Crime & Clean
Local family makes a specialized living scrubbing crime and trauma scenes spotless
“Where is the money?” On an ochre-fingered dawn in a low-slung apartment building in Del Paso Heights, this is the pressing question of the hour, one that pesters Shawn Ramos as she sets about doing her job. Ramos and her husband, Max Baker, both veteran trauma- and crime-scene cleaners, can handle the flies and the smell—the question, not so much.
The apartment had been the home of a young handicapped woman who had been dead inside for almost a month. She’d been about to move in with her boyfriend, but after she died, no one in her immediate circle had bothered to check on her disappearance.
In their three-year career as owners of a private, local business called BioSite Restoration, trained and licensed in “the complicated process of cleaning scenes affected by decomposition, suicide and accidents involving blood and bodily fluids, fecal matter [and] odor, cleaning distressed properties and gross filth residences (hoarders) involving biohazard contaminants, as well as odor removal,” according to their website, Ramos and Baker had faced worse trauma and crime scenes than the one here.Blood bath and beyond
Their first job, back in Denver, back before they knew they could handle this type of work, had been a hoarder. They received a call from a woman in her 40s who, slightly embarrassed, said she had a little problem. Well, maybe a big problem. From end to end, from room to room, from bathtub to fridge, her mobile home was packed with garbage.
Alerted by the smell, neighbors contacted the property manager, which led to a recommendation to call Ramos and Baker. To enter the home, Ramos and Baker had to climb in the front door and surf through a shifting sea of Chick-fil-A boxes, 15 years’ worth of newspapers, greasy napkins and other debris. Somewhere in there, there were also six identical television remotes.
With buckets; bleach; garbage bags; detergent; a Porta-Potty guy with a power vacuum to clean out the bathroom, especially the bathtub, but strangely no face masks (don’t try this at home); a lot of elbow grease and old-fashioned moxie, Ramos and Baker cleaned the home until it shined. In what would become their modus operandi, they wanted to be sure the place was suitable enough to bring their family and friends when they were done.
Later, after Ramos and Baker had relocated back to their hometown of Sacramento, Ramos decided to pursue her calling full time after being laid off from her job as a phlebotomist at a blood bank.
Around this time, they received a call just before midnight. Something about a knife fight in Reno. Sure, Ramos and Baker would be happy to help with the cleanup.
At 5 the next morning, they rolled into Reno. At an apartment complex, they found not so much a knife fight, but a blood bath and beyond. The tenant had walked in and found his girlfriend in bed with another man, so he attacked him with a machete. The man fought back with a knife. The two chased each other around the apartment, slicing as they went, until one bled out and the other went to the hospital.
Again, true to their company slogan and ethos, “When tragedy hits close to home, we help put the pieces of your life back together again,” Ramos and Baker had cleaned the apartment until it sparkled, cleaned it until it could be rerented without a drop of blood in sight.
This was business as usual for the crime-scene-cleaning couple, one of roughly five similar private businesses that operate in and around Sacramento.
More than a business, these operations are also a little-known service. Before the development of the crime-scene-cleaning private industry in the last 20 years, a rise that dates back roughly to the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, with its multifarious crime scenes in need of cleaning by a character known as “The Wolf,” police and family members often had to handle the aftermath of tragedy themselves. And police officers often were required to hose out their squad cars between shifts, one reason the interiors of police vehicles are largely rubber. Family members, property managers, motel owners—a big niche market in the business—often had to find their own solutions, cleaning and otherwise.
In fact, Ramos says, many property managers and motel operators continue to be unaware of the crime-scene-cleaning industry, despite the rise of strict California and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards in recent years. (Some states have no standards for crime- and trauma-scene practitioners.)
“Many times I hear that before they knew about BioSite, they just asked the handyman to do it,” Ramos said.
The clean zone
Not so at the apartment complex in Del Paso Heights. There, the property manager stayed close by, aware that under state law, she had to notify any future renters that the previous tenant had died within.
The occupant, the young handicapped woman, had died of natural causes in her bed. The coroner had already removed the body.
Although they hadn’t heard from her for weeks and were unconcerned, relatives did check in after her death, seeking answers, asking questions. Something about $10,000, a financial settlement of some sort, perhaps an insurance payment. Did anyone know anything about the money?
As they later described in an interview, Ramos and Baker discreetly sidestepped the questions and prepared for the work ahead. A professional crime-scene cleaner, or trauma practitioner “in the parlance of our times,” needs to have a range of skills. Along with an exceptionally strong stomach and ability to ignore odor, the job requires the skills of a construction worker, a medical technician, a priest, a janitor, a documentary filmmaker, an exterminator, a waste-management expert, a clerk, a diplomat and a savvy business owner.
The profession also requires a yard sale’s worth of tools and equipment. In their truck for the Del Paso Heights job, Ramos and Baker had respirators, aerosols for removing odors, batteries, bolt cutters, boxes of rubber gloves, biohazard safety suits, cameras, crowbars, extension cords, hospital chemicals, green kitchen scrubs, power saws, power washers, reciprocating saws, sheets of plastic—oh, and knives. Don’t forget the knives: putty knives, carpet knives, box cutters.
With these weapons of mass decontamination in their arsenal, Ramos and Baker walked politely past the relatives waiting on the patio, brushed past the black cloud of flies storming the windows and confronted a smell that hit them like a wall.
The young woman had been dead in the apartment for 21 days. In her book on human cadavers, Stiff, author Mary Roach notes that the human body cools at about 1.5 degrees per hour until it reaches the same temperature as the room around it.
In this sense, Ramos and Baker were glad it wasn’t one of Sacramento’s triple-digit summer days.
Still, 21 days is a long time.
As Roach points out, in that time, enzymes cause the body’s cells to liquefy, and then bacteria feed on this process. As part of their feeding, the bacteria create gasses that an inert body has no way to expel, except occasionally as an accidental emission. The body instead swells until it more or less pops, and the gasses and other fluids seep out. At this point, decay and putrefaction set in.
Or, as Ramos succinctly put it, “Imagine meat left in a plastic garbage bag in the sunlight and Sacramento heat for a month.”
This was the type of odor she and her husband—their first date was a morgue transport to Davis—faced as they entered the apartment, the relatives hovering close by, all the time asking about the money.
But first things first. Ramos and Baker had to handle the flies, flies that could buzz about the apartment, pick up a pathogen, and spread disease to rest of the neighborhood, say, by landing on one’s dinner plate.
So at the end of the afternoon on day one, the two set a bug bomb for the night and went home. Their business, BioSite Restoration, closed for the day.
The dirty zone
Day two dawned chilly, and Ramos and Baker returned to the apartment. Roughly 80 percent of the flies were gone, but the number of relatives had doubled. Four people are now asking: What about the money?
Ramos and Baker moved past them, again discreetly sidestepping the questions (as part of their discretion, they also arrive at sites in unmarked vehicles), and entered the apartment.
Across from the front door was the bedroom where the body had been found on the bed. To the right of the front door was the kitchen. To the left was the living room. Here, Ramos and Baker established a “clean zone” with plastic sheeting. Under instructions to clean everything in the apartment, from clothes to toothbrushes to the woman’s walker, there by the door as if waiting for her, Ramos and Baker proceeded.
Carefully, Ramos and Baker cleaned the living room, going over purses, satchels, pockets and furniture—some items, such as the dining-room table, so new they still had price tags attached. Along the way, for insurance purposes, they photographed and made a list of each item.
Once each item had been cleaned and placed in the “clean zone,” Ramos and Baker collected them in garbage bags and set them outside. Was there money in them?—the relatives inquired.
The property manager kept apart, quite likely wishing to be anywhere but there, and sat in a lawn chair. But this was part of the job description, and calls from similar property managers make up the bulk of BioSite’s business, along with requests from law-enforcement agencies, private individuals and real-estate-owned properties.
As part of this, BioSite can help with crime-scene cleanup, removal of animal feces and related odors, cleanup of tear-gas residue, cleanup of automobiles, cleanup of fingerprint residue, and the occasional gang fight or drive-by shooting—but not fire restoration. Estimates are free and the final price dependent on the size of the job and the number of technicians needed (little-known fact: Many of BioSite’s services are covered by home, auto or commercial insurance). Sadly, but perhaps not incidentally, business is the most brisk during the holidays, particularly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
With their audience of relatives, a property manager and some malingering flies on the patio, Ramos and Baker suited up in full Tyvek disposable suits. The ankle-length hazmat suits, made famous by 1980s band Devo who wore them onstage, are used to protect against biohazards and airborne particles, rubber gloves duct-taped to their suits, and masks with respirators covering their faces. Then, moving like deep-sea divers in a netherworld most of us never explore, Ramos and Baker entered the bedroom.
There, on the mattress, a young life was now also etched in ochre. Sweating profusely in their thick suits—they would use more than 12 on this day—Ramos and Baker approached the mattress in what is known as the “dirty zone.”
Using razor knives, Ramos and Baker slowly cut the mattress into foot-long pieces and stacked them in 30-gallon biohazard boxes. Then they sliced the underlying fibers into strips for the biohazard box. And, with the mattress safely cut apart and boxed up, Ramos and Baker had at last found something.
Ramos went outside to the patio and told the relatives. They helped the relatives also don biohazard suits, or “gear up,” in industry terms, then led the family into the bedroom. There, Ramos and Baker had found a dollar under the mattress.
Discouraged, the relatives took off the suits in the clean zone and went back outside to resume sorting through plastic garbage bags of household goods, much of it new.
Ramos and Baker went back to work in the dirty zone.
The end zone
As Ramos will tell you, blood and tissue will seep everywhere, in some cases all the way through the floorboards to subconcrete. (A helpful household hint posted on BioSite’s Twitter feed: “I was messing around with my kids and showed them the power of D-vour. It’s an absorbent I use on fresh blood.”) Outdoors, blood can also become baked into the street, which makes cleaning it particularly difficult. Even worse is brain matter, which marbleizes.
So Ramos and Baker methodically continued to dismantle the bed. The box springs, too, needed to be taken apart. Sweating heavily, and with aqua-lung-like breathing through their respirators, Ramos and Baker slowly cut apart the tightly coiled box springs. This part of the job required particular precision, since a sharp end of a coil could puncture their gloves and their skin. Each section of contaminated box springs also had to fit into the biohazard boxes. But, at least at the close of this painstaking task, they could take comfort in the fact they were almost done with the job.
Rather than sweating over dangerous and uncomfortable work, Ramos and Baker could look forward to going home to their three children in south Sacramento, showering, grabbing a quick dinner, hugging the children and going to bed, with stops at the dump and a special medical-waste disposal facility known as Stericycle on the way home—and maybe picking up some milk as well, naturally.
But before that, they had to finish the rest of the box springs, take apart the bed frame, clean the rest of the apartment, take out the carpet leaving only the tacks, and clean the windows. The property manager wanted the apartment to be rerented quickly. Per their business M.O., Ramos and Baker wanted the apartment clean enough to sparkle. Ramos’ mother would help with the cleaning by concentrating on her specialty—the kitchen.
Ramos also looked forward to her day off, when she volunteered at the county clerk’s office for marriages, her way of balancing life after being surrounded by so much death as part of her day job.
But one last thing interrupted her thoughts, just as she and Baker finished cutting out the box springs and taking apart the bed frame. Aha. There, underneath the former bed, Ramos and Baker spied a small trinket case.
Leaving the case alone, Ramos and Baker took debris and biowaste boxes out to the truck. On the way, they stopped to speak with the relatives busily going through and sorting the bagged items into usable and unusable piles.
After a job, many clients have told Ramos and Baker, “You have no idea how much difference this makes,” or “You have done him justice.” But at this particular apartment, here in Del Paso Heights, the waiting relatives asked only, What about the money?
“Well, we have found something,” Ramos said this time.
Dutifully, the relatives geared up again in the borrowed biohazard suits and protection masks.
Back into the bedroom everyone went.
Ramos showed the relatives the small trinket case. The relatives peered at the box anxiously, perhaps hoping that something tangible might help with processing this experience, might give them something of value to take with them and bring a sort of closure.
At last, Ramos, with her duct-taped gloves, opened the small box. Whatever it was the relatives were looking for, whatever they hoped to take away from this macabre two-day vigil, it wasn’t there.