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Small Business
Cleaning up on crime
September 4, 2001: 6:10 a.m. ET

Neil Smither's brash approach to death is bringing in plenty of clients
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Among the small but growing number of crime scene cleaners in the United States there are some people who believe a certain protocol should apply when you are in the business of death.

Drive unmarked vehicles so as not to draw attention to yourself or embarrass clients when you pull up at their home. Adopt a name like Bio Recovery Service or Emergi-Clean appropriate without giving away too much. Model your behavior after funeral home directors or morticians who conduct themselves quietly and with respect for the dead.

Speak about your work in hushed tones and, above all, promote your work as a service that you provide to people in distress giving them one less thing to worry about in a time of crisis.

A slightly different, sort of gross approach

And then there's Neil Smither.

Smither's taking the low road all the way to the top of the crime scene cleaning business. He cruises the San Francisco Bay area in a huge white van emblazoned with his company's very direct name and its mission in bold red lettering. Crime Scene Cleaners. Homicide. Suicide. Natural death.

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  We're dealing with death. How do you sugarcoat death?  
     
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  Neil Smither
Crime Scene Cleaners
 
"I want people to know about it. I think every single person is a potential customer," he said. "We're dealing with death. How do you sugarcoat death?"

Smither is unbelievably blunt about his job. It's gross. It smells bad. It can be truly disturbing. And he loves talking about it in gory detail.

The majority of his jobs, he'll tell you, are decomps, which are often messier and stinkier than suicides and murders. He'll describe the dozens of biohazards he finds in an average garbage house. And meth labs, they're blowing up motels all across the American West.

"I'm not a subtle guy," he explained. "This is what happens. I want people to know about it. I want them to know about me."

And they seem to. Smither carries three cell phones at all times and they are always ringing. "Yes, ma'am. I can send someone out there now and they'll be there in less than 60 minutes," he explains over the phone to one potential customer. "They'll give you an estimate and be ready to start work right away if you're OK with the price."

Even his wedding ceremony got put on hold for a few minutes back in May while he answered an emergency call on his cell phone. By way of an apology he explained to those gathered that there had been a car accident in Los Angeles and the fire department couldn't hose down the scene because there was too much blood. He had to dispatch one of his reps.

Going against the flow

His brash approach to the business, however, is rubbing some in the crime scene cleaning world the wrong way.

"To try to use shock value to promote their business and that's not the way it should be done," said Dale Cillian, who started one of the nation's first crime scene cleaning companies, BioPro in Phoenix. "It's tasteless and disgusting. You shouldn't go around talking about what you see on the calls you go on."

Smither makes no apologies about his attack-dog approach to grabbing his share of the crime scene cleanup market. The more he talks about his company, the bolder he is about his approach, the more work he's going to get, so the theory goes.

It also means he is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

So far, it seems to be working. Five years ago, Crime Scene Cleaners was one guy, Smither, using rented steam cleaners and his own Geo Metro to drive from scene to scene. Today, he's got a fleet of 97 custom vans outfitted with cleaning equipment and power generators and owns more than $4 million in equipment.

He and his 200 or so employees (turnover is pretty high) cleaned just about $1 million worth of gore in 2000 and he expects to double that figure this year. He's also landed national contracts with nine hotel chains, totaling 90,000 rooms, to clean bio-hazardous materials left over from the things hotels don't like to admit happen in their rooms meth labs, accidental deaths, and the occasional homicide.

As short as a decade ago, the crime scene janitorial business didn't exist. If someone died in a hotel room, the hotel staff generally had to deal with the mess. When someone died in a home, the family was left to pick up after the incident.

Concern over disease spawns business

In the early 1990s, over growing concern about infectious disease and bloodborne pathogens, the federal government issued new regulations for the disposal of blood and bodily fluids. For companies and government agencies, such as police and fire departments, cleanup of crime scenes became an issue of legal liability.

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    Crime scene cleaning:
  • Homicide and suicide
  • Accidental death
  • Meth lab explosions
  • Garbage houses
  • Blood and body fluid disposal
  • Hantavirus prevention
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    In truth, the name crime scene cleaner is something of a misnomer. Yes, they clean up scenes of violent crime, but they also get rid of blood and bodily fluids following industrial, transportation, and other types of accidents. They are also called in after major rat infestations to disinfect and prevent outbreaks of hantavirus.

    If a police department employee, for example, was asked to clean up a jail cell, for example, after a bloody fight and contracted hepatitis B, the department could face serious litigation.

    Many of the earliest into the business were those who worked in related fields and had some contact with crime scenes: fire fighters, medical examiners. Most picked up crime scene cleaning as a part-time gig to supplement their income. Even Cillian, a veteran, keeps his full-time job as a fire fighter while cleaning crime scenes on the side.

    Smither's inspiration: Pulp Fiction

    Smither was one whose background was not in law enforcement or crime scene investigation. His inspiration to get into the field came when, after being laid off from a mortgage broker job, he saw Pulp Fiction. Smither might have been the only person who watched John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson cleaning a car in which they accidentally shot a man and saw his future.

    "I saw that and thought, 'Hey. I can do that,'" he said. He did some research and discovered that with hazardous material, microbial mitigation and blood worm pathogen training, the proper permits, and liability insurance, he could be in the game. Oh yes: another thing needed is a really strong stomach.

    The hard part would be getting clients and early on, Smither learned that the passive approach wasn't going to work for him.

    But getting the word out wasn't going to be easy either. Think about it. There's no clear place in the yellow pages to advertise your crime scene cleaning business. There's really no publication in which to place a printed ad. Most police departments won't make referrals to victims. So, Smither took to the streets.

    Even now, he spends much of his time cruising the East Bay in his van the one that screams his company's name across the side.

    He also put his sales background to work and started pitching his services to the hotels chains ones he knew were in need of the kind of service he offered. It wasn't easy. The first appointment he got took 67 phone calls before they would even see him, but he got the job.

    Even though they aren't supposed to make referrals, Smither courted help from police departments, fire departments, coroners and the like. In the process, he landed contracts with some of those agencies who often need help cleaning up public property. He's now is the cleaner on retailer for several police departments in California, including the Los Angeles Police Department.

    Smither knows his tactics are frowned upon by many in his industry, to which he responds that he's out to make money, not friends. Death is not a delicate subject, he said, and he's not a delicate guy.

    "Look, I'm not a shrink. I'm a janitor," he said. "Most people don't know what happens when you die. You are a big, rotten, smelly puddle on the kitchen floor and someone has to clean it up." graphic

      RELATED SITES

    American Bio-Recovery Association

    Crime Scene Cleaners Inc.


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