How to Clean Up a Crime Scene

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Nobody forced Alan Emmins to clean up a crime scene. The British journalist had never written about crime and had no experience with anything involving blood. But there was something about Neal Smithers, owner of San Francisco–based Crime Scene Cleaners, that made Emmins want to find out what he was missing. His book Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners follows Smithers — who started his company after watching Pulp Fiction — from a double murder to a slit-wrist suicide, and all the gruesome, partially decomposed scenes in-between.

What was it like when you saw your first crime scene?
The first one I went into was in a motel bathroom. It was a suicide. There was a lot of blood. I was surprised that it wasn't actually that bad, because I'd seen bloody walls and bloody bathrooms on television. It was so impersonal I couldn't relate it to anything.

Were there any aspects of death that you were surprised to learn, that you hadn't heard of or thought of before?
I think the actions of the people surrounding the victims are what surprised me the most. When I was working with Neal, there was one elderly man we were cleaning up who had decomposed for almost a month. Standing in the driveway was this guy's daughter and grandchild, and they lived within 5 miles of this man. They never even checked in on him. And that's the stuff that's really staggering — the people who stand at the front of the house, arguing about who gets what and hustling the cleaners about cleaning the mess up as quick as possible. All they care about are smells and stains because they want to sell the property as quickly as possible.

How many jobs did Neal do a day?
I think at the time we were averaging 150 jobs a month, but they weren't all deaths. Neal has a lot of deals with hotels and motels, which are a common place to commit suicide. But he also cleaned up vomit in police cars. There are really strict laws about who can clean up fluids in a prison or a police car. I think they stem from this one time when an officer cleaned blood out of the police car and contracted hepatitis, and so he sued the state and got a big payment. Now if somebody bleeds or vomits or even spits in a police car, the officers aren't allowed to clean it up. They have to call someone to come and clean it. I know Neal was called in to clean up after a fight in a prison shower where there was quite a lot of blood. So there's quite a mixture of situations, although most of them are suicides.

Can you take me through the general process of what happens when Crime Scene Cleaners gets a call?
First they look at all the objects that should be thrown away. Say the suicide is in the bedroom. Straight away, the bedclothes come off — they're going to be thrown away. The mattress — that's going to be thrown away. If there are valuables that can be cleaned, they'll start cleaning them and moving them out of the way. If it's a carpeted floor, there's no cleaning this stuff out of the carpet, so they'll roll it up, and that will be taken away. Then they'll start scrubbing the walls. They use an enzyme on the walls — it breaks the blood down and makes it easier to clean. And then the floorboards. You can't physically remove all the stains from floorboards, so they clean it as best they can and paint a sealant on the top. And that's mostly it. If it's a bedroom, it's pretty easy.

What is the best way to die, in terms of leaving as little mess as possible?
Die with someone you know very close by, I guess. And tile floor, absolutely tile floor. A bathroom is definitely the easiest.

So for the cleaning man's sake, you should expire of natural causes in a bathroom and be found quickly?
Yep, for sure. Although I did see one guy who was murdered and dumped in a bathtub. He decomposed in there for an awful long time, and there was nothing easy about that cleanup, because he'd been there a month. There was all of this fluid, and the drainage system was blocked. It's not always easy to clean up a scene just because it's on a nice ceramic surface.

Was there any point where you thought, This is too much. I can't take this — I'm gonna go write about something nicer?
Oh yep. I remember going out there and thinking Neal was this ghastly person. His slogan was "Praying for Death." He'd say that every morning he'd wake up and pray for death, and it would just keep coming. He'd get delighted when he received a phone call about a shotgun suicide. I remember thinking he was this mean, horrible character. And then the same thing happened to me. I was trying to write a book that's potentially going to be earning money off of people dying.

Once, nobody died for eight days. And I caught myself feeling very frustrated because I was researching a book and nobody was dying. Neal noticed and said, 'Hey, you're praying for death.' It really jolted me. I thought, 'My God, I'm as bad as Neal.' Then I realized, No, I'm actually much worse than Neal. He was invited to the crime scenes; people called him to come and clean the visual remains of a loved one they had lost. As a writer, I was just turning up very voyeuristically and recording these things. I was disturbed by my own thoughtlessness.

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