His 15 Minutes

Cleaning up on violent deaths

In America, the paths to fame are many and varied.
There's sports: "I wrestled in high school, and I surfed some. But I wasn't a star, y'know?" says Neal Smither, squatting in jeans, a parka, and a baseball cap.

There's politics: "I didn't have the patience -- I'm a Type A personality to the extreme," he explains.

There's movie stardom: "I don't think I could do it," Smither demurs.
There's rock stardom: "I played the sax in high school, but that's about it," he says.

Instead, Smither achieved fame the hard way: He scraped human feces, skin, innards, and dried bodily fluids from the walls of people's homes. He called television stations, newspapers, and radio stations suggesting that his odd janitorial specialty -- cleaning up after natural deaths, murders, and suicides -- would make good copy. He learned to casually toss off appalling details of a suicide's aftermath while on the air. He steeped himself in the lore of public relations.

This humble enterprise has indeed brought Smither fame. He's earned guest spots on radio talk shows from San Francisco to Boston; feature stories in daily newspapers, syndicated columns, and on wire services; and ample local television coverage.

Smither has managed to achieve this glory in part because, when Bay Area residents choose to go, they often do it in ways that are, well, kinda cool.

Take the jilted lover from San Ramon who last year learned his ex had embarked on a three-month business trip.

"The ex-boyfriend lets himself into her house, gets into her bed, and blows his brains out," Smither recalls, as a pair of his gas-masked workers remove stuffed plastic bags from a Benicia motel room. "No one finds him until she comes home. So the rats were eating the body. It was just god-awful. We had to take a wall out, because he melted into the wall. It was pretty bad. But she didn't care. She didn't care at all."

Even your ordinary, shotgun-to-the-head sort of demise can be interesting, because after a high-powered firearm destroys a body at close range, figuring out exactly what happened can pose an intellectually compelling puzzle.

"I think they're all pretty interesting, especially suicides, because you're trying to figure out how the hell they did it," Smither explains, adjusting his hands to hold an imaginary rifle below his chin. "You know, like a shotgun: They may have sat right against the wall, but you can guarantee there's blood on the other walls, all over the place. So it's pretty fascinating to try to figure out exactly what they've done."

What the resident of the motel room in Benicia had done was pretty obvious. The barricaded door, the dozens of empty liquor bottles, and the bathroom full of bloody feces told a sad, if cinematic, tale.

"They get to a certain point, their liver goes, and everything melts and just comes out," Smither explains, motioning at one of his men to throw away a clean-looking, but porous, lampshade. "He locked himself in here for three months and drank himself to death: Leaving Las Vegas, man."

The work itself is exactly as mundane as ordinary janitorial labor. At the motel, Smither and his two hired hands hauled away furniture and other detritus, ripped out carpet, scrubbed and disinfected floors for the better part of a day. Smither was working in the rain with a severe flu -- you can't call in sick from your own business.

But the artless, affable Smither says he's having a blast, just the same. He figures he can keep his run of fame going with a fresh news hook he's discovered: Recently passed state legislation makes it a crime to clean up after a gory death scene unless you have a Trauma Scene Waste Management License. In other words, if a Californian without this license kills someone, then scrubs up the mess, he commits two crimes.

With this new pitch, Smither hopes to ride another wave of radio shows, television news, and maybe an article or two. Given his energy and acumen, he should have no trouble.

"It's a good ego boost if nothing else -- 'Hey, tell everyone you know to listen to it.' I enjoy it. I do not regret it at all, and it's so far ahead of where I thought it would be at this point that I'm not really worried anymore," Smither says of his $100,000-per-year operation, Crime Scene Cleaners Inc. "There's 37,000 suicides in the western 13 states last year, and that's just suicides. If I can get just 2 percent of that, I'm happy.

 
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