Tough day ahead? Try to keep things in perspective; it's unlikely your boss will ask you to clean up after a decomposing body. That's Laura Spaulding's job, and she loves it — whether it's crime scenes or hoarding cases. Well, she's not wild about the actual cleaning part. But she does love the results, she says. "When I see a horrible mess, and the family's at the funeral home burying them, and they come back and they go, 'Oh, my God, where was it?' That's when I'm satisfied,'' said Spaulding, 38, a former Kansas City, Mo., police officer who owns Spaulding Decon of Tampa.
Her business employs six cleaners, plus office staff and a building contractor, for times when they might have to replace part of the floor.
When people ask Spaulding what she does for a living, the answer depends on whether she's up for a long conversation.
"If I'm lacking time, I try to find creative synonyms for it, like restoration — disaster restoration,'' she said.
If she tells them what she really does, their ghoulish curiosity takes over: "Tell me about the worst case,'' they often ask.
A few come to mind. There was a particularly grisly scene she encountered in Largo a few years ago.
"A lady on the second floor called maintenance and said, 'I don't know what's going on upstairs, but it's leaking into my apartment.' They thought, 'Oh, he broke a pipe somewhere,'" she recalled. "They broke in there, and it was his body . . .''
Those are the worst cases, especially in the summertime, she says. On another job, a man had been dead nine months.
Spaulding's crews wear vinyl protective suits, coverall boots and a double layer of rubber gloves. "We are covered from head to toe," she said.
They also use respirators, which help reduce odor and protect against airborne contaminants. Often, the heat gets so bad that they have to get out of their suits and take breaks every half hour.
Carpets, couches, mattresses, drapes — anything that absorbs fluids and odor — are thrown out. "It's all contaminated. The flies come lay their eggs and then you have a maggot problem,'' she said.
The teams clean hard surfaces with hospital-grade disinfectant that they mix by the drum. They use a special machine that vacuums the air.
Spaulding started the business seven years ago. She got the idea by reading online about another crime scene cleaning company. She had seen her share of gory crime scenes as a police officer. "I thought, well, I can do that,'' she said.
She took a training course in crime scene cleanup in Dallas. Within three weeks of her return, she took on her first case: a Christmas day shooting that she cleaned by herself.
Now, Spaulding always sends at least two cleaners to each job.
Her police experience trained her to dwell on the job, not the human tragedy. "I train my employees to be immune to it as well. The way I explain it is, the body is gone. . . . It's just like any other mess. Whether it's oil, milk or blood, you treat it the same.''
One employee, five-year veteran Roxanne Smith, didn't know if she could handle the job at first. Her first assignment was an 11-day decomposition case. "When we drove up, there were flies in the window," she said.
When she got home that night, she washed her clothes and her hair twice, just to get the smell out. "There is no other smell like it,'' said Smith, 42, of Tarpon Springs.
As would be expected, the service is pricier than your standard house-cleaning job. Spaulding Decon charges between $2,000 and $3,000 to clean up after a body, and $3,000 to $5,000 to clean up after a hoarder. If it's a body, often the homeowner's insurance will pay any costs beyond the deductible. But hoarder families have to foot the entire bill.
The insurance companies view that as self-inflicted,' Spaulding said.
Hoarding jobs can be as foul as any crime scene. Some people hoard trash, others hoard animals. Some people call themselves collectors, though their collectibles may block the path to the kitchen stove.
"I have a lot of customers who live off Meals on Wheels. They get the meals delivered, they eat it and pitch it behind them,'' she said. "They'll sit in the recliner, they have nothing in the recliner, and everything else is mounds of trash around them."
Guardians and families call her, and sometimes the hoarders themselves. They've gone through therapy and are ready to do it. Some hoarders start accumulating all over again, so their families hire Spaulding Decon on a rotating basis.
"We show up every six months,'' Spaulding said.
She is sensitive to hoarders. Spaulding finds that often they have suffered a severe loss — death, loss of a child or divorce — and accumulating things somehow makes them feel better. Often, she says, they don't understand how they got that way.
"It's almost like they blinked and there it is, because they're so out of it. They're so depressed.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.