After the scene is cleaned, no evidence of the crime remains.
When the police finish a crime scene investigation, it's only the beginning.
The aftermath of a violent crime or suicide is often the last thing on any grieving family's mind. But when the constant stream of deputies and investigators finally finish an investigation, the remnants and stains from the incident are left on the carpet, walls and furniture.
Law enforcement and funeral homes will remove a body, but the scene is left intact for someone else to clean up. That's where Houston-based companies like USA Decon and Red Alert Bio-Response Service Inc. come in. These companies, and a growing number like them, fulfill an overlooked service in Montgomery County and around Greater Houston.
Robert Demaret, chief operating officer for USA Decon, served as a deputy sheriff in Nueces County for five years before starting his business with John DiGulio, chief executive officer. He said most people "just don't know" what services are available to them.
"People would ask, 'Who is going to (clean) this for us?' We would say 'Now, ma'am, it's not our job,' " Demaret said. "Next thing they know, in the blink of an eye, everyone's gone, and they've got a mess. It's definitely a business where you're hard to be found and really nobody ever wants to find you."
Montgomery County sheriff's deputies carry information sheets in their cars with four listings of crime scene cleanup companies, said Sally Anderson, crime victim officer for the department. While the department cannot recommend a company, they provide families with all the information needed. Anderson said a majority do not use it.
"That would traumatize me to clean up a crime scene in my own house," she said. "Some families do that, but it's pretty much their call. The resources are made available, but it's their call to use it."
Lt. Russell Reynolds of the Conroe Police Department criminal investigations said when police leave the scene, "everything else just stays behind." While funeral homes will collect the body in Conroe and all evidence is transported to a forensic center, the families are left to take care of the scene and crime scene companies are a good option.
"I think a lot depends on how bad the scenes are. Some of the scenes we've had are a lot more than the family can deal with," he said. "(Cleaning companies) definitely serve a very good and worthwhile purpose out there. They can save the family a lot of problems and particularly at a time when the family is dealing with a crisis, with funeral arrangements and family. It's probably the last thing they need to be dealing with."
Rodrigo Vargas started Red Alert Bio-Response Service Inc. after a family member committed suicide 10 years ago, and they wound up cleaning the scene.
"There was nobody at that time that we could find," he said. "That's how we got started. It hit pretty close to home. We figured that people were going through what we went through at that time, and we wanted to try to help people going through that same situation."
Besides cleaning violent crime, suicide and natural death scenes, Red Alert and USA Decon will take care of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories, animal decay, mold, asbestos, fire and water damage.
"We take care of anything that somebody else doesn't want to mess with," Vargas said.
As death never takes a holiday, calls roll in night and day. While families can clean the scenes themselves, Demaret said cleaning companies can spare families the emotional fallout.
"Why put them through the mental aguish when they could hire us and spare themselves the traumatic scene?" he said. "You don't want to see this. I won't say we've seen it all, but we've seen a lot. We're not emotionally attached, but we're sympathetic."
Demaret said speaking with the family is harder for him than actually cleaning the scene because there is nothing he can say or do to change what happened.
"I think suicides are worse than homicides," he said. "If somebody breaks in and kills Mama, you can be mad at that guy. When it's suicide, you don't have that option to be mad at somebody."
Even in such a state of distress, Vargas said families are glad to let someone handle the situation.
"It's something that you have to prepare yourself psychologically and professionally and train yourself for," he said. "You have to have proper equipment and be able to deal with the victim's family or the persons involved. It's difficult. We tell people to wait until we're done, but they want to see. They may regret it later, but they want to see."
While alleviating the family's trauma is an important component, cleaning companies also haul away and cleanse scenes of bodily fluids and tissue, which are biohazards and need to be properly destroyed. Demaret said while there are federal laws to regulate how biohazardous material is cleaned, enforcement is limited to local health officials and first responders.
"Our biggest problem is there are laws and standards in place, but nobody enforces them," he said.
If a murder is committed in a suburban home, the family can choose to clean the area themselves and could discard bodily materials in a bag and leave it for trash pickup. Animals and insects are attracted to the waste and could spread disease. If a sanitation worker picks it up with a cut on his hand, he could contract hepatitis or HIV.
"It only amplifies the risk when not disposed of properly," DiGulio said. "Think of the most disgusting environment imaginable."
DiGulio said all waste is contained in specially labeled boxes and shipped to a plant for incineration. A Global Positioning System is used to track which landfill the ashes are transported to and where they are dumped. Meticulate records are kept of exact locations, including depth, time and date of the ashes' arrival and placement. If there is any question of the biowaste's whereabouts, these records can pinpoint disposal and certify everything was done aboveboard.
A family's efforts can easily escalate into creating a greater biohazard than the original death created.
"We did a job for an apartment complex, a natural death that died on the couch," Demaret said. "It had been there a few weeks. The family took the couch they were sitting on and shoved it out in the parking lot. It was a stink you cannot imagine with flies and maggots. They took the carpets and put them in the Dumpster. Now there were three areas of contamination instead of one. There were kids walking within 5 to 8 feet of this couch."
What makes wading through mountains of trash, cleaning blood and fluids off the floor and enduring a constant pungent stench bearable, Vargas said, is the impact his company makes on people's lives.
"I'm helping somebody, providing a service to spare somebody from a very, very emotional and tough situation," he said.
"It usually is a person that's not trained or has proper equipment to deal with that. A pair of gloves and a mask are not going to do it. I make it easier for them to grieve and try to go on with their lives after the fact."