Identity

Crime Scene Cleaners Describe How Dealing with Death Every Day Changes You

"You really have to concentrate and have sharp eyes because you don't want to leave a tiny bit of body fat wedged into the tarmac."
November 16, 2016, 5:11pm
Forensic cleaner Donna Nayler in her respirator mask. Photo courtesy of subject

Cleaning. It's not for everyone, but personally, I quite enjoy it. I'm one of those irritating people who finds distinct satisfaction in the noise of things being sucked into the nozzle of a vacuum or in wiping sticky residue off the kitchen counter.

It's all strangely therapeutic for me, which is probably the reason I enjoyed Spotless so much— a TV series from Esquire Network featuring a handsome Frenchman who owns a crime scene clean-up business. Cue lots of scenes of him using a cotton-bud to painstakingly rub spots of blood from surfaces, gently wiping down door handles, and methodically using a backlight to check for traces of body matter. His team has the job of tidying it all up, and it's orgasmic viewing for a neat freak like me.

But this is television: Slick and shiny and all over rather quickly. How easy is it in real life? What's it really like to have to clean blood off the carpet? And what exactly does a two-week old body smell like? I spoke to two women to find out.

Leanne Elliott is the matriarch of a family-run crime scene clean up business. Along with her husband, the 46-year-old has been running the aptly named Traumatic Clean Ups for two years now, employing her son, step-son, and nephew to do the jobs others might balk at—be that suicides, road accidents, or extreme hoarders.

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"The first hoarding job I went to, I was sick inside my mask," she tells me when we speak over the phone. "This guy had been hoarding milk for 18 months and it took us four days to clear the house. It was unbelievably gross—it looked like black treacle."

Leanne Elliott in the personal protective equipment required for forensic cleaning. Photo courtesy of subject

But while dealing with severely out-of-date milk is obviously unpleasant, these aren't the jobs that stay with her. Working on road traffic accidents comes with different stresses. Often, there'll already be multiple people on the scene, and it's hard not to feel under pressure in such a public space. "You really have to concentrate and have sharp eyes because you don't want to leave a tiny bit of body fat wedged into the tarmac," Elliott says. "You've got to work out what kind of accident it was: a drag, or a drop, or a drag and drop and a decapitation. And if it's a decapitation you've got to work out if the head bounced, and if so, if there's going to be blood in more places."

However, Elliott admits she no longer attends these jobs. "I haven't been on a road traffic accident since there was one case where a child had been hit and killed by a lorry while he was crossing the zebra crossing. After we had finished, I made the mistake of watching the news to follow the story. I found out the name of the child, who he had been with at the time of the accident, what people went through trying to save him. It was too much for me; I can't do it after that. You have to try and think of it only as a job, nothing else, but at times that's impossible to do."

I ask Elliott about any notable jobs she's had recently. "There was this one the other day which I actually took my son to," she recalls. "A man had died and not been discovered for 18 weeks, and the heating had been on the whole time. Four companies had already been called in and the whole property had been stripped down, but the smell was still there and everyone was stumped."

Donna Nayler in her work uniform. Photo courtesy of subject

Elliott struggles to describe the smell, but says that it's the way it infiltrates your body which is the most disturbing thing. "If something is pungent, it hits you immediately and you have an almost physical reaction. But with this it was a slow burn. As you walked through you could feel it creeping up your throat and coating over your mouth."

And did they manage to solve the mystery of the smell? "Yes—there was a concrete floor, which is porous. We worked out that the bodily fluid had seeped in and recommended the whole thing be taken up." Just another day in the office.

Five foot-tall, part-time hairdresser Donna Nayler is a 30-year-old Australian who has been working as a forensic cleaner for seven years. Having been inspired by the American reality TV show How Clean is Your Crime Scene?, Donna signed up to work for a crime scene clean-up company, joining a team predominantly made up of middle-aged men. But that by no way means she gets the easy jobs.

The blood had dripped through the floorboards and gone down to the floor below.

"I remember every single scene I have cleaned, but there's one that stands out. I got called to a place in Brisbane. A man had come home from work and had found some oil on his kitchen bench so he wiped it up, went to bed. When he woke up in the morning, his kitchen bench was covered in blood and it was coming from the roof above, through the ceiling.

"Before I had even gone upstairs, I could smell it and when I opened the door I couldn't believe it—I'd never seen anything like it in my life. There was a 20-meter radius of body fluid that had gone from the couch, into the kitchen, down the hallway, it had seeped into cracks in the floor and dripped through into the flat below. This guy had overdosed on crack and had been there for over two weeks."

And what exactly does something like that smell like? "There are no words. It's something that goes right through to your core, and once it's up your nose it's there for good—you never forget it."

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There are also the cases that have shaken Nayler—not because of the cleanup job itself, but because of the nature of the situations she's forced to deal with. "I went to a shotgun suicide—it was a mother who had shot herself in the head in the upstairs bedroom of the house while her two children, aged four and six, were downstairs. The blood had dripped through the floorboards and gone down to the floor below. The two girls actually found her—they'd put paper over the blood. It was the saddest thing I've ever seen."

Nayler says there's one murder scene that had a particularly sigificant impact on her. "A girl had been bludgeoned to death by her boyfriend, and he had put her head through a wall. I had never seen so much blood. The victim was the same age, the same height, the same build as me. It took me a while to stop thinking about it, to be honest."

Photo courtesy of Donna Nayler

Both women say their jobs have affected their views on the world, though not necessarily for the worse. While they say they are now more aware of how widespread and crippling loneliness can be, both take active steps to combat this. "There have been cases where a housemate has died in the home and their flatmates didn't realise for a week," Nayer says. "I make sure I smile at strangers, say hi to my friends all the time, because it doesn't take a lot to say hello. "

Elliott has done a neurological linguistic programming course so she can work one-on-one with the hoarders she meets to try get to the root of their problems. She's also currently training for a sponsored bike ride to raise money for a hospice. "I just want to make sure that people who need it have support. I don't want people to be on their own and just stay in their house and die."