Tucson Salvage 

Meet Colt, a desert-weaned autodidact who cleans up crime scenes for a living

click to enlarge Colt Griffin on his ranch southeast of Tucson.

Brian Smith

Colt Griffin on his ranch southeast of Tucson.

It's the absence of anything else but the kind of beauty you could curl up inside like a sleeping wild animal. There are few manmade things so there's little mediocrity.

A couple of well-kept, air-conditioned trailers and vintage Ford trucks (circa '50s) are perched on the mesquite-rich hill, which oversees a ridge and the untouched Agua Verde valley and stream below that. It smells of wet creosote bush, is alive with the rustling of small animals and whir of hummingbirds and ungulates on dirt. A strutting mule a hundred yards off brays occasionally, sounding like some poor bastard getting murdered, but mostly it's so quiet you can hear the sky darken to monsoon.

click to enlarge Druid the Alpine goat. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Druid the Alpine goat.
click to enlarge Buffy the Churro sheep - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Buffy the Churro sheep

Sheep, goats and a mustang stir in corrals down a slight embankment from the trailers. Thick-fleeced churros huddle in a corner, nosing in the what-not, and Buffy, a majestic ram, sports four healthy horns like helmet-mounted weapons. In a neighboring stable, a half-dozen goats are led by a colorful Alpine (named Druid!) whose great curled horns and mad, see-all wall eyes make him watcher of the valley.

Atop a nearby mountain sits the eerie King Arthur-ish castle of land baron Duane Durham. A few rooftops and stilted water tanks are scattered in the hazy distance below it, near the backside of Colossal Cave.

Really, this guy Colt Griffin and his partner, Carol Frazier, are the only humans visible within miles, on their own 13 acres. Theirs is well water and the electricity is seemingly wired unstrategically, and it cuts off often during monsoon micro-bursts. This isn't a junk-filled, animal-abusing compound occupied by sun-scarred, roadside cranks. There's antiquated bikes and vintage trailers and wheelbarrows placed aesthetically around the property. It's a mess of a hilly dirt road for anyone to get the hell up here.

Carol calls the area "sacred," and it's easy to grasp the word's meaning here. Could only be isolation for the short-sighted. "You have to get up really early in the morning to spot a jaguar," she says.

And what of this guy Colt? He's dressed like an old railroad engineer, in striped denim overalls and matching cap, blue button-down and boots. His eye color matches the deep Sonoran green he wakes up to daily.

Colt says his train-driver get-up is an insignia.

Symbolic, too?

That question goes unanswered. But the outfit could represent how he has successfully barreled through life since heading out on his own at 13. This blond-headed autodidact looks younger than his 54 years, but close listening reveals wisdom worthy of someone's hyper-observant 84-year-old grandpa. His sentences riff one onto another, topics veer but always tie-off later in the conversation.

He tells of retired-to-Tucson rodeo stars and descendants of Tucson's founding families, like "old man Bass who sold the Tucson ranch to Paul McCartney." Stories involve caterpillar stings, horse rescues, and weaving baskets from devil's claw. And who knew a desert plant called sacred detura (which grows wild on his property) is a hallucinogenic that causes temporary blindness, or that you can reasonably gauge the age of a gruesome crime scene "just by the size of the maggots."

click to enlarge Griffin in one of his vintage trucks. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Griffin in one of his vintage trucks.

Anyway, Colt owns several train conductor outfits, he says, wears them everywhere unless, "I haven't done the laundry."

* * * *

We're in the living-quarters trailer (the other serves as office and storage), and it's clean and organized and cool from the central air unit that Colt added on. A room centerpiece is a mint 1962 Vespa 150. It's a beauty, curved and glimmering like sleek mod-era art, but Carol isn't a fan. Says, "It doesn't belong in the living room."

A sturdy wheelchair ramp leads up to the front door.

Why the ramp?

"It was preemptively installed," Colt says. Pretty much everything he says feels like a joke non-joke. There's a fake stuffed goat on a nearby table wearing a cowboy hat.

"Plan ahead!" He says. "Common sense isn't so common these days."

A feral cat named Little Black is curled in a nearby cage, healing and grumpy. She wears a cast because they found her outside with a broken leg. There's Little Calico who comes around to keep her company. It hardly matters that Colt's allergic to felines; Carol says Colt's love of animals transcends allergies.

click to enlarge Griffin and his mules. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Griffin and his mules.

That love of animals comes from Colt's maternal grandfather, a man called Buck. Buck taught the preteen Colt the meaning of life, so to speak. The WWII vet was a true cowboy and rodeo man who happened to own a lot of property east of Harrison Road and Speedway, up to the 49er's club. Colt grew up around "mules, chickens, goats, horses, and pigs."

"Buck was the kind of guy who would put you on a bull and watch you get thrown off," Colt says. "That was his enjoyment. He was an old cowboy. He'd have you go out and get the switch...," he pauses. Adds, "It made me the man I'm not today."

His dad was a Tucson realtor and a "womanizer," and out of the picture. His mom drank. So after a brutal, last-straw fight involving mom and her boyfriend, Colt ran away for good at 13.

He spent his teen years living mostly in what he calls a "gypsy wagon," a motorless trailer of sorts that eventually burned to the ground near the Tanque Verde wash, east of Tucson. It was on land owned by an old hippie friend, who had, by chance, purchased it from Colt's grandfather, who'd moved to Montana. In exchange for land rental, Colt's job was to prevent trespassers from sawing mesquite trees into firewood. He worked other odd jobs, too, for meals. Had a couple of goats, lived on cheese and milk. He learned farming and carpentry and masonry, goat herding, jewelry making, and even built himself a little adobe house. ("You stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter—it's why the power companies don't want you to use adobe.")

Eventually Colt moved around, found work in bars and restaurants, and managed a few in Arizona and Montana. There's a reason he calls himself "Manuel Labor," and he's grateful that he's still around after watching a few loved ones drink themselves to death.

At one point Colt got into carpet cleaning, subcontracting work in Phoenix.

"Any carpet cleaner will tell you that you'll run into the blood pathogen thing. I studied it. I began forensic cleaning for friends and family." He laughs, "By this time I knew you had to wear a suit and everything. And I soon realized you had to have a license."

Business grew, and the science of it, Colt says, is boundless. He studied forensics, the cleanups.

"Someone would get shot in a car or something out on the Southside, and I'd get a call, get suited up and get down there and clean it up."

Now, Colt's company—Griffin's Crime Scene Cleanup—is his main source of income. A license plate on one of his work trucks reads: CLEANER. His is one of a handful of outfits doing crime-scene cleanup in Tucson. It's licensed, insured, been on the books for more than three years, and lots of work comes through Pima County Victims' Services. He often works solo, but sometimes hires assistants—which is problematic.

"There's so many things that go into this: respiratory tests, training ... and the hazards, the chemicals and germs." A respirator and filtering face mask protects from bloodborne and airborne pathogens, viruses like hepatitis.

See, Colt's a decontamination specialist whose main focus is suicide and homicide cleanups, and now clandestine drug labs, and the "gross filth" of hoarders.

"Most hoarders are very intelligent, but you never know what you'll find," he says. "I'll open someone's refrigerator and holy moly, three years of mold. There was one lady who stuck all her dead cats in the freezer."

He tells of a gentleman who was dead so long he melted into his chair.

click to enlarge Hollowed out on Griffin’s ranch. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Hollowed out on Griffin’s ranch.

"Yeah. When that happens they become soup," Colt says, "and it drips down into the carpet and then it gets into the concrete. Sometimes it has to be chipped out of concrete."

Colt's manner shifts when he talks about his work. There's forced absence of sentiment. It can't be easy for him, to repatriate his emotions, the human sadnesses and gore, the suicides, as tragedies become familiar.

"You just don't want to get emotionally involved," he says. "I mean, some of these can be devastating."

He tries never to say he's sorry to victims' loved ones.

"It does sound cold, but it's neutral. Otherwise it can blow up in your face."

He's taken classes to deal with people in trauma and he sees a debriefer to help him cope with scenes he's cleaned up that he can't even talk about with Carol.

One such involved a murder-suicide, a mom shot her children in their beds and then herself.

"I don't have a problem with adults or elderly," he says, "but children ... the child thing. It's horrific what humans can do."

In January, he cleaned up six murders and suicides, the most he's done in a single month. "And some of them take weeks to scrub."

"It's astronomical how many people die in Pima County each day," he says. "Homeless, elderly, nursing homes, accidents, unintended deaths, trains ... It's my understanding that a few people are hit each week by trains. I'm trying to get in with Union Pacific; there's an approval process, but they contract the cleanups out."

* * * *

Carol sits on a bench beside the graves of her pet wolves. One, named Kyra, died after swallowing a bee. She talks of tree frogs that still live in the little valley below, in a copse of mesquites and cottonwoods, where the Agua Verde once ran year-round. They make a frightening sound at night like aliens.

She's patient too while Colt talks, but says, "he rambles."

Colt replies, "That's true, but I get it all in there."

The two met 30 years ago at the old Exxon Station at the corner of Speedway Boulevard and Pantano Road. ("He was the biggest flirt in the world.") They've been a couple for 20 years, and she runs the business end of Griffin's. She used to sell property on Mount Lemmon, even drove the school bus at Summerhaven there.

click to enlarge Griffin and Carol Frazier strolling on his property. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Griffin and Carol Frazier strolling on his property.

It's easy to understand the existence Colt created near Vail with Carol, with the Sonoran quiet and animals and peace.

"I wanted to live here since I was a kid," Colt says. If civilization encroaches, he adds, he'll sell and buy a place further out.

"A little ranch like this is a lot of work," Colt adds. "Every damn day." Then he laughs, "The crime scene cleanup supports my ranch habit. But these animals, these are my people."

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