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Death’s Angels Meet the Women Who Clean Up Dead People

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A COUPLE OF weeks ago, a man possibly impersonating a Mormon stabbed a woman repeatedly when she opened her front door. She didn’t die right away, and she tried to escape. But the man dragged her back up the steps and shot her. She bled all over the ground and inside the house and died. The end.

Actually, that wasn’t the end. Someone had to clean up the murderer’s mess. Meet Theresa Borst, 39, and Stacy Haney, 33. They clean up gore for a living. And they’re really happy about it. “We keep people from being traumatized twice,” they say in unison, as if they repeat that explanation daily.

Borst used to be a house cleaner. She’s married with three kids. Haney was laid off from her 11-year job as a Boeing engineer. She’s also married and has two kids. They both have big, red hair, live in rural Snohomish County, and seem nothing like mobster handyman Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction–the man who orchestrated a cleanup after John Travolta shot some guy in a car.

These women are cheerful and fun to be around. They’re best friends who keep track of each other’s menstrual cycles. They keep secrets from their husbands. (Like the time they were at a Belltown restaurant after a job, and asked the waiter for a good place to go dancing in Seattle. He sent them to Capitol Hill’s Neighbours without telling them it was a gay bar.) Borst makes hair appointments for Haney, and locks up their shotguns and pistols so Haney’s young kids can’t get at them.

The women met each other in 1994 when they were volunteers with Snohomish County Search and Rescue, where they helped find people who were lost in the mountains. During a search-and-rescue class about crime scenes, they asked the teacher, “Who cleans up after a crime?” He told them the families did, since there were no professional trauma-scene cleanup services around there at the time. So, with about $25,000 from an inheritance, Borst and Haney opened Bio Clean LLC, a bio-recovery company based in Marysville, 25 miles north of Seattle. Mostly at the behest of home, apartment, and business owners, the company cleans up after violent crimes, suicides, drug lab busts, and bad cases of diarrhea.

To do this, Borst and Haney became trained to handle biological waste, and were certified with the state health department to clean up methamphetamine labs. They bought all sorts of crazy ozone machines, powerful deodorants, and sheet-rock- destroying tools. They bought a company van, put their Bio Clean name on it, and filled it with bio-tubs for transporting blood and body parts to the medical waste facility. They hired four employees to help them work so they could be on call 24 hours a day all over Washington. After work, they smell like pickled, rotten chicken. (One time the smell was so bad on their street clothes after a job that they changed outside in the garage and ran into the house naked at 3:00 a.m.)

Bio Clean’s first job was a suicide in Edmonds. Borst and Haney walked in with respirators, dust masks, latex gloves, chemicals, cleaning machines, and their Tyveks (a one-piece suit with a hood and booties, which protects against toxic chemicals and hazardous biological materials). They were nervous. “We took a deep breath and walked in and just went for it, cutting apart a [bloody] couch.”

That mess turned out to be relatively small. It only took a couple of hours to clean. However, Bio Clean’s assignments can take days or weeks to complete. For instance, try cleaning up a 45-day-old decomposed body that dripped through the floor, or getting rid of a maggot infestation. During the busy summer months, Borst and Haney frequently work 18-hour shifts, clocking in three jobs per day.

There are roughly 200 companies like Bio Clean across the country, according to Ron Gospodarski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA). But most of them come and go quickly, because the need for them hasn’t been well defined. To legitimize the industry, ABRA is pushing for national legislation which would mandate that only properly trained and licensed companies can clean up crime scenes and other hazardous waste sites. California passed such a law in 1998.

Washington state doesn’t require certified companies to clean up death sites. Health department certification is only required for drug lab cleanups. Employees need blood-borne pathogen training before cleaning up a death at work, but they don’t necessarily get it. Individuals can legally clean up after dead family members or friends. There are fewer than 10 bio-recovery companies in Washington, according to Borst.

Bio Clean is well known by police officers throughout the state. However, those detectives refuse to talk with The Stranger about Bio Clean. “We just don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be talking about the crime scenes in any way that discusses the nature of the crime, especially violent crime,” says Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean O’Donnell. “We’re talking about body pieces, and blood, and the whole bit. It’s really a personal issue.”

In fact, after receiving a phone call from The Stranger, King County police officers lectured Haney and Borst for talking to the media about crime-scene cleanups, Haney says. They shouldn’t “exploit the families,” the cops told them.

Unlike the cops, Borst and Haney seem eager to discuss the taboo topic of death, as well as their own disgusting memories. Two weeks ago, while calmly sipping glasses of white wine in a log-cabin-style bar off I-5 in Marysville, they talked about handling blood and guts and traumatized families. They’ve found eyeballs and teeth and mustaches. Borst recalls picking up someone’s entire face once. She thought it was a mask. It wasn’t. Some guy had shot his face off. When she noticed the blood dripping down her arm, she screamed.

The hardest things to clean out, they say, are the maggots. “When they totally invade a home, that’s the hardest to get rid of,” says Haney. “When you’re standing outside the front door, you can actually hear them from outside. They’re crunching. That’s when you know it’s going to be really bad.”

Maggots are gross, but vomit is the one thing that makes Borst and Haney sick. “We do a lot of police cars, where people vomited, and it’s alcohol and vomit and whatever they ate, and it’s sat overnight, sometimes two or three days,” Haney explains. “You’ve got to clean it up, and it’s just really, really difficult. Just the texture, through your gloves.”

The one thing Borst and Haney are reluctant to reveal is what the job pays. Borst gives a broad fee range of $500 to $20,000. The average “contained” suicide, staged on a bed for example, costs about $1,100 or $1,200. They also don’t like to share specifics, like which chemicals–various kinds of phenols and other disinfectants–work best on blood or urine.

Borst and Haney have become confident, even boastful about their work. Property managers sometimes call them in when another bio-recovery company botches a job, Haney says. Bio Clean backs up Haney’s bragging with an impressive portfolio, featuring gory “before” shots and sparkling “after” shots.

They even seem eerily jazzed about cleaning up blood and guts. From their perspective, it’s just a job. They happily share some of the incidental facts they’ve learned: maggots help medical examiners determine how long someone’s been dead; it takes about two weeks for a corpse to liquefy and drip through the floor; the chemical that cops use to track footprints is carcinogenic.

“It’s such a feel-good job,” says Borst, who has had the occasional nightmare about a man trapped in a bio-tub in the company van. “I mean, people need us; we help them.” Families of dead people think of the pair as heroes, according to Borst, and sometimes send Christmas cards for a year or two after using Bio Clean.

allie@thestranger.com

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