Smelling Death: On the Job With New York's Crime-Scene Cleaners

CSI and Law & Order would have you believe that a crime scene empties out after the glitzy detectives are done with it. In reality, somebody else has to come in and clean it all up.

Nils Renner of Island Trauma Services cleans an apartment in the Bronx. (Saira Khan)

There is blood all over the room.  It’s on the walls and it has seeped into the cracks in the floor. There are smears of it on the doorknob and bloody handprints on the lampshade, the light switch, and the walls. There is even a large pool of it congealed under a twin-sized bed, where the victim tried to hide. “That’s the thing about a bludgeoning,” says Doug Baruchin, president of Island Trauma Services, a crime-scene cleaning-company in Long Island, as he calmly explains the steps they took to clean up this particular scene, “The blood splatters everywhere.”

Crime stories and detective work have always had a large audience, from Sherlock Holmes novels to CSI and Law and Order, but people often forget that someone else comes in to clean up after all the forensic work is done.

Baruchin, 48, has been in the crime-scene-cleaning business, or “biohazard cleaning,” as it is formally known, for about three years. He started Island Trauma Services under the umbrella of a reconstruction and renovation company that he had been working with for nearly a decade. Since then, Island Trauma has grown to employ several technicians and gets jobs from all over the Tri-State area.

But cleaning crime scenes isn’t all that Island Trauma Services does. Baruchin is quick to point out that most biohazard companies don’t just clean up after crimes. They’ll disinfect anything that might involve biohazards, such as a homicide, a suicide, an unattended death, or the home of a hoarder. “Anything that most typical cleaning companies won’t do, people call us for,” he says.

Crime-scene cleaning is not a glamorous profession, but it is a lucrative one. Last year there were 333 murders in New York City alone. Considering that companies like Island Trauma clean up crime scenes, natural deaths, and hoarder homes in the entire Tri-State area, they tend to keep busy throughout the year. In 2013, the company, which employs approximately 30 people (some of whom work part-time), made more than $500,000 in profit.* An individual working full-time as a biohazard technician can make between $35,000 to $80,000 a year depending on what biohazards they’re trained to work with, according to a 2012 industry report.

Baruchin is a tall, tan man who looks as if he probably hits the gym three days a week and sometimes on the weekends. He has about an inch-and-a-half of brown hair that he styles neatly and combs back. However, on that warm morning in May, it was hard to tell what any of the Island Trauma team looked like. Dressed in full cleanup gear, they were ready to begin work on a “decomp” in the Bronx—a body that wasn’t discovered for some time.

Because they work with biohazards like blood and human waste, employees have to shield every inch of their body. Getting ready for a job can be tedious. First comes a white head-to-toe Tyvek suit. It is designed to keep biohazards from getting in but it also keeps body heat from getting out. Twenty minutes into a job and you’re already sweaty.

After the Tyvek suit come booties over the shoes, a pair of rubber gloves taped at the wrists to keep contaminants out, another pair of larger rubber gloves over the initial pair, and finally, a mask that extends over the head and covers the eyes and mouth. It has two medium-sized holes on the sides for little round filters.  “It helps you breathe, but it doesn’t do much to keep the smell out,” says Nils Renner, 40, Baruchin’s associate.

It’s hard to describe the smell of death. It makes your eyes tear and can make the strongest of stomachs churn. It’s strong enough to creep through a gas mask designed to keep the air you’re breathing clean.

Renner and Doug Baruchin wear full-body suits to prevent contamination on the job. (Saira Khan)

This smell is what greeted Renner and Baruchin as they entered the Bronx apartment. At this job, the decomp, the man had died in his bedroom. By the time the Island Trauma team got into the apartment, his body had been cleared but the decomposition was left behind, all of which had congealed and hardened on the bed. The electricity was turned off and pigeons had crept in through an open window, leaving droppings and feathers all around. The only piece of furniture in the bedroom was the mattress the man died on. The smell had penetrated the walls. “That smell, it hits you right in the face, doesn’t it?” said Baruchin.

On average, a job can last from anywhere between 10 hours to two days. At a particularly gruesome scene involving lots of biohazards, the first hour or so is spent setting up a control room, an area where the team can enter and exit the scene without dragging dangerous waste out. They cover everything in plastic sheets and sometimes hang it up on the walls.

Since the death in the Bronx was natural and contained to one area, Baruchin and Renner didn’t have to spend much time setting up a control room. They placed their supplies in an adjoining room, covered two tattered armchairs in the living room with large plastic sheets, and got to work.

“I keep stepping on these damn coconut shells,” mumbled Renner as he taped biohazard-removal boxes together while dodging the numerous butternut squashes, coconut shells, and tarot cards strewn across the floor. “This is definitely a bit strange,” he says, eyeing the tarot cards, “but not the worst of what we’ve seen.”

In contrast to Baruchin, Renner is strikingly tall and thick around the waist. His wavy dark brown hair hangs just above his shoulders. He has silver hoops in each of his ears and so many tattoos on his arms that it is difficult to discern where one ends and another begins.

It’s not easy to pick out a crime-scene cleaner on the street. But when people find out about what Baruchin and Renner do, the questions they’re asked point to a morbid curiosity about their profession. “If I say I’m a crime scene cleaner, almost always the response will be to ask if I have any pictures,” said Renner laughing.

Most of the Island Trauma team’s work involves the bereaved or people going through emotional upheaval, which is the most difficult part of the job, explains Baruchin. “Some people will be in shock, some will break down, some people will get in there with you and clean because it was somebody they knew. That’s probably the hardest thing, but if we’ve done it right, it’s a hug-fest by the end of the job.” Even the hoarders—the most common type of job that they get—often behave as they do because they’re mourning a loss, Baruchin says.

* * *
Saira Khan

Back at the Island Trauma Services headquarters in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, Baruchin continues to calmly flip through photographs of the bludgeoning scene as he describes the measures they took to clean the room. What eventually makes him pause isn’t the blood on the walls or the mess on the floor. It’s a photograph of a purple teddy bear.

Anything that gives personality to the dead affects crime-scene cleaners—things like a neatly folded jacket hanging over a chair, a Victoria’s Secret bag from a recent shopping trip, a pot of macaroni and cheese with the wooden spoon still in it. “It’s like someone literally hit the pause button on someone’s life,” says Baruchin. “It’s actually one of the most serene things you could see, a preserved moment in someone’s life, but when you think about the death part of it, it can get upsetting.”

Renner adds, “It can be very surreal, or freaky, kind of like a snapshot because you can actually picture what the person was doing right before they were killed or died.” Both men say they prefer to know as little as possible about the victims.

* * *

At the Bronx apartment, Baruchin and Renner were finished prepping the control room and were ready for the cleaning.

Bulk cleaning usually comes first, which means they clean up areas of blood, brain tissue, and other biohazard materials. In this particular case, it also involved removing hundreds of bugs from the mattress. Bulk cleaning can involve ripping up carpets and breaking apart floors to get to anything that may have trickled under. Hardwood floors are the trickiest because material can seep into the cracks between the strips. In such cases, Baruchin sprays the floors with an enzyme or peroxide that foams up indicating whether blood is present or not.

At this scene, after cutting apart the bed and stripping away layer after layer of cloth, cotton, and springs, Baruchin and Renner found more blood and waste. It appeared to have soaked through the floor even though the enzyme spray had not reacted positively. “I just don’t believe that this isn’t blood on here, so we need to double check, just to be on the safe side,” said Baruchin.

Using a circular saw, he removed a small chunk of the wood floor and sprayed the second layer of wood underneath with the enzymes. It immediately started to foam. “Aha! I knew this was contaminated!” he shouted victoriously.

After the bulk cleaning comes the basic cleaning and sanitizing. The Island Trauma team uses hospital grade disinfectants that require a certain amount of “kill time” (once they’re used, it’s a few hours before the room is safe again). “[The disinfectants] kill things like HIV and hepatitis. The most important thing is to make it safe for the people that come back in,” said Baruchin.

The cost of crime scene cleaning falls entirely on the families and survivors of the deceased or the landlords if the victim has no family. New York's Office of Victim Services covers up to $2,500 of the cleanup cost, but only under specific circumstances, such as when the deceased is “an innocent victim of the crime,” or when the victim’s family “paid for or incurred burial costs.” Often, insurance will cover the cost as well but if the hired company bills more than what the insurance company estimated, the family has to pay the difference.

Companies like Island Trauma Services only do cleanup work. If they have to take apart the floors and rip out the carpets, someone else comes in afterward to replace everything. This means the costs of cleaning up after a death can pile up. The cost for a single crime-scene technician can be about $150 an hour. A 12-hour job requiring three cleaners and a supervisor can range from $6,000 to $10,000 (and sometimes it's even more). The price is based on the amount of work they have to do and how many people the job requires. Since crime-scene cleaning is an unregulated industry, the cost varies from company to company.

* * *

Four hours after they started cleaning up the Bronx apartment, Renner and Baruchin were nearly done. They had discarded the bloody bed, cleaned the floor, removed contaminated wood, and disinfected everything that they could.

In New York State, all regulated medical waste (anything with blood or pathogens) has to be disposed of safely and properly. Similar to syringes in doctor’s offices, Baruchin’s biohazard waste goes into a red bag and then into a red box. The waste then has to be taken to an authorized facility and incinerated. So far, they had filled up six red boxes at the Bronx job.

Renner was on his knees gathering discarded wood from the floor that Baruchin had taken apart when he sat up and pointed to the door, signaling that he needed a break. Stepping out of the bedroom and into the control room, he peeled off his mask, gloves, and suit one by one until all that was left were his t-shirt and shorts. He inhaled deeply and scrunched up his face, “It smells worse in here now!” he yelled over to Baruchin, who was also removing his mask.

“Yeah, it’s definitely stronger, but this isn’t as bad as it normally gets,” replied Baruchin, “We’re lucky that it’s been so long and the windows were open.”

Baruchin said the smell reminded him of old Parmesan cheese. “Anytime I go to the grocery store with my girlfriend and I pass the cheese section, I think, ‘Is that a dead body?’”

“You’re right!” chuckled Renner as he began suiting up again. “You know what? The smell is pretty hard to describe, but once you’ve smelled it, you’ll never forget it and you’ll always recognize it.”

* This post originally stated that Island Trauma Services made more than $500,000 in revenue, not profit. We regret the error.