It begins with a phone call. The paramedics have taken the body, but the aftermath of the suicide lies just beyond the bedroom door. This is when Kathy Jo Hobbs goes to work.
When there is a death in the home — whether it’s due to homicide, suicide or natural causes — family members or loved ones are left with the grim responsibility of cleaning up.
“Most people would assume — and I did at the time, too — that the coroner or sheriff or some agency would step in, but they don’t,” she said.
Hobbs of Camarillo never imagined she’d end up in this line of business. However, an opportunity to provide a much-needed service, while helping people through an inexplicably difficult time in their lives presented itself and she couldn’t pass it up.
AAA Crime Scene Steam & Clean was founded in 1993 by Hobbs and was the first company in Southern California of its kind. The company now has four locations in Southern California, each registered with the California Department of Health. She and her crew service an area spanning from Cambria to San Diego, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
AAA primarily deals with trauma or crime scene clean up, but it often works on hoarding jobs as well. Hobbs and her crew are all certified for blood-borne pathogen and HazMat work.
“We’ll do anything that is a biohazard, whether that be a hoarding site or a crime scene. It’s hard to tell someone that their loved one is now a health risk, but essentially that’s what it is.”
From the onset, Hobbs’ primary concern was not only doing the job well but doing it safely. She knew that she and her staff would be exposed to any number of diseases and health risks, such as blood-borne pathogens. Her job was discerning the proper safety measures to take.
“When I started the company there was no one to follow — I tried a lot of different kinds of cleaning things and gear.
My first thought was — and I laugh about this — clearly we need to protect ourselves, so what do we wear? And I think, well, we can wear what doctors wear in an operating room — and that lasted all of about five minutes!”
Scrubs might be adequate in the O.R. but Hobbs and her crew are often on their hands and knees cleaning up everything from blood and body fluids to bone fragments, skin bits, body fat and feces.
The crew is now outfitted in biohazard suits, masks, gloves, work boots and booties. They use hospital-quality bactericides to disinfect the area and surrounding household property (if it can be saved), in addition to wet vacs, power washers and an assortment of scrubbing and scraping tools. After one or two uses, everything, from suits to cleaning supplies, must be disposed of at a medical waste site.
“We are considered ‘trauma scene waste management practitioners,’ and that basically means we have a contract with a medical waste disposal company. With a crime scene, everything that we take out of there that’s contaminated, with whatever it may be, it goes to a burn site, like where a hospital would send their stuff,” she explained.
In addition to disinfection and general cleanup techniques, a decomposition job requires a technique called fogging.
With these jobs the odor — while not a health risk — is one of the more difficult things to eliminate. While some companies use ionizers or other air freshening techniques, Hobbs has found them to be inadequate for neutralizing the smell.
“What I have to explain to my clients is that that odor gets into everything porous,” she said. “And if they move property out before we can treat it, that smell will eventually manifest. And while the odor is not a health risk, it can be extremely emotionally upsetting.”
Typically, an average crime scene — say one involving a small handgun — will take a crew of two, two hours to complete and will fill up one bag of biohazard waste. Shotguns produce more of a mess and can take anywhere from six to eight hours, while a decomp can take up to nine. Prices vary depending on the nature of the job and range from $885 to $1,585.
Hobbs employs a permanent crew of four with an additional four on call for hoarding jobs, which typically take eight people two to three days.
“People think it’s really difficult to find people to do this job and that’s absolutely not true,” she admits.
She constantly receives calls from eager individuals boasting their extensive experience — or fascination — with death and the macabre. Yet the reality of what she encounters on a regular basis goes far beyond the average individual’s morbid curiosity.
“Nurses, coroner’s assistants, morticians will call, citing their many qualifications, but that’s not what we do. We are in someone’s bedroom with their family crying in the living room, cleaning up their blood, etc. … It’s not the same thing at all.
“The part that people don’t understand about what we do is that we’re in someone’s home. We are dealing with them in a moment of crisis like they have never had to deal with before,” Hobbs continued.
The visual might seem to be the most difficult aspect of the job, but Hobbs insists that it’s the odor that’s often the deal breaker. If you can’t smell it, you can usually disassociate, she remarked, but even hazmat masks can’t eliminate every odor.
Brothers William Thayer and Timothy Tobola have been working with Hobbs for four and two and a half years, respectively.
“I drove past her house every day for probably a year. All I saw was that yellow truck. It was a time when nobody had jobs. I was coming off disability and I figured I’ll call,” Thayer recalled.
Thayer, who served in Iraq, had no problem stepping up and getting his hands dirty, so to speak. He remembers his first job clearly and quite fondly, as no lives were lost and the potential victim turned the tables on the intruder.
Fueled by an unspecified narcotic, a man broke into a woman’s house and attempted to attack her daughter.
“The woman pulled a dowel out of her closet and beat the crap out of this person! She chased him around the living room, up the stairs, throughout the bedroom; and when she was done, they dragged him into the bathroom and threw him in the tub so he wouldn’t bleed all over the place until the cops came and arrested him. As they go, it was a great first job,” he said.
By most standards, a tame first job indeed. Perhaps not as morbid as some inquiring minds might hope, however.
Hobbs and her crew are quite accustomed to wide-eyed curiosity they encounter upon revealing their line of work.
“Everybody wants to know. Everybody. The first thing they say is, ‘oh, you do that job? That’s great! So tell me the worst thing you’ve ever seen,’ ” said Thayer with a smile.
“When there’s an actual homicide, it’s almost always, nine times out of 10, it involves a gun. Not that we haven’t done stabbings and beatings,” Hobbs added. “Cleanup wise, the ones we remember and we talk about are the more technically difficult ones.
“You know, like when someone was in a hot tub for a week and looked like a boiled chicken. I think the hot tubs really kind of freak everybody out. Because it’s hard to clean up and, uh, we find bits and pieces,” Hobbs continued.
“One guy turned to paste,” Thayer chimed in.
“This guy — all his windows are closed and his heaters are on — he starts a bath, has a heart attack and flops half in the tub and half out. No one knew he died until the neighbors saw water coming out of his house. And this was an isolated area. By the time they got to him, he was literally paste. All that was left in the tub was eyeballs and some skin,” he finished.
While hot tub jobs might inspire one’s gag reflex, according to Hobbs and her crew, decomp jobs are usually the most difficult. The decomposition of a body can happen very quickly and can be accelerated by any number of factors. In addition to the sludge of aged body fluids, these jobs usually generate tons of flies and maggots.
“Anyone that’s been sitting close to a week gets pretty … soupy. What happens to the body when it decomps is, it just basically dissolves into a puddle. At one job there were fluids leaking through the ceiling, through the light fixture of the apartment below, and there was a family living below! It went through the mattress, box springs, padding and eventually the floor,” Hobbs said shaking her head.
Sometimes it takes that curious neighbor to catch a whiff of, for instance, apartment 2B’s untimely passing before the body is actually discovered. Often however, isolation or denial — on the part of a living family member in the home — plays a huge role in the length of a decomp.
“We’ve done jobs where somebody died in an apartment and someone kept on living there — for six months, a year just rotting in the back room. The longest time a body was left undisturbed was five years,” said Hobbs.
Morbid though it may sound to the more delicate public, it’s these conversations and black humor that helps them cope with they death and devastation they encounter on a regular basis.
“Almost every job we’re on, we go out to eat afterwards, because we’re working pretty hard. And people think how can they eat? But we are hungry and we get together and talk about the day,” Hobbs said. “You can’t just go home and tell your boyfriend or your husband about what you saw or did.”
“You don’t want to bring it home with you,” Thayer added.
While Hobbs and her crew deal with the aftermath of a crime, police, firefighters and paramedics all encounter crime scenes from an entirely different perspective.
Com. Mark Stadler, head of the detective division of the Ventura Police Department, has spent the past 24 years on the force and has borne witness to countless acts of violence. He, too, emphasized the importance of talking through the emotions that he and fellow officers encounter when dealing with the traumas a crime scene can induce.
“When I started in the ’80s, it was still very much in the mode of don’t talk about what you’re going through, hold it inside. But I have always recommended and believe in talking about it. Otherwise, you see it lead to alcoholism, suicide, marital problems or abuse.”
When asked about the safety precautions officers are able to take on the job, Stadler admitted that they are not fortunate enough to have the time to do much.
“We don’t have the luxury of clean up crews, fire crews. They have time to stage equipment they need. We often arrive and have to act immediately — we must deal with the consequences later.”
Beyond coping with the visual and emotional, Hobbs and her crew find themselves connecting with the dead on a strange level. They learn a lot about the person’s life, the family — and the overall experience lends a surreal intimacy.
“In a very odd way, we really get to know the person that we are cleaning up after. We see what they read, what they eat; we see what they wear, what their hobbies and interests are. And sometimes it can be very sad. You sometimes think, I would have liked to have known this person, or we had so much in common. So it’s not just cleaning blood off the ceiling, you know? It’s very real for us,” she said.
There is no telling how a particular scene will manifest in the mind of each individual crew member, but without question there are jobs that prove emotionally devastating to someone with even Hobbs’ level of experience.
“Every time you think you’ve seen the worst, there is always something else that comes along. Emotionally, anything that involves children is the absolute worst. It rips our hearts out,” admits Hobbs.
Thayer and Tobola somberly recalled a job where two young children lost their lives at the hands of their father.
Walking into what appeared to be a happy home proved quite devastating, given the grisly nature of the crime.
“Sometimes you walk in a house and you get a sense that something doesn’t feel right. But when you walked in this house, saw the pictures all over, you knew this man loved his kids and they loved him. And you wonder what happened,” Thayer recalls.
“That job tore the two of us up,” Tobola added.
As horrific and painful as these jobs can be, the crew acknowledges that no matter how hard it is, it’s nothing compared to what the family is going through.
“I always say to people, when they ask how can you do this job, that it’s always easier for us to do it than a family member to do it,” commented Hobbs.
For Thayer, the end result far outweighs the initial experience. “I tell people all the time, at the end of the day, how many times do you get hugged and have people thank you for doing your job? I do, all the time. That’s how we deal with it. I’m helping someone through the worst possible moment in their life.”
For more crime scene cleanup stories, go to vcreporter.com and click on the feature story. Warning: The stories are graphic in content. Adult supervision is advised.