Ray and Louise Barnes have found success in a business that's not for the faint of heart -- mopping up after murders, suicides and other deadly deeds

THE CLEANUP CREW

March 03, 1996|By Philip Hosmer

Over a quick cup of coffee at their kitchen table, Ray and Louise Barnes do an inventory to make sure they have all the supplies they'll need for their workday.

Body bags? Check.

Disinfectant spray? Got it.

Latex gloves? Packed.

Solution for digesting blood and odor? Two jugs, ready to go.

Containers for infectious medical waste? In the truck.

A stretcher? Just in case.

The Barneses have just been called to the scene of a murder-suicide in South Baltimore -- an elderly man shot his sister and then turned the gun on himself. It's the Barneses' job to clean up the blood and other mess in the house. A gruesome task at best, but just another day at the office for Ray and Louise Barnes.

The Harford County couple are the creators and owners of Crime Scene Clean-Up Inc., a business venture that's flourishing in the violent '90s. Born of ever-rising crime rates, the firm has carved out its own grisly market niche since its beginning in early 1994. It specializes in mopping up after murders, suicides and decomposed remains.

During their rounds, the Barneses have wiped brain matter out of a car's ashtray, collected body parts scattered along railroad tracks, and cleaned up a pool of blood so large that a house's floorboards had to be torn up. Since police and fire officials are not responsible for cleaning up after a crime scene, and maid services normally won't deal with blood and other infectious waste, the Barneses have stepped in to fill a business void that's not for the faint of heart.

"A lot of people would say I'm a ghoul for doing this," says Mr. Barnes. "But I'm not pale and clammy and hunched over like some freak. I'm very much into life. It's a necessary service, and I am able to provide it."

The Barneses have cleaned up after a number of the major killings in Baltimore in the past two years: the Guilford case in which an elderly couple were beaten to death by their grandson, the Woodlawn auto crash in which five pedestrians died, and the vehicle bombing in an Essex shopping center parking lot that took the lives of a family of five.

In an average day, Crime Scene Clean-Up responds to between one and four calls. The charge is an average of $1,000 per crime scene. The Barneses usually get calls from a victim's family or from property owners. Most clients are referred by police departments.

Mr. Barnes, 33, describes his business as "somewhere between a funeral parlor and a maid service." In fact, the business is a marriage of the couple's former occupations -- he used to drive a hearse for a funeral home and Louise Barnes, 32, had her own housecleaning business.

From their modest rancher in Fallston, the Barneses operate a firm that employs six people. He is president of the company; she is vice president. Their house, on a quiet side street, would be non-descript except for the bright-red converted ambulance parked in the driveway. The vehicle is emblazoned with their logo (a large fingerprint), their 800 telephone number and the words "24 hour service."

Though the company is still small, it has begun to attract media attention, some from abroad. In one report, Mr. Barnes was dubbed "the Godfather of Gore" and Mrs. Barnes a "June Cleaver for the '90s." They accept the ghoulish labels in good humor, just as they accept that their business' survival is dependent on the continuing occurrence of violent crime. Cleaning up after murder and mayhem is what pays the bills and puts food on the table at the Barneses' house.

The couple say, however, that there is an essentially altruistic nature to their business: Crime Scene Clean-Up provides grieving family members with an important service -- performing tasks that would be emotionally shattering to those already devastated by tragedy.

Mr. Barnes got the idea for the business while working as a forensic investigator with the state medical examiner's office. His job there was to determine the circumstances and causes of deaths. Victims' families would often ask him who was going to clean up the bloody mess at a crime scene.

"I told them that cleaning up was not the responsibility of the medical examiner's office or of the police," Mr. Barnes says. Many families were forced, for lack of an alternative, to endure the additional trauma of cleaning up the evidence of their loved ones' death.

In the spirit of classic American entrepreneurship, Mr. Barnes saw a demand for a service that wasn't available and set out to meet that demand. In just over a year, he had enough business to quit his day job with the medical examiner's office and devote himself full time to Crime Scene Clean-Up.

And in the spirit of classic American business expansion, Mr. Barnes is now setting his sights on opening Crime Scene Clean-Up franchises all over the world. A Philadelphia branch is slated to open this month, and Mr. Barnes has received more than 100 phone calls from potential franchisees since he started his business two years ago.

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