On his hands and knees, clothed head-to-toe in biohazard gear, Chris King uses a white rag to mop up a puddle of viscous red/brown blood clots and pink spinal fluid from the floor of an Anaheim garage. It’s 9:30PM on a summer Sunday; the temperature is still only in the 70s. King is a native of Upland, a former restaurant server. Sweat forms rivulets from his scalp, drips off his clear protective face mask, onto the concrete floor, mingling with the muck and ooze, which harbors a stale perfume of iron and rotting fruit.
“You have to work in stages so you don’t miss anything,” says King, working in tight circles, tossing each sopping red rag into a biohazard waste bin. He rarely looks up at his clients, three mid-sized men standing sullenly amid the usual flotsam and jetsam of a California garage— clothing racks, a treadmill, two bicycles, yellow and pink, leaning against a book shelf. Tonight they have improbably lost a family member—a father of three young children who had fatally shot himself in the head several hours earlier.
For King and the crew at Crime Scene Steri-Clean, cleaning up the worst remnants of human nature is a way of life. But after 15 years in business, these pioneers of the private crime scene/ biohazard disposal industry believe that their ability to handle both the physical mess and emotional wreckage of everyday tragedy is what continues to keep them unique—and in business.
“Who’s gonna clean this?”
“That’s the hardest part, having to see [clients] going through such a painful situation,” whispers King behind the company van after offering a second round of condolences to the men inspecting his work. Next to body decompositions, suicide clean ups are the most common. Three years after finding the job on a Craigslist posting, King can still remember the details of every clean up he’s ever done; suicides, murders, rat-infested houses.
Founded in 1995 by husband and wife Cory and Tammy Chalmers, Rancho Cucamonga-based CSSC is probably one of the last businesses you would think even existed. That is, until you need them.
Servicing over 30 cities including most of the Inland Empire, L.A., Orange County and parts of Northern California, the 24-hour clean up crew handles everything from blood and brain matter, to body decompositions and cluttered houses that would send an ordinary maid service screaming for the hills.
As CEO of the company, Chalmers and his wife, the company’s CFO, have laid enough ground work with surrounding CHP, fire department and law enforcement agencies to ensure that they’re never short on calls. At this point, getting woken up by a call of a car accident, a shooting or a stabbing is nothing new.
Besides doing his part to run the company, Chalmers is also a firefighter for the city of Garden Grove. But it was what he saw before that—during his days as a paramedic, running in and out of grisly scenes and leaving families to clean up the mess—that inspired him to start a side business.
“I would see the family all distraught and crying and emotional,” he recalls. “And I wondered: Who’s gonna clean this?”
One haunting scene finally inspired him to go home to his wife and propose the idea of a crime scene clean up company. He had walked into a bathroom where a man with hemophilia had committed suicide with a shot gun.
“You couldn’t see any of the tile floor,” says Chalmers, who remembers standing in front of a lake of red and violence splattered on the walls. The sound of the man’s wife screaming hysterically in front of the house added to the horror. He knew once the police and paramedics left with the body, she would be left to clean the bathroom.
Blood scrubbing biz
A decade and a half later, CSSC finds itself in an industry bordering on over-saturation in California. They are now one of 315 crime scene clean up companies in the state.
“There’s not enough business to go around,’ says Cory Chalmers, adding that many of these newly-licensed companies tend to cycle out of business in six months because the inability to snag consistent work.
“It’s not like you can just advertise in the yellow pages and people will call you,” he says. “Who thinks when their mom kills herself to grab the yellow pages? Nobody.”
So how does CSSC continue thriving in the midst of so many fly-by-night companies? Several years ago, Tammy Chalmers took a step that changed the face of the company from blood scrubbing vendor to viable resource.
Using her expertise in the field of bloodborne pathogens and hoarders (or pack rats), Tammy Chalmers teaches free classes to law enforcement and firefighters on how to effectively protect themselves against blood-transmitted diseases like hepatitis and other biohazard on behalf of CSSC. Though the classes aren’t for profit, it’s a marketing strategy that gives their name and number to agencies that require their services. These days, her skills are put to the test daily as she trains classes all over California. Currently the company carries three major services: crime scene clean up, hoarder clean up and the Home Again Foundation, which provides government-funded assistance to those in need of the company’s services.
“All of us as a team do amazing work and you leave the job exhausted most of the time, not just some of the time,” says the upbeat, blonde-haired former wedding coordinator. There was a time early on in the business where she found herself plucking skull fragments out of walls as she cleaned crime scenes side by side with her husband. She calls them “the old knee pad and scrub brush days.”
Staring down death
Besides being on call 24 hours a day, it’s an employee’s ability to deal with distraught clients on a daily basis that determines how they will fair in the company. The ability to deal with people at the worst time in their lives is a mission that never gets easier.
Despite, or maybe because of the gruesome nature of their business, CSSC has no shortage of media interest in what they do. The company has been the subject of several TV pilots and magazine articles. Even Samuel L. Jackson came down for a training session to prepare for a movie role in the 2008 film Cleaner. On a daily basis, Chalmers fields emails and phone calls from people who want a job, chasing gory TV fantasies.
“It’s not glamorous, not CSI,” says Tammy Chalmers. “It’s hard, back-breaking, emotional, difficult—everything you could possibly say about a job.”
For workers like King, who’ve spent countless nights erasing blood and bad memories for clients, the job has taught lessons that sometimes only a stare down with death can provide.
“When you’re cleaning up a 19-year-old kid who just got hit by a car, it makes you realize that you don’t have a predetermined amount of time. So it’s within our best interest as human beings to kind of embrace every single minute as if it is going to be the last one and that’s what I try to live by everyday and just be a very pleasant, happy person.”