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The Death Squads

Photos by Ted SoquiThe storage facility in the San Fernando Valley has all the charm a slab of concrete can muster, which is to say very little. “It is very bloody,” warns the middle-aged manager as he walks through the dizzyingly hot, antiseptic-white third-floor hallway toward the yellow police tape, which is discarded next to the taped-off unit. “I also found blood and skull in the other units,” he adds matter-of-factly to his three companions. An employee at the facility had found William (not his real name) lying on top of the king-size mattress inside his storage unit four days earlier. No one heard the rifle shot that ended the 40-something former attorney’s life. Now the body is gone, and so are the police, but the mess remains. Manny Salcido looks more interested in the large black butterfly flying along the white ceiling and walls as it approaches William’s storage unit. “It’s his spirit,” says Mike Nicholson, as he dodges around bloody footprints and droplets of blood smeared in front of the unit. The coroner and police left their tracks. The crew gathers around the unit as the store manager rolls up the heavy metal orange door. Inside, the walls and ceiling look like a gigantic bloody Rorschach test. The high-powered hunting rifle accomplished its fatal mission. The blood splatter and skull fragments don’t just coat the walls and ceiling of the 12-by-15-foot unit, but can be found inside the boxes of legal papers, on William’s plates and bowls, in the jackets of his books and VHS tapes, saturated through his king-size bed, wedged in every orifice of his black leather sofa and ancient VCR, and coated on top of the shelves of his 6-foot-high bookcase, which took the brunt of the splatter. Blood and skull fragments the size of coins and golf balls are also visible in the units adjacent to and behind William’s. The air is thick with the sickly, sweet smell of blood. “It looks like a four-day job,” says Salcido, who wears Buddhist prayer beads on his wrist in memory of his mother, who died recently. David Redlus nods in agreement as he begins to unpack his gloves, doctor’s scrubs, and bottles of cleaning products and disinfectants, including the crew’s secret weapon — hydrogen peroxide, which, when sprayed on blood, fizzles and makes it more detectable. “Whatever it takes,” says the manager, adding as he walks away, “Let me know if you need anything. I am not squeamish about this sort of thing.” This is not an atypical start of the day for Clean Scene Services, a trauma-site-cleanup crew of which Nicholson is the wiry, good-natured, cigarette-huffing leader, and Redlus and Salcido his amiable sidekicks. There are 65,000 deaths a year in L.A. County. A lot of them aren’t pretty. Suicides, car wrecks, slipping on a wet floor, things like that, tend to leave some unfortunate aftermaths. Suicides are down nationally, but in 2003 — the most recent year for which there are reliable statistics — approximately 734 Angelenos killed themselves, according to the L.A. County Coroner. Another 3,130 died in accidents. Police count 922 homicides in Los Angeles and L.A. County in 2004. Deaths by natural causes don’t guarantee a clean corpse either; many who die outside a hospital or convalescent home, or far from family or friends, are left rotting until someone notices. That’s a lot of mess, and somebody’s got to clean it up. Historically, the task has been left to friends and family, but, over the years, companies that specialize in trauma-scene cleanup have emerged to fill the often-gory niche. “We used to care for our dead,” said Ed Evans, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher turned carpet cleaner turned trauma-scene cleaner. “Now we have alienated ourselves from it. People have such a terrible time with blood. People are spooked.” Evans started Bio Safe five years ago, after repeatedly getting calls from people who thought his cleaning business was affiliated with a crime-scene show on PBS. In the mid-’90s, only a handful of businesses specializing in trauma-scene cleanup were operating in the Southland. Today, with the popularity of crime movies and TV shows like CSI, death scenes have become sexy and lucrative. “One guy told me he got inspired after he watched Pulp Fiction,” said Mike Schott, a staff environmental scientist with the Department of Health Services’ (DHS) Medical Waste Management Program, which licenses the trauma-scene industry. “He said he could get rich.” Mike Nicholson, 39, started his career in the death business at the age of 17 when he began taxiing dead bodies to mortuaries. After graduating from East L.A. College, the dirty-blond, blue-eyed L.A. native, who walks with a slight limp, got a job at the L.A. County Coroner’s Office working in the lab preparing tissue samples. He stayed there for two years, until he realized that his job would not be made permanent. Nicholson and his wife, Carol, whom he met when they were teenagers, started Clean Scene Services from their garage in 1996. “At the time we had a white Toyota Corolla and a white trailer we hitched to it,” said Carol. “We were one foot ahead of everybody.” Their first job: cleaning up cat feces. Today, the couple lives in Agua Dulce and works on 59,000 square feet of land in East L.A., a short distance from where Carol Ann grew up. The property, once owned by a Japanese doctor, houses two former pediatric clinics and two small white bungalows perched side by side on top of a hill overlooking the 60 freeway. Down the spiral driveway are the clinics (where actor Edward James Olmos was delivered) that Nicholson uses as an office and to store equipment like his $5,000 oxidation machine, which kills the smell of decomposition. Thank-you letters and certificates line the walls of his office. So do photos of his wife and three children. Hanging on the wall near the door is a Three Stooges clock, a gift from his brother-in-law, which pipes in every hour: “Quiet, Bird Brain.” On top of Nicholson’s large wooden desk, next to an ashtray stacked with cigarette butts, is a file folder of newspaper clippings of his cleanup jobs. The headlines include “Woman Dies After Being Hit by Downtown Bus,” “Convenience Store Clerk Killed at 7-11,” “Boy Hit by Blue Line,” “Missing Man Found Under Carpet” and “Cop Kills Himself After Hit and Run.” In the last-mentioned story, 54-year-old LAPD Officer Bryce Wicks fatally shot himself in the head at his Acton home in 1997, the day after a hit-and-run collision in which he left a mother and baby seriously injured. Nicholson also keeps photos of trauma scenes on his laptop for insurance purposes and to show clients before and after shots. He has dozens of them, including photos of the leftover skin and remains of the badly decomposed body of a man who died on his toilet and wasn’t found for weeks, a large pool of blood from the 7-Eleven employee in San Pedro who was beaten to death with a bat, and the bloody trail of the man who slit his wrist in the shower and then his throat in the kitchen. When that didn’t work, the man ran over to his apartment window and jumped out, plunging to his death. “He left a trail of blood all over the house,” said Nicholson. On most occasions, Carol handles the business affairs while Nicholson, Salcido and Redlus do the cleanups. Last year, Clean Scene Services was hired for 162 jobs, averaging 12 to 15 cleanups a month. Their bread and butter comes from contracts with property-management companies, motels, convenience-store chains, the MTA and Amtrak. Most of the calls are for cleanups of decompositions, accidents, or suicides like William. “This is the first suicide we have had in a storage unit,” said Nicholson. “Hotels are generally the more popular places to commit suicide. People don’t want to mess up their own homes.”

 

Nicholson’s crew chief is 58-year-old Manny Salcido, a soft-spoken, cherubic Paul Sorvino look-alike with a devilish sense of humor. Salcido met the then–19-year-old Nicholson when he was delivering bodies to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary. Salcido was in charge of the graveyard shift. The two became quick friends, and when Nicholson decided to open up Clean Scene Services, Salcido jumped onboard. Salcido said he stumbled into the death business by accident. He used to be a barber in the 1970s, but was looking for a change. One day, while he was cutting hair, one of his clients received a call and had to leave immediately. The client explained to Salcido that he worked for a service that picked up and drove dead bodies to mortuaries, and someone needed to be picked up now. On a whim, Salcido asked if he could come along. A few weeks later, he packed away his clippers and started work at a Jewish-Christian mortuary in the San Fernando Valley. He later went on to Forest Lawn in Glendale, then to Pierce Brothers Mortuary, where he managed the pickup of and embalming of hundreds of bodies a night — among those whose safe passage he’s managed are Gilda Radner, Buddy Rich, Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. Salcido worked the 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. shift for 11 years. “I was up all night for all of the ’80s,” he said. Salcido, who lives in Montrose, is a veritable dictionary on death. He recites stages of decomposition like a drama student would a Shakespearean soliloquy and the chemical breakdown of the body like a science professor. From people mangled in explosions and train wrecks to those who have died in autoerotic accidents, he has seen and heard it all. Few things faze Salcido, but there are exceptions. “A man was found murdered in Griffith Park in the ’80s,” he said. “He died from 1,000 small cuts. Each was not fatal, but the combination made him bleed to death. It was a practice in the Middle East. It was very disturbing.” He is also a treasure-trove of little-known macabre factoids, especially about dead celebrities. He knows where Curly, Joe and Moe of the Three Stooges are buried. And that Oliver Hardy died indigent. All the stories, which he tells with an ever-so-slight lisp, are worthy of a book, including his claim that W.C. Fields’ ashes were stolen from his mausoleum in the ’60s. To avoid a scandal, the mortuary kept it a secret and replaced his ashes with others’. “The ashes there are not W.C. Fields’,” he maintains. Salcido also holds the dubious honor of being the only member of the trauma team to throw up at a scene. It was a decomp. The Egyptian artist who died of a heart attack on his toilet had not been found for weeks. The toilet was filled to the top with maggots, skin and fecal matter. “It was so thick you had to dig it out with a spoon,” cringed Salcido. At 26, Redlus is the youngest and newest member of the team. He is apple-pie cute and looks as out of place in the industry as would Richie Cunningham. Redlus started off his career delivering film to movie studios. He has also worked for FedEx and was a courier on and off for five years before he begged Salcido to let him come along on a cleanup job in 2002. “I didn’t think he would like it,” said Salcido. “I had people walk in and turn away.” But Redlus’ perseverance and strong stomach paid off. “Manny didn’t think I had it in me,” says Redlus, munching on a Carl’s Jr. double burger before cleaning up William’s unit. “He said I didn’t have the stomach for it. But I did. After 20 minutes into my first cleanup, I was hungry.” Salcido met Redlus 25 years ago, when Salcido went to barber school with Redlus’ father. Despite the 30-year age difference, the two are close friends. Redlus lives in Sunland with his new bride (they married October 30) and their 6-year-old son, Cody. He is energetic, fun-loving, sensitive, and the go-to guy when it comes to heavy lifting. He instinctively picks up the heavy boxes to save the older Salcido from hurting his back. Redlus works out religiously and tops off his routine with blended vegetable-and-fruit-juice concoctions. His current favorite is celery-and-apple juice, and he has no problems with talking about food or drink while he is working. The two men are in daily contact, even when they aren’t cleaning the inch-deep pigeon poop from the estate of actress and William Randolph Hearst mistress Marion Davies, or the home of an elderly schoolteacher who died and wasn’t found for weeks. The latter job took five days to clean because the woman never tidied up or threw anything out. “We found the skeletons of a family of possums that died in one of the rooms sometime in the 1950s,” said Redlus. “I think he had a lot of memories here,” says Salcido as he sifts through William’s belongings for blood, meticulously spraying and cleaning every item. Next to him, Redlus has just finished spraying the attorney’s storage unit with Microban, a disinfectant that kills HIV, herpes and airborne viruses. Salcido finds two photos on top of William’s giant-screen TV, the only possession that looks new. One of the photos is of a young woman, an Ally Sheedy look-alike with brown, shoulder-length, feathered hair. On the back is a written message: “?William — Thanks for the wonderful time. I hope we’ll get together soon. Love Tammy [not her real name].” The other photo is of a young William, with a thick head of feathered blond hair, hugging an attractive blonde from behind. Two young people in love. Both photos look like they were taken in the 1980s, when feathered hair and tight jeans weren’t a fashion faux pas. Salcido has also uncovered William’s university yearbook inside one of the rotting cardboard boxes used to hold hundreds of legal papers. Within the pages of the yearbook is a photo of the new graduate wearing a suit and tie, grinning from ear to ear. Next to the box is a plastic leg brace. Had William been in an accident? What happened to his law career? There are so many unanswered questions. For Redlus, it is better not to think about the deceased at all. “I try not to think too much about every cleanup,” says Redlus. “I will go crazy.” By noon, the crew has made a huge dent in Unit 133108. The majority of the boxed items and furniture that were irretrievably soaked through with blood have been packed away and taken to a nearby waste-treatment facility by Nicholson. But the real gruesome part of the cleanup lies ahead. The unit is hot and filled with the heady smell of disinfectant and blood. The manager promises to turn the air conditioning on, but the crew is still waiting. “I am sweating in places I didn’t know I could,” jokes Salcido, who looks like he just jumped into a swimming pool. Redlus and Salcido begin to fan each other with ripped cardboard between lifting heavy boxes and moving bedroom furniture. Even the cockroaches look bothered by the heat and scurry away. “The cockroaches get into your clothes, and you take them home with you,” says Salcido as he watches them flee. The bookcase, which is lined up against the sidewall, has taken the biggest hit. Each of the four shelves is inches thick in brain, blood and skull debris. Four days after the fact, the blood has turned into what looks like thick globs of strawberry Jell-O. Walking around the bookcase is like walking through a miniature trough full of sticky candy-apple coating. Four hours later, Unit 133108 is spotless, and there are no signs left of the earlier trauma. There are still five more units left to be cleaned, but the crew decides to pack it up and start again tomorrow. They pile the remaining blood-soaked cloth, garbage and broken furniture into the van, and are careful not to scratch the wine-colored sedan with a disability tag on the rearview mirror parked a few feet away. The manager told them earlier that the car belonged to William. His family, who live out of town, have not been to the scene and have yet to make arrangements for the vehicle. Redlus’ curiosity gets the better of him, and he allows himself a peek through a side window, when he notices an unopened envelope on the passenger seat. “Could it be a suicide note?” he asks, looking up at Salcido, who is looming over his shoulder. “No,” says Salcido. “The police wouldn’t have missed that.” The two look at each other, climb into their big white van and slowly drive off.

 

Dirty deeds: Mike Nicholson (left)and his Clean Scene Services creware ready, and most importantlywilling, to clean any scene.

Until 1998, no law existed on how to dispose of human remains outside of the health-care industry. In the early days, medical-waste companies refused to take the bloodied material outside of hospitals, and trauma-scene companies were at a loss as to how to dispose of it. As a result, the trauma-scene industry, with the help of the late California Senator Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), lobbied to push through the Trauma Scene Medical Waste Management Act of 1998. SB 1034 modified the California Medical Waste Act to create a new classification for hauling contaminated biohazard waste from commercial non-health-care facilities, such as rental housing. The state regulation allowed for medical-waste companies to accept collections from anyone registered with the state as a trauma-scene cleaning company. Now, in addition to medical-waste transporters, only registered trauma-waste transporters can legally haul materials contaminated with blood away from a trauma scene. Also, the legislation gave the DHS licensing power and the ability to enforce penalties on companies that do not dispose of remnants in state-approved medical-waste treatment facilities. But prosecution has proved difficult. Since 1998, no company has lost its license or been fined, since violations are difficult to substantiate. For example, in 1998, a trauma-cleanup employee contacted the DHS alleging that his employer told him to dump 30 pounds of bloodied sheets from a Motel 6 into his apartment dumpster after a woman apparently miscarried and refused maid service for nine days. The cleanup company's owner denied the allegations, and the matter was dropped because the DHS couldn’t prove that the event occurred. The DHS admits that it is little more than a clearing-house for trauma-scene cleaners. The modified medical-waste act doesn’t provide a mechanism or agency for punishing companies that violate business or moral ethics, and the DHS is often reduced to trying to resolve complaints and disputes by phone. As it stands now, just about anyone can get a permit for trauma cleanup so long as they shell out $200 a year to the DHS and have a contract with a waste-treatment facility. According to the DHS, there are approximately 98 registered trauma-scene companies in California alone. But keeping a trauma-scene cleanup operation above water can be tough. Most are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “People kind of glamorize the business, but once they walk into their first or second scene, they realize it is not what they thought,” said Bio Safe’s Evans. “It really is horrific at times.” Pay varies, but some employees can make as much as $50 an hour. Sometimes money isn’t the employees’ objective. One trauma-scene company had to fire its new hire after they found out that the vampire fetishist was found to be keeping the bloodied sheets from trauma scenes. Cleanups cost from $350 to $5,000, but vary depending on the mode of death. Shotgun deaths are traditionally the most costly and can run you as high as $2,000 to $5,000 because they are the hardest to clean up. The cost can be covered by homeowner’s insurance, but for those without insurance, the State’s Victims Assistance Program pays victims' families up to $1,000 for a homicide cleanup. Anything else comes out of a loved one’s pocket. “Think of gravity and a bouncing ball,” said Evans. “I have learned that the principle of gravity is very important. Body parts become projectiles. Brain matter bounces and can land far away.” Decomps are no picnic either. Nicholson said he was called to a scene after a Sheriff’s employee realized that the liquid that dropped on his head from the apartment above was not water. The police soon discovered the badly decomposed remains of the Sheriff’s employee’s upstairs neighbor, who had died from a heroin overdose three weeks earlier. Nicholson had to remove big chunks of the floor because the body fluids had seeped into the wood and into the Sheriff’s employee’s apartment. Nicholson also cleaned the home of a Hollywood animal trainer who was found decomposing on her heated waterbed after overdosing on veterinary medicine. He had to run his oxidation machine for two days to get rid of the smell. “You have a restoration mask, but you can still smell the stink. The odor stays in the nostrils for weeks,” said Nicholson. There is always that potential health risk too, such as contracting hepatitis C. “They [hepatitis-C carriers] die in fear and loathing,” said Evans. “In their panic, they move from room to room. They bleed from every orifice. It is a deadly thing to clean up.” Physical injury is also a possibility. Hyjentek’s aptly named David Goforth was hired to clean the California Forestry Association’s Sacramento office after the Unabomber struck in April 1995. The packaged bomb that exploded and killed the association’s president, Gilbert Murray, melted the lobby’s carpet into the cement floor, started a small fire, blew blood and body fragments 100 feet away, and ripped off part of the ceiling. It took a crew of five 16 hours to clean up. “It was very traumatizing for the guys,” said Goforth. “We called in the chaplain.” The crew was further unnerved when another package was delivered to the site while they were working. “The idea that you would send another packaged letter to a bombed building was terrible,” he added. During cleanup, the office roof collapsed on Goforth and others. He was out of work for 10 days with a leg injury. “Every year after, in April, I get this pain in my leg,” says Goforth. “My chiropractor says there is no pain. It is psychosomatic.” Trauma-scene cleanup is not for the faint of heart. Elizabeth Wesson hired Patti Turner of A-1 Clean the Scene after Wesson’s husband, Marcus, killed his nine children in their home in Fresno last year. “That was very emotional,” said the 52-year-old Turner, who gave up her job as an operating-room technician to start her trauma-scene business in 1999. “The place was full of baby furniture that we had to break down and dispose of. There were pictures of the children all over the house. It was terrible to do. We were all very depressed when we left.” But even with the industry’s newfound vogue, only a handful of trauma cleaners have been able to make a full-time living at it. Besides Nicholson, they include a couple of former L.A. homicide detectives, and a 55-year-old grandmother. Seated at a Jerry’s Deli in the San Fernando Valley, Kathie Jo Kadziauskas says she can spend hours talking about what is wrong with the trauma-scene industry. The attractive, sturdy, 55-year-old reddish-blond, blue-eyed grandmother is visibly ticked off when she starts talking about the DHS and its lackadaisical approach to policing the industry. Kadziauskas, whose business car is a bright-yellow and black ’47 International pickup truck she calls Fuller, talks and looks like she can hold her own at a monster truck rally. She also has a ’62 Buick convertible named Loocil, which she drives around Santa Paula, where she lives and runs her business. Kadziauskas says she spends hours of her off time surfing the Net looking for unlicensed trauma-scene cleaners and those that don’t follow OSHA and DHS guidelines. If she finds violators, she sends the information to the DHS, even though she says the state organization does nothing. So sometimes she takes matters into her own hands. In one instance, she says, she found out a hotel had hired an unlicensed cleaner and took it upon herself to inform the manager that what he was doing was illegal. It didn’t go over too well. “He threatened to sue me and accused me of just trying to make a buck,” she laughs over bites of scrambled eggs, grits and sausage. Everyone in the industry knows Kadziauskas. She is considered to be one of the pioneers, and her firm was one of the first trauma-scene businesses to register with the DHS. She has also been one of the industry’s main instigators of change — she persistently lobbies the state and its insurance commission for stricter regulations on companies that don’t follow health and safety guidelines, but to no avail. After spending 25 years as an electronics rep and purchasing manager, Kadziauskas got into the business in the early 1990s, when professional trauma-scene cleaners were virtually unheard-of. She found out the hard way that such services didn’t exist when she couldn’t find a business to clean up the blood left after her friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. “I realized that the service was needed. The emotional trauma to do that for someone you care about is horrible.” Over the years, Kadziauskas has worked on hundreds of cleanups, including Alaska Airlines flight 261 after it crashed off the coast of California in 2000. Her Santa Paula–based company, AAA Crime Scene Steam & Clean, was hired to clean up the waterlogged personal effects of the passengers. She has also cleaned up drug houses, pried dead rats out of walls, and ventured into high-crime areas populated with very big dogs. “When people realize what we are doing,” she said, “even the most hardened homeboys stay away.” Nearly six years ago, Kadziauskas and a couple of other cleanup operations started the California Association of Trauma Waste Practitioners (CATWAP), in an attempt to regulate the industry. They hoped CATWAP would fill the regulatory void left by the DHS. All potential members would have to prove that they are state-licensed and trained in handling hazardous materials and blood-borne pathogens, carry liability insurance, and use protective gear. The benefits of joining the association included being put on a rotating call list for jobs. Kadziauskas became the secretary-treasurer. But Kadziauskas has had trouble getting companies to join, maybe because she’s made some enemies along the way. Over the years, she has threatened to sue and has squealed on her competitors. In 1999, she filed a lawsuit against A-1 Clean the Scene’s Patti Turner, who opened up a trauma-scene business a few months after working for Kadziauskas. Kadziauskas accused Turner of stealing business secrets, including a chemical combination Kadziauskas concocted to clean up trauma scenes. Ultimately, Kadziauskas got $10,000 from Turner in the sale. Industry insiders said they were suspicious of CATWAP’s intentions and accused Kadziauskas and others of just trying to make a buck off membership and the rotating call list, which sources claimed went only to Kadziauskas and a select few other members. Kadziauskas has had numerous run-ins with the DHS. She is the only trauma-scene cleaner to have had her office inspected by the DHS three times. She said it is because she pointed out the state agency’s flaws. In 2000, Kadziauskas was blasted by the DHS for using its logo on her business cards to promote her company. After issuing two warnings, the DHS threatened to remove her from its registration list and pass the matter on to the Attorney General’s Office if she didn’t remove the government agency’s name from her cards. She finally complied. Another run-in happened that same year when CATWAP attempted to institute a biohazard warning-label program at trauma scenes, which included the association’s 800 number. The DHS forbade its use at scenes, reasoning that trauma scenes were not biohazards and that the labeling would cause undue trauma to family members. Industry insiders said it was just another crafty trick by CATWAP to drum up extra business. The DHS also accused CATWAP of claiming on its promotional material that a partnership existed between the two entities and that it had enforcement powers. “They [DHS] don’t support anything we are doing,” complained CATWAP former president John Birrer. “They have even told companies to not use our services. They don’t want us to exist.” It wasn’t long before another organization opened up to rival CATWAP. Started by Patti Turner’s ex-husband, Jerry, the National Trauma Scene Awareness Association (NTSA) focused on education and instituted a biohazard warning-label program similar to CATWAP’s called “Safety First.” NTSA’s first order of business was to call for a full investigation by the DHS and the Attorney General’s Office of Kadziauskas’ and CATWAP’s business practices. NTSA alleged that Kadziauskas reprinted NTSA pamphlets and distributed them all over Southern California with altered numbers. In letters to the DHS, NTSA also accused Kadziauskas of filing false complaints with OSHA against Turner, calling the customers of competitors and claiming to be with the health department, stealing the names of ex-employees in order to obtain confidential records to file complaints with the DHS, and making death threats against an ex-partner. In return, Kadziauskas complained to the DHS that NTSA excluded her from its organization, copied her biohazard labeling program, claimed to be “acting on behalf of state-licensed trauma practitioners, public agencies and the public,” falsely claimed to be a nonprofit, and offered crisis intervention without a license. A year later, CATWAP folded after industry members complained to the L.A. County Coroner’s Office about its alleged favoritism and its passing out a trauma-scene list bearing only select members of CATWAP. The Coroner’s Office denied any wrongdoing. Before long, NTSA went belly-up after industry insiders criticized the organization for putting Turner’s A-1 Clean the Scene at the top of its list of trauma-scene cleaners in California, which was passed around at trauma scenes, at coroner’s offices, at mortuary conventions and to law enforcement. Kadziauskas came under fire again in 2000, but this time with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Kadziauskas was charged with one count of misdemeanor identity theft after one of her clients, Stacia Engel, accused Kadziauskas of stealing Engel’s father’s credit cards when Kadziauskas and crew cleaned his Cerritos home after his death. Engel said she knew something was amiss when months went by and she didn’t receive any of her father’s credit-card bills. She called his creditors and soon learned that his billing address had changed and that more than $400 worth of purchases — including a retro-style turntable, summer sausages and an Austin Powers bobble-head doll — had been made after his death and shipped to a Santa Paula location. “It was an awful time. This was my dad. This was very traumatic for all of us,” said Engel. “It was such a surreal situation. We were so beaten down by the whole thing. It was the only home we really ever knew, and she stole everything out of it. It was much more than the $400 on the Visa. It was all the memories. We don’t have that anymore. She stripped us of history.” Kadziauskas pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor identity theft and was given three years’ probation. She blames the whole mess on a former employee. Engel also contacted the DHS about the incident and asked to have Kadziauskas removed from its list. The DHS refused. “She [Kadziauskas] didn’t violate the trauma-scene waste act,” said Jack McGurk, then-chief of the DHS’s Environmental Health Branch. “There is nothing in our act that says a rehabilitated felon or a person with a misdemeanor cannot be kept on the list. That may be a weakness in the law because of the vulnerability of the people at the time, but we really don’t have the jurisdiction to do that type of background investigation.” Industry practitioners may balk at Kadziauskas, her heavy-handed tactics and brush with the law, but they do admit there are problems that exist in the industry and that finding a reputable trauma-scene company is as difficult as finding an honest car salesman. “There are quite a few cleaners that probably just have their license and nothing to back them,” said Richard Walker, the 35-year-old owner of Biohazorb Crime Scene Cleaners. “You can put people at risk. It is not just about bleach and a scrubber. There are chemicals that kill the blood-borne pathogens. Some of these companies are going in blindfolded. I have gone by some of the jobs that I have lost, and I see them with no respirators for decomp and breathing in whatever is in there. They underbid, and if they are not using the right stuff, they are cutting corners, but they can harm someone.” Sometimes, grieving families fall victim to unscrupulous companies, like Chatsworth resident John Hotchkiss, whose elderly renter died the day after Hotchkiss left on vacation. Hotchkiss found him two weeks later decomposing in his bedroom. The East Coast company Hotchkiss hired arrived late and wouldn’t allow him into the house while they were working. When Hotchkiss returned the next day, he discovered that his deceased tenant’s possessions were gone, including an expensive antique-watch collection, three cameras and a 36-inch TV. Hotchkiss complained, but the company claimed that his tenant’s belongings were too smelly and contaminated to save. He was left with a $6,000 bill. To make matters worse, the stench was still there. He had to hire Nicholson’s Clean Scene Services to mop up the body fluid left behind. “It was a nightmare,” said Hotchkiss. Redos are a large part of former paramedic Kent Berg’s trauma business. “I had to do a job after a company failed to clean up properly after a suicide. The company told the family to leave but pay up front. When the family came home, they found that there were still bone fragments in the dining room and damage to the drapes,” he said. “The mother found her son’s hair and scalp in a pot of chili on the stove.” But for all the ghoulish scenarios, there are good stories too. Back when former LAPD Detective John Birrer worked homicides, he said, he often stayed behind to help with the cleanup. “Sometimes you just can’t walk away and leave it for a widow,” he said. When he retired in 1990, he decided to open up Northern California–based Asepsis Technology and get paid for his services. As much as Birrer likes to help grieving families, he admits that some jobs are tough to handle, especially the suicides, which he says are far too common. One of Birrer’s recent jobs involved a woman who shot herself in the parking lot of a mortuary, but not before she made her own funeral arrangements. “She thought that a mortuary would be a good place to end her life,” he said. “She was wrong, however. The coroner had to transport her body to the Coroner’s Office for an autopsy required on all unexpected deaths. She also probably didn’t plan for her torso to relax, lean to one side, and drain blood onto the console, seat and carpet in her car. Her intentions were good to cover the seat with towels and plastic trash bags, but not real effective in the long run.” It is 8 a.m., a week after William’s unit has been cleaned up, and Nicholson and his crew are at a new job at a small, white stucco house located on the corner of a tree-lined street in West Los Angeles, off Pico Boulevard near La Brea. The police left the homicide scene the night before, after spending a week gathering evidence. Nicholson received the go-ahead to clean from the sister of the victim late last night. The rooms are so cluttered it is difficult to see at first glance what happened. On the living-room wall nearest the front door are old family photos, including a high school graduation shot of a young African-American man with glasses, wearing a blue cap and gown, a large smile on his face. The victim. Next to the graduation photo is a smaller snapshot of the victim’s brother. The alleged killer. The family told Nicholson that he was arrested the night of the murder. There is no explanation as to why he did it. From the front doorway, where the victim was stabbed when he opened the door, to the couch, about 10 feet away, there is a trail of blood. The frenzied splatter from the knife slashes can be seen on the walls, the TV, the African art, the bookcase, the Jeffrey Deaver novels, the jazz records, and on the decorative plush elephants scattered all over the tiny living-room floor, where it abruptly ends in a very large pool next to the orange-and-brown love seat. Salcido and Redlus unpack the equipment while Nicholson bids farewell to the sister, who can’t stand to stay around for the cleanup. Every few minutes the crew pauses from its task to listen to the phone ring and the answering machine pick up. Almost every call is a message of condolence. “Tell them to forward all calls to heaven,” says Salcido, who is inspecting the hardcover novels for blood. “It is not disrespectful,” adds Redlus protectively, afraid that Salcido’s comment will be taken the wrong way. “It is very sad. Sometimes it is easier to make jokes.” Then pauses: “I am scared about dying.” Salcido says the job has taught him to keep his belongings in order — just in case. “The thing about this job is that you never know about tomorrow. You just never know.” The movie buff says he will miss watching movies when he dies. A few minutes later, a friend of the victim pops his head through the open front door. He is here to visit his friend. He is surprised to see Nicholson and his crew and even more stunned to see the blood. He is obviously unaware that his friend was recently bludgeoned to death. Nicholson quickly leads him outside, where he breaks the sad news. Salcido and Redlus quietly listen. At a loss, the friend simply nods and walks away. In the middle of the street, he turns back toward the house, waiting for his friend to appear and tell him it is just one big joke. It doesn’t happen. He walks away, with a dazed expression engraved for the moment on his face. Left behind are Nicholson and his crew, there to pick up the pieces, and the blood.


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