CUSTODIANS OF DEATHBEYOND THE PAIL WITH THE GRIM REAPER'S SCRUB TEAM
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.
And while there would appear to be no shortage of work in the Valley (in 1993, there were more than 170 murders in Phoenix alone--a figure that doesn't include dozens more suicides and "decomps" or similar situations in surrounding cities), the trio of death-cleanup specialists located by New Times tallied up only slightly more than 50 jobs during the last year.
Little wonder that the scope of this macabre profession remains a big mystery even to those apparently in the best position to know.
"This is a real interesting situation," says Mark McCall, a customer service representative at Camelback Janitor Supply, one of the Valley's largest cleaning-supply houses. "If you call most janitorial services about a death, most of them don't want to touch it," he reports. "Aside from everything else, the hysteria over AIDS is enough to scare a lot of people away. Call a place that does hazardous cleanups and they won't do it, either. They're set up to handle chemical spills, not bodies."
Based on sketchy information gleaned from customers, as well as the sluggish sales of emergency cleanup kits designed for death-scene sanitation and other hazardous-waste situations, McCall strongly suspects that most postmortem mop-ups are being conducted by amateurs who are in way over their heads.
"The main concern whenever you're cleaning up a situation like this is getting all the body fluids out of the carpeting and flooring," says McCall. "You're also going to have to disinfect the area to get rid of any disease and germs, and dealing with the odor, particularly if a guy's been dead for some time before the body is discovered. "The worst-case scenario is when the body has been in there a week or longer; as it decays, it bloats up and all that nasty stuff. At that point, you're obviously going to have to rip out the carpet and the backing." Light cleaning it's not. How often does the average housekeeper reach down to pick up a wig, only to discover (as Dale Cillian once did) that the hairpiece is actually a scalp that stuck to the floor when the body was removed from the scene?
In McCall's experience, even those few cleaning professionals who do decide to enter the blood-and-guts arena soon throw in the towel.
"Over the years, we've had a few customers dabble in the [death scene] end of the business," he reports. "But for whatever reasons--maybe it turns out they don't like dealing with spilled blood and body fluids, or maybe they can't handle the smell--they all got out of it. There aren't many people out there who are willing--or able--to look past the life-and-death thing. It's too morbid for them."
@body:"We genuinely care," says Gene Pipkin. "Our job is to make the family feel as comfortable as possible."
If the owner of the Gemstar cleaning service sounds like a cross between a funeral director and Mr. Clean, that seems to be precisely the point. "This is a service the public needs, and I'm happy if we can provide it," says Pipkin, whose high-tech compound in east Mesa handles forensic-scene cleanup as a sideline to the company's main business--flood- and plumbing-related carpet catastrophies. Both of the company's specialties came into play during one of the Valley's more unusual suicides. "One gentleman blew his head off on a twin-size waterbed," recalls the 50-year-old Pipkin. "It was quite a mess; the waterbed was half full of blood. The only way most people know how to empty a waterbed is the conventional method--draining it with a garden hose takes hours and hours. Using the pump on one of our trucks, I was able to drain that thing in five minutes. Not only did I empty it out, I sucked it completely dry." A veteran of ten death-scene mop-ups during the company's two-year history, Pipkin claims his biggest challenge to date was a $3,000 job involving a north Phoenix hermit whose body went undiscovered for an entire summer. "Can you imagine what that does to a house?" says Pipkin. "Nobody liked the individual, so there was simply no communication."
Unfortunately, few of Pipkin's professional brushes with death have been this tidy; most victims leave behind grieving relatives. "These are profoundly negative and disheartening situations," says Pipkin. "When we roll onto the scene, we take over completely. You try not to get the family involved any more than is absolutely necessary."
Out of respect for his clients' privacy, Pipkin (like everyone else interviewed for this article) declined to name any specific customers for publication. However, he does share a portion of a "thank you" note written by one grateful customer:
"I thought you would like to know the odor has now dissipated. We also wanted to thank you for your cooperation and compassion during these difficult times . . . we couldn't have made it through this situation without your help."
Pipkin's voice breaks. "When I hear something like this, it makes me realize I'm doing something worthwhile."
@body:"When I get done, every place where there was blood, body fluid or tissue is so clean you can eat off it," says David Gelvin of Forensic Scene Abatement. "It has to be."
The latest addition to the Valley's scrub team of death is clearly not one to hide his light under a bucket or a mop: When the new Yellow Pages were issued earlier this spring, a $200-a-month janitorial ad touting "HOMICIDE/SUICIDE" cleanup leapt from the page. "Everybody seems to think that whoever investigates the situation or removes the body is going to clean the scene," says the 31-year-old Gelvin. "Well, they don't. That's what I'm here for."
A paramedic trainee with previous experience in hazardous-waste management, Gelvin started his company a year ago, when he helped clean the apartment of an AIDS-stricken next-door neighbor who'd shot himself in the head. Since then, Gelvin's company has answered an average of three calls per month.
Strictly speaking, not all of them involved death.
"There was a situation where an intruder broke into the house and the homeowner was somehow able to get his hands on a 12-gauge shotgun," says Gelvin. "The gun blew the intruder's arm and leg off. It wasn't fatal, but he probably wished it was." Using chemical cleansing techniques he developed in a small lab in the rear of his Tempe apartment (beef blood and rabbit brains double for their human counterparts), Gelvin claims he was able to completely eradicate the scene of blood.
But he claims he hasn't had nearly as much luck finding part-time workers willing to give him a hand. "I've had a lot of people interested in seeing how this was done," reports Gelvin, who has given several potential employees dry runs. "It didn't gross them out, but they didn't like the feeling they got being on the scene of a murder or a suicide. I feel it, too. It's a sickening feeling to be in a room where someone has been murdered. There's something about it that just doesn't feel good."
@body:In the unlikely event that the average person did possess the technical know-how to wash down a bloody crime scene that ended a relative's life, it's impossible to imagine him carrying out that task without suffering psychological shock waves. As a result, at least one Valley city currently provides free homicide cleanups to family members who must return to houses where a murder or suicide has occurred.
"Glendale has a long history of providing victim service, so we're extra sensitive to this problem," says Terry Neary, lead caseworker for a victim's assistance program that operates under the Glendale Police Department. "We feel that it's what we call 'second injury' if loved ones have to clean up after this."
(Earlier this month, a similar cleanup program operated by the Phoenix Police Department folded for lack of funds. Because police officers are not allowed to refer the public directly to commercial businesses, families of murdered relatives are now directed to call victim's assistance programs for the names of businesses providing homicide cleanup.)
Inaugurated in 1975, the Glendale cleanup program was originally carried out by members of the Glendale Police Department and the city's custodial staff. More recently, cleaning jobs have been contracted out to independent cleaning services. However, the program ran into a glitch earlier this spring when the city discovered several vendors weren't disposing of blood-and-tissue-related toxic waste in compliance with OSHA regulations. (Until jobs are rebid, Dale Cillian's company is handling Glendale cleanups.)
Since the start of the year, the city has picked up the tabs on ten cleanups for a total cost of $1,385. Says Neary, "From an emotional point of view, this is money well spent."
@body:But cleaning up after the Grim Reaper can take its toll even on those with no emotional stake in a grisly scene site: After nine years of scrubbing down the scenes of mass murders and multiple suicides, Dale Cillian claims that whenever he does a job now, he's frequently plagued by upset stomachs and lingering headaches.
"It spooks me sometimes," says Cillian. "You're going into these people's lives--their deaths, actually--and everything's untouched. Whatever happened is just as they left it. You might even have to go through their papers, especially if they're decomposed. And you can't believe how some of these people live." People like the alcoholic who left behind abundant proof that he was long past caring that he'd lost control of his bowels. The well-to-do cat fancier who had 20 animals prowling through the lice-ridden filth that covered the floor of her posh condominium. And the eccentric pack rat who had squirreled away dozens of uncashed interest checks between the pages of old newspapers before expiring on an old mattress held together with duct tape.
"I later found out the guy was worth half a million dollars," says Cillian, who talks vaguely of writing a book about his experiences. "I wish I'd kept notes. Some of the things I've seen are truly mind-boggling."
Although the job is never dull, Cillian complains his work is too often a crash course in the darker side of human nature. "I've been to houses where the estate obviously amounts to nothing, yet the relatives are fighting like cats and dogs," says Cillian. "I've been on suicides where the relatives have just got to stick their head in to take a look--or they won't go in themselves but they want me to tell them every detail." Just recently, he ran into a "decomp" situation where vandals had ransacked the house before the decaying body was even discovered by authorities. So why doesn't Cillian just give up the ghost and close up shop?
"This is just not a cleaning business," he insists. "The people I'm dealing with are at the worst point of their lives. They don't know what to do or which end is up. All of a sudden their house is all screwed up and frequently nobody knows how to help them. Then I come in and say, 'Don't worry about it.' I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.
"I'll tell you one thing," concludes Cillian. "Anyone who goes into this business thinking it's easy money is in for a big surprise.
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