Instagram’s New Stars: Crime Scene Cleanup Specialists
Jake Paul and Kim Kardashian, meet Neal, the guy who mops up people’s guts.
America’s true crime fascination has taken a new, gory turn on Instagram.
Many of the images are exactly what you’d think: blood, chunks of flesh, brains, and apocalyptic messages written in shit on prison walls. Then come the “after” pictures of spotless tiles—these new social media stars are crime scene cleaners, the people who clean up the worst messes in America.
Why would anyone want to look at mattresses caked with the ooze of decomposing bodies?
“People love to see the aftermath,” said Neal Smither, 52, proprietor of Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc, based in Richmond, California, and its Instagram page @crimescenecleanersinc. “They’re gore freaks... They have a certain curiosity we just seem to fit.”
Smither’s page has grown to 378,000 followers since 2014 on the viral success of pictures of bloody floors, the residue of gunshots, and maggots. He said he started it because “what I do is really fucking interesting. Death is the last mystery. It’s unsolvable. There’s a human need to explain death,” though he doesn’t consider himself a priest or a therapist, just a janitor.
“Most people aren’t exposed to this. When we get a call from the cops, they lift the crime scene tape. We get to go right up on the crime scene and gore, and no one gets to do that,” he said.
The core of Smither’s business is fairly straightforward: a law enforcement agency, a business, or a private person will call him in the wake of a crime, a death, or a messy accident. Assuming law enforcement has already investigated, he and his staff will haul over industrial-strength cleaning materials to clear the property of fluids, waste, gases, pests, and biohazards to restore it to its former state.
Now social media has become an attractive aspect of his company; he sells merch branded with “HOMICIDE, SUICIDE, ACCIDENTAL DEATH” and his 1-800 number, though he says they’re not a significant source of revenue. Two potential buyers, one “successful self-employed individual” and Smither’s own banker, have expressed interest in acquiring his business, mentioning his Instagram page and merch as competitive advantages.
Smither isn’t the only Instagram account capitalizing on the grisly leftovers of death. Spaulding Decon (short for decontamination), a Tampa-based crime scene cleanup company that goes by @crimescenecleaning and has gained 107,000 followers since 2016, posts similar photos of the aftermath of bodily decomposition. Laura Spaulding, the 45-year-old owner, said fans have recognized her in bars.
“People love true crime stuff—that’s why Law and Order is so popular. Everyone wants to figure out who did it and what happened. They’re asking the same questions in my comments,” Spaulding said. “They want to know what led that person to commit suicide or die and not be found them for four months. It’s pure curiosity.”
Her pictures of decomposition have been her most popular.
“People just don’t understand how someone can die and not be discovered for so long.
They can’t believe how some people live,” she said.
Sometimes the fans become the clients. One of Spaulding Decon’s longtime Facebook followers, a sixtysomething woman in a suburb of Tampa, hired the company to clean out her filthy home in January. She was an animal hoarder and had been defecating in her living room amid a sea of trash for years, as had her horde of dogs. Authorities confiscated three of the sick animals and were preparing to condemn the house when Spaulding and her staff arrived. Their eyes watered from the ammonia wafting up from the layers of feces. But during the cleanup, the hoarder seemed excited they were there. She asked Spaulding, “Will I make it on your Facebook page?”
(Spaulding didn’t post photos of the woman’s house on Facebook, not wanting to subject her to the comments, but the pictures did appear on Instagram because Spaulding guessed an elderly woman wouldn’t use that social network.)
These crime-related accounts are, in effect, the younger siblings of well-documented medical accounts like Ms. Angemi, 1.8 million followers, or @medicaltalks, 2.7 million followers, which post photos of open wounds or rare diseases.
The popularity of these graphic accounts runs contrary to Instagram’s reputation as full of only the glossiest fare, from cosmetics to the cosmetically-enhanced. They’re memorable, if nothing else, and often mesmerizing; I had a nightmare that featured the black ooze in a @crimescenecleanersinc post about a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Revulsion, it seems, can win just as many followers as beauty and fame.
We’ve seen this show before, of course. CSI captured the imagination of millions on TV by integrating lurid details into crime fiction. Now crime scene photographs and forensics, stripped of the story but far more direct, are filling the show’s role on social media.
A cadre of accounts focusing on forensics and run by law enforcement personnel hew closer to CSI than their cleanup counterparts, tending more towards the educational than the sickening. They mix both explanations of scientific techniques and photos of blood spatter to the delight of their fans: @iheartforensics (59,900 followers), @instantforensics (53,300 followers), @forensic_tattoo (81,900 followers), and @crimescenelife (19,700 followers), for example.
Martin van Oosterbaan, a 42-year-old senior forensic investigator with the Dutch Police Department in Rotterdam, has run @instantforensics since 2015. He and @iheartforensics work in the same department.
Will Dodds, a 50-year-old police sergeant and forensic investigator in British Columbia who runs @forensicsworld (9,800 followers), said that the work he does isn’t glamorous, so he doesn’t glorify gore.
“I’ve seen all of this stuff in real life, and the bottom line is that I can never unsee some of the things I’ve seen, and I wish I hadn’t seen some of them,” he said. “I don’t need to show that blood and gore and pain to other people.”
He mentioned a still-unsolved case of a young woman, murdered and left in the woods six or so years ago. He spent a lot of time with her, and the memory is still fresh.
“She had been left out for days, but she hadn’t decayed to a point of being unrecognizable. It was just enough to see some insect damage. Her eyes were gone,” he said.
He posts tamer pictures that demonstrate a forensic principal, like one of a car crash where he was able to match a branch to its parent tree to disprove the driver’s story. The underlying principal, he said, is physical match—showing that two separate pieces of something were previously one thing that was then broken apart. His target audience is his fellow professionals and forensics students rather than the general thrill-seeking populace.
Just as CSI triggered a nationwide interest in forensics, crime Instagram accounts have ignited an interest in the previously unknown field of crime scene cleaning. Spaulding said she received 100-200 messages per day, most of which are questions about how to get into the profession. She said she’s been inundated with résumés, and her pool of recruits has ballooned alongside the popularity of her Instagram page. Most of the newbies can’t hack it, though, and the majority of people don’t make it past the “working interview”—a trial run at a real crime scene.
“I’m finding that they’re not quality employees. They’re just the type that’s enamored with death,” she said.
A DIFFERENT MODEL OF ENGAGEMENT
Crime accounts are fit for Instagram in their own way. Social media stars often elicit engagement with a caption akin to “Comment if you’ve seen my latest video!” or a question for fans to answer. Instagram’s algorithmic feed boosts posts that receive both Likes and Comments, hence the incentive. Crime Instagrams command a similar response: followers exclaim in disgust and guess at what happened to the person who left behind the fluids in the photo.
It’s equal parts fascination and speculation: Smither’s followers go wild in the comments trying to fill in what’s left unsaid by the caption “Murder. Gunshot to the head” on a Christmas Eve photo of a pool of blood on a curb. He said he polices the comments for any accurate guesses and removes them, or may remove a post.
Crime accounts are continually navigating victim privacy. The majority of Smither’s clients don’t allow him to take photos. Spaulding includes a clause in her contract that allows her and her team to use any photos and videos taken at the scene for marketing materials, though she strips them of personally identifiable information and said she often doesn’t know the details of the crime herself. Dodds, the British Colombia sergeant, only uses photos he himself has taken during cases that have since been closed.
Internet commenters are known for writing cruel things to their idols, but, contrary to her account’s dark subject matter, Spaulding described her community of followers as empathetic and positive about the job she does. Roughly 80 percent of her followers are women, she said.
And the microcosm of true crime Instagrams is still growing. One fledgling account is trying to crowdsource information, rather than provide expertise, to solve cold cases. Rebekah Turner, who’s studying to be a forensic investigator in Milwaukee, has run @deathclues (7,400 followers) in her spare time since June 2018, posting photographs from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System captioned with what little is known about the disappearance or death. Her goal: solve the mystery, though she and her followers haven’t been successful yet.
“There’s such a resurgence of interest in true crime lately. It’s hot right now. Everybody loves to help solve a mystery,” she said. “And with these cases, they do feel something for these people.”