Real Crime Blog

Blood-Spattered Wedding Gowns, Murder Weapons and Tears: A Crime-Scene Cleanup Expert Tells All

After the deed is done, the detectives have gone home, and the body has left the building, the crime scene remains. Often in a private home where bereaved family members may live, these scenes require specialized clean-up, a sensitive touch and a strong constitution. Michael J. Tillman, founder of Amdecon Crime Scene Cleanup in Jacksonville, FL, says 20 years in the field have taught him how to walk the line between sensitive, personal care for a victim’s family and maintaining a sense of remove so he can still come to work the next day.

Real Crime: How did you get started?
Tillman: I had the idea in 1999 after I read an article about how detectives were volunteering to do the cleanup after-hours to help families. I thought it wasn’t right for families to have to clean this stuff up. When I started the company, people would say, ‘Don’t the police clean up after a crime scene or suicide?’ Of course, they don’t. It’s not their job.

What are the most difficult scenes to handle?
For me, the hardest jobs to clean up are scenes including children and animals. For example, the guy that shot his girlfriend’s dog because they got in an argument.

I had one technician who had to quit—not because of what he saw or what happened; he just could not handle the smells. Everyone’s slightly different. You must have the ability to detach from the situation, sort of like an EMT or firefighter. If you can’t emotionally detach, you’ll end up getting hurt psychologically yourself, and then you can’t help anyone. I’m an animal lover, so I can’t go out myself to any scenes where animals have been hurt, like in one instance, [where] some stray dogs got into a hotel laundry room and were shot.

Do you work with police officers?
By the time we get there, everyone else has already been there—the EMT, the body transport, the medical examiner or coroner. They show up because they have to look at every death as a potential crime. We are not allowed in there until—the technical term is—’the scene is released by law enforcement.’ A lot of newbies and people who watch detective shows assume we’re working alongside detectives.

That being said, many times we have found evidence, such as murder weapons and IDs. We did a job where a man in a hotel killed a call girl. There was no blood; he strangled her, but everything was covered in fingerprint powder. The hotel hired us to come in and clean that up. The bed had been moved and, in sliding it back in place, I found a purse and realized it was full. It turned out that it was the victim’s purse. Someone had moved the mattress and covered it up. We found the baseball bat someone used to beat an elderly woman to death. It had rolled under a bed. We find spent bullets. With one suicide, we were [preparing to dispose of] a pillow and found the bullet in [it]. Then, we document where the evidence is and don’t go near that area. The police will come out. Or they’ll say, ‘We already have 26 spent bullets.’

Are there rules about how to deal with damaged items like rugs or furniture?
Yes and no. OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] protects the health and well-being of our employees. We are most often dealing with residences, so, for items that are considered biohazardous, it’s a real gray area. In some states—Texas, for example—all biomedical-waste disposal laws are written for health facilities. Some states have rules that these materials must be treated as biohazardous waste (and packed into a medical waste box for pickup. Those can cost $200 or more each). In California, you must register with the state and become a medical-waste practitioner.

But, in general, we use common sense. If you have a $5,000 couch with a drop of blood on it, you don’t have to dispose of the couch. We had a suicide in a bedroom. Blood and some tissue got on a wedding gown. Most people think you aren’t going to be able to save it. But we knew it meant something to the surviving wife, so we used an enzymatic cleaner for blood to save that. It’s about judgement calls—especially for items with sentimental value. If there’s a wedding album with blood on the cover but it’s okay inside, we’ll remove and dispose of the cover and keep the contents.

We use the principle of ‘friendly blood’ and ‘stranger blood.’ In one case, a 16-year-old girl went in and beat her father to death while he was taking a nap in bed. I was dealing with his wife, who was totally out of it at this point. I was going to dispose of the mattress, but she said, ‘That’s the last gift he bought me.’ There were also unopened, wrapped Christmas gifts that were covered in blood. In that case, it was friendly blood. You know the health of each person. There was no health risk to her, as opposed to someone who broke in through a window and cut himself and left stains. That is stranger blood.

What is the most awful thing you’ve ever had to deal with?
Several jobs come to mind. One guy and his wife were having issues. She was a neat freak—I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. In the home, everything was nice and tidy and in its place. But there was a set of drums in the middle of the living room. They had some issues, I guess. He was drunk and he decided to kill himself with a circular saw. He cut himself all over and then walked all through the house spraying blood—except in the son’s room. Then he sat there playing the drums until he bled to death. The walls, everything, were covered.

There was a terrible one: An elderly lady had a son with drug and alcohol problems who was in and out of jail. He gets out of jail again and was living with his mother. The house had a glassed-in screened porch. The neighbors heard a bunch of glass breaking and saw broken glass. The cops walked in and he had beaten her to death and eviscerated her body.

Another one was a husband and wife in a small town who were having a hard time. The wife went down to the police department. The police and she were on the phone with him. He took their four or five little kids into the master bedroom closet and shot them all while she listened on the phone. He did it so she’d suffer the rest of her life.

A&E’s Real Crime gets closer to the people and the stories behind the crime headlines.

(Image: Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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