After five-year-old Keonu Franklin shot himself to death while playing with his step-uncle's gun on June 8, the house where it happened on Oakland's Edgemoor Place was a gory spectacle. A police officer handling the case in which 28-year-old Shawn Johnson was arrested for child endangerment and for being a felon in possession of a gun asked Fremont-based California Emergency Cleanup Services (CaliforniaEmergencyCleanup.org)for help.
One CECS staffer arrived first to remove all pictures from the walls and put them out of sight. "We like to go in there without knowing who the victim was," explains director Luciano Asmatey, who cleaned the Edgemoor house. Work goes more efficiently "if you don't try to analyze the scene, don't think, 'What took place here?' Just think: There's a family out there waiting to get back into this house. Let's give them some normalcy and leave them no visual reminders" of the violence.
"It was a small house, without much room but with lots of people coming in" to pay condolences. Asmatey knew none of the details. "But it was a sad scene anyway. Every family member was there." Later, he saw the case on the TV news: "They showed the child's face. That took a toll. I'm a parent."
As the nation's only nonprofit crime-scene cleaner, the volunteer-staffed group charges the victim's family nothing. Its technicians, most of whom have first-responder backgrounds and have themselves lost loved ones to suicide or homicide, wade into chaotic scenes beyond our wildest nightmares. They scrub, scrape, saw, and haul away effluent-soaked rugs, furniture, floorboards, and much more any hour of the day or night; they're on call 24/7.
The idea came after Asmatey's brother committed suicide in 2001. When the family sought help, he recalls, "Janitorial services all said, 'Heck, no.' So did maid services." Asmatey and his dad cleaned up, but he resolved to spare others the trauma. A UC Berkeley grad with a business degree who also heads a security company, he enlisted volunteers and launched the company in 2005.
It's been a brutal month, with eight cleanups on the weekend of August 11-12 alone. Some were extra-tough: The dead had gone unnoticed for a while. "After 24 hours, the body starts releasing gases," Asmatey says. "Basically, it's melting. The odor gets into the walls." Literally ... into. Ozone-generating machines sanitize the air, but the costliest part is hazardous-waste disposal. TV dramas, Asmatey says, make crime scenes look like just a few drops of blood. In real life, CECS hauls mattresses and other hazmat by the binload, and volunteers contribute out of their own pockets toward the $7,000 to $10,000 monthly disposal fees. Although for-profit cleanup services flourish, Asmatey has no plans to start charging: "I just wouldn't know how to say, 'Job done. Here's your key and here's the bill.'"
Hayward rapist: On August 10, a twenty-year-old woman left work and walked to the Hayward BART station. A man followed her and forced her into a car, drove her to a remote location, raped her, and eventually released her. BART detectives are mum on details while working the case, but "we have some pretty good leads," says spokesman Linton Johnson.
Knock, knock: Who's there? Scammers. Men keep appearing on South Berkeley doorsteps with sob stories, seeking cash. One claimed to have a hungry homeless family; the resident gave the man a new box of Cheerios, which he found, unopened, in his yard the next morning. ("Who throws away perfectly good Cheerios?" he asked.) Another claimed to need $13 for BART fare to reach a job interview. Another asked for taxi fare to reach a hospital where a loved one was a patient. Typically, having cased mailboxes, these visitors namedrop neighbors: "I'm a friend of Joe's." In Oakland's Laurel and Dimond districts, a fit hot guy cleverly calling himself John asks locals if they need anything hauled. Somehow, he gets them to pay in advance, then claims he'll get his tools, which are in his truck, which is around the corner ... and ...
The ones that got away: If you sit around wondering which businesses on Berkeley's University Avenue would be the best to rob oh, come on, of course you do! then the California State Automobile Association Office might be the last on your list. Yet on August 10, Luther Sweet gave it a go, with a gun. "There were only about thirty witnesses," chuckles Lieutenant Wes Hester. "Ten customers and twenty employees." Sweet fled with the stolen cash and checks through backyards on the 1700 block of Berkeley Way, trailing evidence like Hansel and Gretel that led cops to him after a short chase. That's the good news. After booking Sweet, Berkeley police sent the three-striker to Santa Rita Jail, where his parole hold went unnoticed, so he was inadvertently released after making bail. They're hunting for him ... again.
On August 12 at Cedar Street and LeRoy Avenue, Berkeley police nabbed a trio suspected in a recent series of North Berkeley daylight burglaries. Entering through open doors and windows, the thieves had stolen clothes, jewelry, and electronic devices. One suspect was released for lack of evidence. The next day: Whoops, more burglaries. More revelations. "We realized we'd let the bad guy go," Hester says. "So we're looking for him. We're confident that we're going to get him."
Oh, hell: What's a police force to do when the perpetrator is the Dark Lord? On August 6, a Walnut Creeker reported "receiving a threatening letter from an unknown subject," according to the WCPD log. "Letter said that Satan will get the reporting party and his family."
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