TAMPA — Marc Onesta has gotten dozens of calls about his billboards since they went up three months ago.
He has two of them — one in Tampa off Dale Mabry Highway and one in Clearwater on U.S. 19.
“Blood Clean Up: Crime Death Trauma,” they read. The red and yellow signs direct people to check out the website for his company, BioScene Cleanup.
“The boards aren’t designed to scare people,” Onesta said.
They are there to let people know who they can call after the police or paramedics leave and they are faced with the traumatic and potentially dangerous task of cleaning up after a deceased loved one.
“We try to stress having someone else do it,” Onesta said.
He and his small staff take a handful of calls a week, cleaning and disinfecting homes where someone has been killed, committed suicide or had a medical emergency that created a mess. They don special suits, gloves and masks to mop up blood and other body fluids, rip out carpet and dispose of furniture that now is considered a biomedical hazard.
It’s not a job a relative should have to do after losing a loved one, Onesta said. And he’s certified with the state to safely handle, transport and dispose of medical waste.
He started a similar business cleaning up crime scenes about 11 years ago in Ohio. When he got sick of the cold, he sold that company and moved to Florida. About two years ago, he formed BioScene Cleanup.
As he grows this business, he has been looking at ways to distinguish himself from all the other cleaning companies clamoring for a share of the crime scene cleanup market. The billboards, he said, seemed like a good idea. Already he has gotten dozens of calls about them from people who are simply curious about what exactly it is that he does every day.
“I realized that a lot of people were unaware that this service exists,” Onesta said.
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Crime scene cleanup companies aren’t hard to come by these days.
While only a handful existed about 20 years ago, they’ve popped up all over the country, and now there’s hardly enough work to go around in some areas, said Andrew Yurchuck CEO of New Jersey-based Bio-Clean and president of the board for the national American Bio-Recovery Association.
Twenty-one years ago, Yurchuck said, he “was trying to start a business that had no market.”
“Now it’s just become ridiculous,” he said.
The Florida Department of Health lists 18 “trauma scene cleanup” companies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties on its website.
Part of the increase in demand for such services comes from an awareness people didn’t have a couple decades ago of the dangers of blood-borne pathogens, Yurchuck said. Some businesses are started by people who don’t realize how difficult and technical the job can be.
It’s not like the 2008 movie “Sunshine Cleaning,” where actresses Amy Adams and Emily Blunt simply pour bleach over everything and haul bloodstained mattresses out to the trash, he said.
“Basically, a lot of people saw that and went, ‘Huh, I can do this,’ and started their businesses out of the back of their car,” Yurchuck said.
Crime scene cleanup businesses like that likely aren’t certified through the state or Yurchuck’s association and probably don’t do the work safely or properly, he said.
“Knowing what you’re doing and having the proper equipment is the biggest thing,” said Ryan Anthony, a managing member of Land o’Lakes-based Without a Trace, LLC. “The average person doesn’t have that.”
Anything that was directly exposed to blood or other fluids could be dangerous, he said. Some diseases and pathogens can live outside the body for a day or a week. Odors can permeate and linger in any soft, porous surface in the home.
And often, a crime scene cleanup can require demolition if flooring, drywall or appliances need to be ripped out and disposed of, Anthony said.
“That’s a big reason why people should hire a competent company,” he said.
Laura Spaulding, the owner of Tampa-based Spaulding Decon, has a licensed building contractor on her staff for just those kinds of jobs.
She and her team just finished a two-day job cleaning up after a man died of a heart attack in his bathroom and wasn’t found for about three weeks, she said. They had to rip out all the fixtures in the bathroom and will have to have their construction division replace them.
“The smell was horrible,” Spaulding said. “And on top of that he was a hoarder.”
Her company is unique because she is also qualified to clean up meth labs — another potentially dangerous job if done incorrectly. After law enforcement is done investigating at a meth house, her crews can go in and decontaminate the house, hotel or motel, which usually have toxic chemical residue on almost every surface.
“Some of the things we find in the meth labs are unbelievable,” Spaulding said.
On a recent job in Port Orange, the Spaulding team found two suitcases of meth hidden in an attic that the police missed while they were processing the scene. They had to stop the cleanup so the investigators could go back in and finish their work.
“It’s never boring, that’s for sure,” Spaulding said. “If you hate monotony, this is the job for you.”
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The business is a hard one to break into, Spaulding said.
She has been fortunate to grow her business from just one or two jobs a month when she started 10 years ago to about 10 calls a week now, she said. Spaulding Decon is now the largest crime scene cleanup company in Florida.
In just a few weeks, the paperwork will be finished to allow Spaulding to open franchises across the country, she said. She has even spoken with TV producers who want to follow her crews around on jobs where they clean up after hoarders.
But despite her success, the hardest part of running a crime scene cleanup business still is making people aware that the services exist and can help when tragedy strikes.
“People have this false perception that the police handle it,” Spaulding said.
A former Kansas City, Missouri, police officer, she worked a homicide case on Christmas Day in 2005 that propelled her into the field she’s in now. An elderly woman who lived in the house where the murder occurred had no idea what to do to clean up. Spaulding rolled up her sleeves and did it herself, then billed the woman’s insurance for the service.
She started her business because she saw a need for it, she said.
Anthony agrees. “Until somebody needs it, they don’t think about it.”
His business, which is about two years old, sometimes sees only a handful of calls a month. Sometimes, he gets three or four calls a week.
Most of his employees also have second jobs to help make ends meet, Anthony said. But they continue with the cleanups, he said, because they appreciate being able to help someone who needs it.
Onesta, who has spent years and thousands of dollars growing his business, said the job isn’t as easy as people might think. It’s a dirty job that requires skill, caution and compassion, he said.
“A lot of people can do the cleaning, but it’s more the emotional aspect of dealing with people under stressful circumstances,” Onesta said.
Besides driving business and traffic to his website, Onesta’s billboards are designed to lend credibility to his business and let people know there is someone local who can help them out.
He doesn’t take it personally when people tell them they never want to see him again once he’s finished a job.
“Nobody ever wants to meet someone like me for what I do,” Onesta said.