Cashing in on crime | June 5, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - June 5, 2009

Cashing in on crime

Alamo man finds his niche in crime scene cleanup

by Geoff Gillette

"Hi, my name is Neal. I'm into death."

This is the greeting offered by Neal Smither, the mastermind behind Crime Scene Cleaners Inc., one of the largest such cleaning operations in Northern California. Smither is talking to a group of students from St. Joseph Notre Dame High School. An after-school program called CSI-Alameda has requested a tour of the company's Oakland headquarters.

That cavalier, tongue-in-cheek greeting is line with the way Smither approaches the grim business of mopping up in the aftermath of violent events, be they crime or calamity.

"It's the best way to get the word out there," he tells the students. "We play on the shock value. When you see my truck you're going to to, 'Whoa!' And you're going to tell people you saw me."

The business of death and the cleanup of mortal remains isn't exactly where the lean, 42-year-old Alamo man expected himself to be.

"I was in mortgage banking for Countrywide," he said. "They closed down my division so I was like, 'Now what?'"

The plan was heading toward the mortuary business, but Hollywood altered Smither's plans.

"I was sitting watching 'Pulp Fiction' and they shot the guy in the car and they brought the Wolf character in to clean it up and for me it was kind of an epiphany. I was like, 'Wow that's genius.' I can do that," he said.

In June 1996, Smither started Crime Scene Cleaners. At the time, he said, there were very few other people working at the job. "There were a few guys out there, but it wasn't their main job. It was more like a weird sideline job where they could make a little extra money," he explained.

Smither said he started off by going to the mortuaries and trying to get some business that way, but he had very little luck there. "Most of the mortuary guys just thought I was a nut, so I went to the cops and started trying to develop them," he said.

Working with the police was the spark that started the business moving, but even so Smither said he needed to work slowly and grow his client base.

"I undersold everyone else. No matter what they needed, the price was always $50. If it was a car, no matter what the condition, it was $50."

Offering to do the work was only half the battle, the other half being knowing how to do the work.

"I didn't know a darned thing about this. I was just going in and using household cleaners, store-bought stuff. It wasn't until my third job that I really decided I needed to get serious with this," he said.

The job involved cleaning up after a suicide in an apartment complex in the Grand Lake area. The man had killed himself on the hide-a-bed in his living room.

"It was middle summer and it was hotter than hell," he recalled. "When I tipped the couch up on end to get it out of there it just released a torrent of body fluids that I was not prepared for at all. I wasn't wearing protective gear, I was barely wearing gloves. It freaked me out. It was noxious, I've never smelled anything like that before."

After that he started wearing more protective clothing, as well as a respirator. He studied the products available for cleaning up blood and other fluids, making sure he had the items that would work best.

"I researched, I made sure I knew what I needed to know so I could be ready," he said.

Smither grew the business through a combination of smart, savvy networking and a blatant hucksterism not seen since the days of Barnum and Bailey.

"It's a fine line," he laughs, "but you gotta have an edge to you to get it done. The more they knew of me, the more business I would get."

Smither's in-your-face style and willingness to throw himself into any situation led to more and more jobs from the police, as well as developing relationships within the press. This led over time to two big breaks that put the fledgling company over the top. The first was a national contract with an undisclosed hotel chain to provide cleanup services. The second was the media blitz surrounding the 1997 suicides of the Heaven's Gate Cult in San Diego County.

"I was extremely new when that hit. I went down there on a chance and was able to talk my way in and get mattresses out," he said. "I did it for free. I didn't make a dime on that job, but it really gave me something to talk about. I could say, 'Hey, we did Heaven's Gate.' That's the biggest thing anyone had seen. That allowed me to get a lot of press."

The exposure resulted in articles about the business in national magazines like Spin, as well as offers from Hollywood.

"I did some consulting for Michael Bay on a project called 'Gory Details.' I was optioned to do some consulting for another movie, 'Sunshine Cleaners,' but I broke that option to do some other stuff," he said.

The growth of the company forced some tough decisions from Smither. Initially, he said, he wanted to create franchises all over the country. And in the early days, he worked on that, traveling most of the year and setting up operations in several major cities around the U.S.

"I wanted to be everywhere. I wanted to be the McDonald's of blood," he joked. "But I just realized that I couldn't travel 320 days a year."

That hasn't stopped him from continuing to build contacts and grow both the cleanup business and a second death-related business transporting bodies.

"I started up a business called First Call. Now it's called Alacritas. We have contracts with coroner's offices all over the state, sheriff's offices, mortuaries. We've built our own freezer storage unit. That's if there's a body that they don't know where it's supposed to go, like for an indigent. We can store them here until they let us know where it needs to go," he said.

But Smither didn't limit himself to blood, gore and death. Realizing that there was a wide array of services he could provide, he allowed his company to expand so that now it also provides assistance for meth lab decontamination, squad car cleanup, hantavirus prevention, mold spore remediation and property cleanup.

After 13 years of cleaning up scenes of violence, Smither remains excited by the business but knows that eventually he's going to move on. So what comes next?

"I want to run a mom-and-pop doughnut shop," he said. "I want a business that I can build up, work it, run it."

He added, "I would like something that doesn't have employees, that would allow me to work with my kids and teach them to work."

Regardless of what the next step is, Smither said he is confident he will succeed. "Look, I may not be as educated as other people but, plain and simple, I'll do it because I'll outwork everyone else."


Like this comment
Posted by Leslie
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2010 at 9:14 am

I used to work for Neal...He is definately about his business. I have no doubt that he would be successful at whatever it is he puts his mind to.

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Danville
on Jun 10, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Wow, Neal - 'man alive' hah! Good for you on a good idea and continuing to work. Great article, and if you are looking for dougnut shop ideas, I just saw something on the news about designer doughnuts... unique flavors...sounded interesting - fresh old fashioned doughnuts. I bet that would be a great success.

But before you leave the dead clean-up gig - write a movie!

Like this comment
Posted by Emily
a resident of Alamo
on Jun 14, 2011 at 1:00 pm

WOW! Wonderful to see the American dream at work. Not the line of work I would want to go into but glad that he's out there if I ever do. Thanks for providing this wonderful service!