By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Even before he reached the front porch of the death house, Dale Cillian knew he had his work cut out for him.
"I could smell it halfway up the driveway," says Cillian. "Not a good sign. I'm telling you, that place was ripe."
"Ripe" seems woefully inadequate to describe the cloyingly sweet stench that, nearly a week after the fact, continues to cloak the interior of this modest residence located in an older Phoenix neighborhood. Perhaps the word "overripe" is more appropriate. After all, the source of the odor--a decomposing corpse--had been "seasoning" in the master bedroom for quite some time.
The body--or what was left of it--had already been removed from the house by the time Cillian arrived to carry out his macabre chores. Cillian, a self-employed death-scene cleaning specialist, has the job of restoring order to homes, apartment complexes and commercial businesses that have been reduced to chaos by murder, suicide, violent crime and other messy exits. Clad in rubber gloves, disposable shoe covers, protective jumpsuit and a surgical mask, Cillian tried to ignore the flies flitting around the house as he made his way to the bedroom to survey the damage.
As he'd suspected, the mattress was now a moldering sponge soaked with decayed tissue and body fluid. Following OSHA guidelines dictating disposal of biohazardous waste, he'd haul it off to a toxic waste incinerator as soon as possible. Ditto the large section of carpet and backing directly under the bed; fluids from the body had saturated the area, soaking clear through to the concrete. And the flourishing insect colony that had set up housekeeping throughout the room? A well-placed bug bomb would take care of that. Working quickly but cautiously, the athletic-looking 40-year-old was able to take care of the most immediate problems in a couple of hours. Because there was no pressing need for anyone else to get back into the house, Cillian had the luxury of completing less urgent--but no less laborious--tasks at a more convenient time. In the days to come, he'd totally strip the house of carpeting, curtains, furniture, clothing and anything else that could be removed; because nothing had escaped the noxious odor that still hung heavy in the air, everything would have to be hauled to a dump. Then, armed with rolls of paper towels, he'd deodorize what couldn't be easily removed--walls, ceiling and floor--with a variety of deodorizing sprays, foggers and cleansers. Depending on how much odor the porous concrete floors had absorbed, it might be necessary to "lock in" the stench with a sealant.
According to the man who'd hired Cillian (in this case, one of the late homeowner's business associates), the deceased was a middle-aged individual who apparently died of natural causes while sleeping. Just how long the body was lying in the house before it was discovered, no one is sure.
"Someone said a week; later I heard two weeks." Cillian shrugs. "However long it was, it was too long. This is one of the worst ones I've been out on. There were maggots everywhere. The mattress smelled so bad, I was worried I'd never get the smell out of the back of my truck."
Cillian's company, Specialized Services Cleaning, is one of a very small handful of Valley cleaning services willing to tackle the scene of a horrific suicide, a gangland-style execution or, like this particular case, what's known in the trade as a "decomp." In business nine years, the operation currently handles roughly 40 cleanups a year. Essentially a one-man operation augmented with part-time help, Cillian's Gilbert-based service got off the ground after he experienced firsthand the futility of trying to hire a traditional janitorial service to clean up a death site. "Someone had died in the apartment complex where I was living at the time," he remembers. "The manager had no idea what to do about it; she was in tears. So I got on the phone and started calling every funeral home in the book. Everyone I called had the same answer:
"Nobody does this.' So I just went in there, did it and got pretty darn sick doing it." What price death? Cillian doesn't like to say.
"I name a price, you print it, and the next person who calls me thinks he's getting screwed if I wind up bidding the job higher," he explains. "What people don't realize is there are no two jobs alike. Say someone shoots himself with a shotgun. It might make a small hole in the wall or it might bounce stuff all the way down the hall. There's simply no way to know what you're dealing with until you arrive at the scene."
@body:Who are these janitors of death, the unsung heroes who arrive at death's door armed with strong stomachs, protective gear and gallons of quirkily named cleansers like Scram Blood and Anti-Icky-Poo? For any number of reasons (not the least of which is that most people don't even know such specialists exist), practitioners of death-scene cleanups remain the invisible men of the janitorial world. They aren't subject to any local or federal regulations specific to their trade, making it impossible to track their numbers through records or licenses. Furthermore, few members of the blood-bucket brigade bother to advertise with anything more than a perfunctory Yellow Pages listing, relying instead on a loose network of contacts (funeral directors, law enforcement agents, apartment managers) who just might remember them when the opportunity arises.