When the police tape comes down and the investigators pack up, crime victims have little recourse when it comes to returning their homes to normal.
They’re often left wondering: Who tends to the carnage in the wake of a crime or death scene?
The victims themselves are usually responsible for their own property. But for those who do not have the means to handle the cost or emotionally cope with the cleanup, there’s help.
Enter crime scene cleaning technicians and the victim advocacy group that can pay for their work. The specially trained workers have been behind the scenes of some of the Lowcountry's most high-profile criminal investigations of the past few years: the Emanuel AME Church shooting; the slayings two months ago of four family members near Mount Pleasant; a Johns Island home invasion where a mother of three was brutally beaten.
Crime-scene cleanup is an often bleak and costly job, officials say. One day you could be scraping blood off a stucco ceiling of a residence where a violent homicide took place, the next you could be tearing up the flooring where a body decomposed for several weeks. Depending on the job, the extensive cleanups can costs thousands.
Nicole Goodwin, who oversees the emergency fund at the S.C. Victim Assistance Network that helps pay for crime scene cleanup, said her organization foots the bill for these jobs about 10 times a month.
“It’s very important (because) these services cost astronomical amounts,” she said. “Victims (often) just can’t pay for it … (or) don’t have homeowner’s insurance. It’s just something that’s needed for victims.”
How it works
In the two decades Judy Gordon has worked as Charleston's director of forensic services, she can count on one hand the number of times she's helped arrange for crime-scene cleanup services at a victim's request.
"It all depends on what's going on in the crime scene," Gordon said. "If there's a lot of blood, or really any amount of blood, someone from the department will call and let us know, and we’ll make those arrangements."
Nonetheless, she said, "I feel sure, as a department, that any time a victim reaches out for assistance, we'd provide whatever assistance they requested."
Anyone can hire a specialized cleaning service. But if you want financial assistance, you'd have to work with a law enforcement agency to get an application for funds filed to the S.C. Victim Assistance Network.
When a law enforcement agency is helping a victim arrange for a cleaning, they file an application for funds from the network's emergency financial assistance fund.
There are virtually no requirements for an application to be approved by the network, Goodwin said.
"We usually turn them around pretty quick, especially with crime scene cleanup," she said.
The only real stipulation, she added, are that the crime or death has to have occurred within 90 days. The network also offers cleaning services for suicides.
'Whatever's left behind'
There are at least a handful of organizations offering crime scene and biohazard cleaning in South Carolina, Aftermath Services among them.
Aftermath, which does business nationally and has four mobile units that rove the Carolinas, has tended to crime and death scenes across the state.
"We ... deal with whatever's left behind," said Keith Bosse, a technician and supervisor for Aftermath Services. "We go in with the mindset that we're there to help — to do whatever we can to help that family, and that's really what gets us through each job."
Aftermath itself tends to hear directly from the people looking to hire them, said spokeswoman Tina Bao.
The costs of these services vary depending on what exactly needs to be done. Aftermath technicians have completed jobs for as little as several hundred dollars and as much as tens of thousands of dollars, Bao said.
While there is no official industry regulation or oversight in South Carolina, federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency largely regulate the company's various tasks, such as biohazard disposal.
A special license or registration to operate a biohazard cleanup service is needed in just three states: California, New York and Florida.
The road to becoming a crime scene cleaning technician varies from company to company.
For Aftermath, the process consists of a physical examination, 30 hours of online training with OSHA, a month of classwork and a month of on-the-job training supervised by experienced technicians. The technicians at Aftermath are recertified each year.
What most don't realize about the technicians, workers said, is just how involved their processes are.
It's not as simple as walking into a scene, mopping up a mess and calling it a day, Aftermath technicians said. There's intensive subsurface cleaning to be done, flooring to be torn out, crevices to be decontaminated, pathogens and toxic chemicals to be eradicated.
"Probably the biggest misconception people have is that we're more like a CSI group," said Tom Waller, a technician and supervisor for Aftermath. "The reality is our company is all about helping the family. (We'll take) whatever extremes we have to take to get the family through this trying time."
At any scene, the technicians strive for near-anonymity. About a mile before the white Dodge van rolls up, the crew pulls over and obscures any visible logos on the vehicle.
"The general public doesn't know we really exist unless we're on a higher-profile (scene)," Bosse said. "We're here as a resource we hope you never have to use. ... But if you do, there are people that specialize in this type of area that can come and help you."
After each job, when the technicians are back on the road, they talk among themselves. Unpacking their performance on the job, how they feel and what they would do differently.
Then it's on to the next job.