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Woman takes dirt out of crime

Mopping up after bloody crime scene investigations is a dirty job, but it's a living.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published January 1, 2007


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[AP Photo]
Mopping up after bloody crime scene investigations is a dirty job, but it's a living for Laura Spaulding.

TARPON SPRINGS - Laura Spaulding's dream business is the stuff of nightmares.

When she pulls up to a client's home in her red pickup, the big white magnetic signs come down, tucked neatly away.

Who wants the neighbors to see the black block lettering that reads "suicide," "decomposition," and "gross filth"?

Spaulding, 33, a former Kansas City police officer, makes a living cleaning up crime scenes. She sees what no one else wants to. Smells it, too.

A Temple Terrace apartment where a man shot and killed two people before turning the gun on himself. A car in Tarpon Springs damaged after colliding with a deer, the animal's insides stuck on the roof. A body in Lakeland that decomposed for weeks until the neighbors complained of the sickening smell.

These unpleasant tasks fall to Spaulding and others in the Tampa Bay area, private businesses that clean up after investigators leave. Homicides, suicides, elderly deaths and meth labs - she does it all. It's a difficult niche to break into, she says. Many people assume police clean up after crime scenes, and by the time they find out the truth, families are in the midst of emotional and traumatic times.

Business typically spikes during the holidays, especially suicides, she says.

" 'Tis the season," she said a bit sarcastically Friday morning as she prepared for cleanup of a decomposing body in Orlando.

Under state law, police cannot recommend a particular business to victims, says Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. Some agencies give victims lists of businesses.

"We don't give any type of crime scene company to the victims," Davis says.

Tampa police used to direct victims to a nonprofit group that helped at no cost, but the organization stopped cleaning about five years ago because new requirements about hazardous waste disposal made the process too expensive and difficult.

On average, cleanup costs about $2,000, Spaulding says. Homeowners insurance covers her services. Families can also be reimbursed through a state fund for crime victims. Rental unit cleanups are generally covered by property managers.

Unusual challenges

John Heath, owner of Accident Trauma Scene Cleaners in St. Petersburg, says his company does a lot of free work for families.

"I'm not going to tell a family no," he says. "We do well enough. There's no way you can tell a grieving mother, "no, we're not coming out.' "

Heath, 43, used to work for an environmental waste company. He left his job 11 years ago after he saw a need for crime scene cleaning, but he admits it's an odd career choice.

"You go to a party, you almost hate saying it when you're getting to know everybody," he says. "You tell them. All of a sudden you get a crowd of 20 people around you. Everybody wants to know the grossest thing you've seen."

The business presents unusual challenges. For one thing, there aren't usually repeat clients, so finding customers can be hard.

"There's just no way that you could tastefully advertise it - don't know how to put a commercial together for something like that," he says.

Spaulding says, "It's not like I can put a 2-for-1 coupon out."

Spaulding buys a small ad in the phone book. It's listed under "cleaning."

"They'll see the ad and say, 'That's not Molly Maids,' " she says.

Her dry wit and law enforcement background serve her well in the job. She started her business, Spaulding Decon LLC, after working as a Kansas City police officer from 1998 to 2001.

As an officer, victims' families always wanted more from her than she could give, she says.

She remembers a family Christmas party in Missouri. One relative shot another in the kitchen, killing him as the family watched. Police left the scene, leaving the family to clean.

Something clicked for her.

"Nobody's going to help these people. I'll do it," she recalls.

She traded in her badge and gun for a Shop-Vac, rubber gloves and blood-cleaning chemicals.

Wiping away the gore

On a recent cloudy morning, Spaulding leans into a maroon BMW at a Ferman dealership in Tarpon Springs, swabbing a chemical-soaked paper towel under the steering wheel.

When she pulls out the towel, it is stained with blood.

She doesn't know any specifics about the car or the driver. She never asks. That would make it too personal.

She doesn't know if the driver of the BMW survived. She only knows about the deer because of clumps of fur and brain matter.

This day, she wears a company T-shirt and shorts. Double-sets of gloves protect her hands. Her goal is to wipe away every bit of gore so the family doesn't see a thing. She views her work as helping people in a different way than as a police officer. No one liked her then, she says. But now, people are grateful she's there. She offers a sort of fresh start, helping to ease their pain.

"When I leave, you'll never know anything happened," she says.

The money isn't bad, but it isn't enough for her to be full-time yet. She has three employees. When she's not cleaning, she sells medical equipment.

The job is unpredictable, and she carries a cell phone so she's always available. She'll travel anywhere in the state, but sometimes she can't get there quickly enough for victims' needs.

There's more than enough work to go around, she says. It's just a matter of letting people know she's there, she says.

"Every time you turn on your TV, there's another homicide or suicide or car accident," she says.

As she pulls at the shattered glass windshield, two car dealership employees approach her.

They peer at the car. "Nasty," says damage appraiser Rob Eldridge. He wrinkles his nose.

"This is a nightmare to fix, and I don't know what kind of stench will be in there," says the other, Cam Crollard, body shop manager.

"I'd say that's the worst mess I've seen in 36 years of doing this," Eldridge says.

As they watch from a few feet away, Spaulding continues wiping up the mess.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

 

 

 

 

[Last modified December 31, 2006, 21:31:33]


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