The suicide occurred in a second-story dorm room, but Tim Riley, after arriving on the scene, recalled noticing the black drops on the stairs first. He knew immediately how they got there. He had seen this before. Not as a police detective or crime scene investigator, but as the person hired to clean up the aftermath.
“This is what happens when the medical examiner buys their body bags from the lowest bidder. They leak. So the contamination, when they removed the body, had been spread,’’ said Riley.
He was standing in a drab conference room in the basement of a local Comfort Inn, teaching a certification course on biohazard abatement. Four men were jotting down notes at tables covered with yellow linen while photos of menacing wall splatters, disheveled living quarters, and unidentifiable stains loomed large on a projection screen. The continental breakfast - an assortment of glistening pastries and spotted fruit - remained untouched.
“The police, EMS, funeral directors, whatever - it’s not their problem to get rid of it. That’s not the way they’ve been trained,’’ continued Riley. “That’s our problem.’’
Riley, 62, clicked through his on-screen presentation as he recounted anecdotes, giving context to the photos glowing behind him while mixing an encyclopedic knowledge of technical facts with punchy one-liners. Having spent 27 years as a science teacher in the Marblehead school district and 23 years as a part-time EMT before launching his Ipswich-based company, Crime and Death Scene Cleaning, 14 years ago, Riley is well qualified to teach the course.
By his count, he’s completed more than 3,000 cleaning jobs throughout New England, from homicides to filthy living situations to decomposition cases. Three decades ago, a business like Riley’s was rare, and the burden of cleaning up a traumatic event often fell on surviving loved ones. Since then, the industry gained exposure nationwide.
All but one of the students attending the four-day certification course were sent to the training by an employer, a practice that Riley said has become more common as businesses specializing in other areas of restoration seek to expand their services to include post-mortem cleaning.
During a midmorning break, Scott Maslen, a flood mitigation specialist at J. Brian Day, an emergency relief company based in Plainville, said he volunteered to attend the training in preparation for his company’s new bio-recovery division.
“You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind to do this kind of work,’’ said Maslen. “You have to be sick in the head or something like that.’’
Marc Dale, who said he was laid off from his previous job and seeking a recession-proof line of work, traveled from Seattle after reading about the training online.
“People will always need this kind of cleanup,’’ he said. “If I don’t have to touch or smell anything, I’m OK.’’
Although protective head-to-toe jumpsuits, rubber gloves, and respirators - to filter offensive odors - are standard bio-recovery cleanup attire, there is no escape from jarring visuals.
“Everybody has three layers to their lives: they have their public life, they have their private life, and then they have their secret life,’’ said Riley. “If you know company’s coming, you can clean up. If you die, you don’t have that option. The people that come in and clean up get to see everything, and sometimes it ain’t pretty.’’
But Riley said he learned early on to curb his curiosity. His primary concern is with eliminating all contamination - infectious pathogens and odor-causing bacteria - while also working to salvage and restore the scene.
In an interview at his Ipswich office - a carriage house behind the two-story home where he lives with his wife - Riley said when he first started he made the mistake of trying to figure out what happened and how.
“It was a waste of time and effort,’’ he said. “And by getting that extra level of involvement, you have the potential of internalizing it.’’
Riley was sitting behind a large desk wearing a black Massachusetts State Police sweatshirt, a gift of appreciation from a canine trooper to whom Riley had supplied contaminated carpet to help train a police dog.
“For most suicides, I could not tell you the name of the victim,’’ he said. “Our job is to help the living by making this horrible thing go away.’’
When Riley first launched Crime and Death Scene Cleaning in 1998, the industry was still fairly new and training was scarce. His decision to offer the certification course in 2003, despite his reservations about training potential competitors, was based, in part, on wanting to ensure that those entering the industry do so as competent professionals.
“If I don’t train them, they’re still going to do it,’’ said Riley, “Because I started without any training and I learned the hard way.’’
His first cleaning job as owner and sole employee of Crime and Death Scene Cleaning was a grisly shotgun suicide. Riley spent 18 hours scrubbing and disinfecting the blood-soaked scene, stalking the trail of contamination into the far-reaching cracks and crevices of the room, often backtracking and repeating steps.
“If I was going in there now with my guys, we would be done, probably, in six hours,’’ said Riley.
Since then, Riley has hired one full-time employee, Derrick Hauenstein, his manager; and seven on-call part-time employees, all certified bio-recovery technicians. His applicant vetting process consists of a simple test: cleaning his office bathroom in full suit and respirator.
“They realize, when they’re soaking wet and uncomfortable, that that’s what the job is,’’ said Riley. “There’s no lights or siren or glory, and there are no parades. It’s a mean, nasty, detail-oriented job.’’
In a phone interview, Hauenstein, 34, who began working for Riley in 2000, said the most challenging aspect of the job was developing an emotional fortitude.
“We’re pretty much there after the police leave. And a lot of times the family’s still arriving,’’ said Hauenstein. “So we’re going in and out of living rooms where brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles are all arriving, having the worst day of their life.’’
Outside of suicides and homicides, Riley noted that filthy living - even though hoarding is usually not covered by insurance - accounts for nearly half of Crime and Death Scene Cleaning’s business. He and his team recently provided an estimate to clean a foreclosed home formerly inhabited by an animal hoarder.
“That’s going to be a five- to six-day job with four to five guys and that doesn’t even guarantee deodorization,’’ said Riley, who placed the estimate at $15,000.
For less extensive cleanups, fees generally fall within the $4,000 to $5,000 range, and, in most cases, are covered by homeowner’s insurance. While the job is not for everyone, Riley said he enjoys working for himself and takes pride in being able to walk into a horrific scene and make it disappear.
“The most rewarding thing is that every now and then we get somebody - many times they realize it later - but sometimes, if they can actually express it, they realize that we have saved them from another trauma,’’ said Riley. “And that’s good. And they’re very, very grateful for that.’’