It’s probably nobody’s childhood dream to clean up crime scenes for a living.
But for those who find themselves with an unexpected emotional debacle and potentially infectious mess on their hands, it’s certainly a good thing some of us choose to veer down that particular career path.
“Every night we pray to help others,” said Donnie Lamirande, co-founder and co-owner of Rocky Mountain Biohazard. “We’re here for a purpose. We believe this job was given to us as a godsend. By no means was it a dream job.”
“I thought it was gross,” said Donnie. “And there was no way I was doing that. I thought is that even a thing?”
It’s most definitely a thing. Who else would clean up suicides, murders, unattended deaths and a laundry list of other fiascos.
That was the question Steven Misner asked 15 years ago as a new police officer working in Walsenburg. He went out on an unattended death that involved the bloated and decomposing body of a man who had choked on watermelon and wasn’t found for a few days. As Misner looked at the gruesome aftermath, he asked his chief who would clean it up. His response? Not them. Somebody else. It was in that moment Misner decided that one day he’d be the answer to the question.
“I just felt bad, because it was a big old mess,” said Misner, the founder and longtime owner of Crime Tech. “There were bodily fluids all over the place. The coroner picks up the body and leaves the rest.”
Nowadays, when Misner’s phone rings, he knows it might be somebody who’s having the worst day of their life. He’s happy to help.
“A lot of times people are stuck,” he said. “They don’t know what to do.”
That’s where he steps in. He immediately heads out to assess the situation, provide a cost estimate and begin cleaning, along with one of his two employees who work on an on-call basis. It could take a couple of hours, or up to a dozen.
Most of Misner’s calls are for suicides. There are about five to six every month in the counties he covers, which include El Paso, Fremont, Teller and Pueblo. Colorado had the ninth highest suicide rate in the U.S. in 2016, according to the latest numbers available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. El Paso County’s suicide rate was 25 per 100,000 people in 2015, according to Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.
On a Monday early in December, he and an employee spent the morning cleaning up after a 43-year-old man died by suicide, and working out the details with his family members.
“I don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said. “They already have to deal with the coroner and cops. They’re already emotionally messed up. I try to be compassionate. Nobody should be victimized twice. It’s a hard thing for them to deal with.”
Life is messy
Sewer backups, bed bugs, mouse and raccoon feces, mold, homeless camp removal, cleanup of MRSA, C diff, norovirus — the list of dirty jobs and worst-case scenarios is never-ending.
“It takes a lot to surprise us,” said Rocky Mountain Biohazard’s Donnie Lamirande.
While the rest of us live in a world where we’re blind to, or ignorant of, all that could be lurking beneath the surface, crime scene folks have learned the hard way that things are never as they appear. What people might consider a small mess, such as a pancake-sized spot of blood on the carpet, could potentially morph into a hotbed of maggots if it’s not properly cleaned up, and squished deeper into the carpet and hardwood floors if people continue to walk on it.
“Bloodborne pathogens are still there,” said Donnie. “There is a need for a service such as ours.”
Or say you wake up one morning to a pile of human feces on your front doorstep. Hey, it could happen. Remember 2017’s female jogger dubbed the “Mad Pooper?”
“There could be hepatitis in that,” said Randel, “or dangers that you never hear about, and now it’s airborne.”
The couple sees and hears about a lot of situations that aren’t addressed correctly, such as the apartment complex that hired its air conditioner maintenance person to clean up a suicide, or the homeowner who hires a carpet cleaner which only makes things worse when they don’t have the chemicals, tools and training to get the job done right.
“We think of it as a service, not as a job,” said Donnie. “We don’t want them to clean up themselves. It’s not as easy as you think and it’s traumatizing.”
Cleanup isn’t always about humans, either. Misner once had to clean up a private jet that hit three Canadian pelicans on take-off. The birds went into the nose of the plane and the cockpit, covering all of the equipment and pilots with blood. In November he had to use a product called “Skunk Out” on a cop car that ran over one of the animals.
Protocol changes if the crime scene is outdoors, though, such as a car accident on the highway. Cleanup companies aren’t called; that’s where the fire department comes in.
“Once the scene is done, we send an engine to do a blood wash,” said Colorado Springs Fire Department Fire Captain and Public Information Officer Brian Vaughan. “Not in public view.”
It’s not a bill anybody wants to receive, but fortunately, there are ways to cover the sometimes thousands of dollars it can cost to clean a scene. Misner’s most expensive job was $23,000 for a house where a high-powered weapon was used in a suicide.
Homeowner’s insurance will often cover the bill, though you’re mostly out of luck with renters insurance, unless the policy holder has specified it. Sometimes an apartment complex will pick up the cost.
Victims compensation assistance, discount programs, payment plans and aftermath financial assistance, if eligibility requirements are met, are also available.
Often the finances wind up on the back burner, though, as people deal with the emotional fallout from the staggering turn of events.
“We’re on the phone with somebody in desperate need of help, and we end up being a therapist,” said Randel. “We wind up being on the phone for hours. They don’t know what to do, but we do.”
Surviving the job
How does one handle seeing some of the most horrific endings to life? Animal and insect infestations? Human waste and drug paraphernalia near schools?
The Lamirandes do a lot of talking, Donnie said, with each other and their employees, but that still doesn’t stop the nightmares Randel sometimes has. The couple is hit the hardest when children are involved or young people die by suicide.
“Things can be hard to see,” said Randel.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around this,” added Donnie. “We never really knew what happened outside before we started.”
Misner went into the business hoping he could handle the emotional toll, and he’s found that he can. What matters to him is being a source of information and strength.
“I’m a happy-go-lucky guy,” he said. “I just like to help people.”