Death's Cleaning Lady

Betty Brown mops up after violent loss.

Betty Brown crime-scene cleanup technician
Betty Brown takes care of what the grim reaper leaves behind.
Betty Brown takes care of what the grim reaper leaves behind.
A pile of red slop, like the insides of a pumpkin, sits on the blood-splattered kitchen floor.

Betty Brown points at a few pearly white chunks in a photograph of the mess. "Those are pieces of brain."

She goes on to describe the murder scene as casually as she would her grandson's birthday.

It's just another day at the office for Betty, a crime-scene cleanup technician who operates out of her Eastlake home. After the coroner takes away the body, she cleans up what's left, including blood, brain chunks, and rotted flesh.

Betty's house is the type that children sprint past on Halloween. Unlike the sunny, working-class homes that surround it, her box-frame home is sided with blackened boards that look as if they've been kissed by fire.

Up a set of concrete steps stands Brown, a ghostly, flowing presence, her jet-black hair framing a well-lined portrait of hard life. A Doberman snarls and butts his head against the flimsy screen door behind her.

She fell into her grim trade by accident, she explains, welcoming a new acquaintance into her cluttered office, a mess of papers, ashtrays, and Kiss cassette tapes.

Betty had been in casket-sales with her husband. When he died of colon cancer three years ago, it only made her more ambitious.

One day, when she was searching the internet for information on how long it takes a dead body to decompose, she stumbled upon a crime-scene cleanup company in Texas. The description piqued her interest, so she fired off an e-mail to the owner, Ken Brown.

Ken, a bearish Iraq War veteran, was used to queries like this. He knew that few people have the stomach for his line of work. He was used to training retired cops and ex-military -- and even some of them couldn't handle it.

Ken tells the story of a trainee he took to clean a kitchen where the corpse of an elderly woman had decomposed. Ken picked the corpse's wig up off the linoleum and her maggot-covered scalp fell out. The trainee vomited everywhere.

"I said, 'You're cleaning that up,'" says Ken, chuckling.

Ken didn't figure an elderly woman like Betty was a good candidate for cleaning scalps off floors. So he decided he would scare her off with a picture of a head that had been splattered by a shotgun.

"I didn't think she could do it," Ken says in a gravelly drawl. "I figured she'd be upchucking everywhere."

But Betty didn't bat an eye. "I said, 'OK, I still think I could do it,'" she says.

So Ken agreed to add Betty's name to a training group that his brother, Roger, was running in Cleveland.

The weeklong course covered everything from the safe handling of blood to how to keep from throwing up.

For the final exam, Roger set up a mock murder scene, defiling a mattress with a bucket of blood and brain chunks he had picked up from a slaughterhouse.

Betty scooped up the chum as calmly as if it were dog poo.

At the end of the week, Roger presented her with her diploma, making her a certified Crime Scene Techician.

Now it was time for the real thing. Betty placed an ad in the Yellow Pages, created a website, and waited.

Three months later, she got her first call.

It was from a Housing and Urban Development worker in Elyria.

A morbidly obese woman from the projects had died on her bed. Hundreds of pounds of flesh had rotted for weeks before being discovered by the woman's family.

Betty girded her stomach and drove to the scene. Inside, she opened the door to the woman's bedroom and was assaulted by the odor of death.

"If you smell a dead, rotting body, you don't forget it," she says, her nose wrinkling.

Betty scrubbed every inch of that room -- walls, tile floor, even the window sills -- till it was so clean you could change a baby's diaper on it.

Betty seems to anticipate the next question: "So what was the worst scene you ever cleaned up?"

She doesn't hesitate a moment.

The call came from an attorney who was handling the estate of a man who had decomposed in his home, she begins. This time the body had gone five months before being discovered. By the time Brown got there, the old man's corpse had fused to the floor, his liquified insides having leaked through to the wood.

"When they removed the body, his hair was matted into the floor, " Betty remembers.

The stench was so potent, she had to wear a respirator and smear Vick's VapoRub under her nose to keep from passing out. She and four assistants spent five days at the home, ripping out and replacing the floor and subfloor that the corpse had soaked.

As you may imagine, Betty's job makes for interesting family get-togethers. Her nine grandkids have mixed emotions about Granny's grisly work. Her 17-year-old grandson thinks it's "a bit spooky."

But Betty is providing a useful service, says Cleveland Police spokesman Lieutenant Tom Stacho.

"It really is important to have someone out there that can take this burden off of families. Could you imagine -- your family member meets some untimely demise in a violent manner, and then you have to clean it up?"

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