EXCLUSIVE: Forensic cleaner Lee Iordanidis loves what she does but believes that the media’s portrayal of her job is very different to the grisly reality. It’s a profession which has seen her attacked by a murderer, stabbed with a syringe, and having to clean up after a child’s suicide. Nour Ahmad reports.
This article contains discussion of suicide and death: Lifeline – 13 11 14
Lee Iordanidis was taught from a very young age not to fear death.
Having a grandfather who worked as a gravedigger meant that, as a child, she wandered around cemeteries often and witnessed dead bodies being brought into the family home.
Lee revealed that her grandfather’s profession and the family’s Irish Catholic identity made her feel “fine” when being exposed to death.
Despite her unique upbringing, Lee went through early life much likes anyone else; first working as a hairdresser and then working in law for several years. When Lee was 28, however, the unimaginable happened when a close friend of hers committed suicide.
In NSW, it is the responsibility of the family or home owner to clean up biologically contaminated crime scenes such as suicides, deceased persons, shootings and decomposed bodies.
Not wanting her friend’s parents to have to clean up their son’s blood, Lee sprung into action. She made a trip to Bunnings, and bought a painter’s suit, boots, gloves and cleaning products, before driving back to her friend’s house to get started.
“It’s not easy doing a friend … believe me it’s horrible,” she confesses, “but my thought process was if I can clean up a friend then I can do it for anybody.”
Lee’s grandfather [right] taught her not to be afraid of death (Image: Supplied)
Following this experience, Lee obtained the necessary certifications to become a forensic cleaner, including infection control, forensic and criminal psychology and forensic photography.
Now, the Sydney-based cleaner has over 30 years experience as a forensic cleaner and has completed jobs in Germany, Singapore and New Zealand. She has also found herself in some dangerous situations.
The 59-year-old recalled one instance where she and her team were having a friendly conversation with a couple whilst cleaning a Kings Cross hotel room. The night would take a turn for the worst, however, when the man mistook Lee for a police officer.
“I went downstairs to put on my blue overalls because my white ones had become dirty,” Lee explains.
“As I came up the stairs the junkie I’d been talking to for hours opened the door and screamed ‘a cop! a f**king cop’, because I was in blue.”
The man then stabbed her with a syringe.
“I had to wait three months to see if I caught HIV,” she says.
Lee was wearing blue overalls when she was mistaken for a cop and stabbed with a syringe (Image: supplied)
In another instance, Lee was inspecting a house and complaining about strange noises coming from what she assumed to be a possum. Suddenly, a man jumped down on top of her from the open roof hatch.
“I’ve got a man on top of me come here now!” she radioed to her team who were working in another room.
“Lucky you,” responded one of her team members cheekily.
Her team – made up of brawny men – soon realised what was going on and went to pull the man off her, holding him for the police.
“So I apologise to every possum in the world,” Lee laughs. “It wasn’t a possum it was a murderer.”
Lee and her team are very close, and have help each other out in sticky situations (Image: supplied)
Lee said that murderers sometimes come back to the scene to know what’s going on and that it’s not just a fallacy.
On the other hand, many other fallacies have been pushed by inaccurate portrayals of Lee’s profession in media. One such depiction is the Samuel L. Jackson starring film Cleaner, which follows a forensic cleaner who gets tricked into cleaning and covering up a murder.
Lee revealed that this could not happen in reality as forensic cleaners always check with police first.
“We always ring the police and see if the scene has been released, we never just clean it without having police commission,” she informs. “He was screwed.”
The veteran forensic cleaner also believes that the media has glorified her job.
Although Lee seemed to be dissatisfied with how the movie represented forensic cleaners, she does however recommend the British comedy series The Cleaner starring Greg Davies.
“It shows the compassionate side of the job well – the side where you’re sitting down and talking to people,” she says.
Lee believes that it’s crucial to show the grieving family that you care, and knows that she’s playing an important job in people’s life when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“When I get that phone call I don’t care how long I spend on the phone, and even when I go and meet them to get the keys I will stand outside with them for an hour if I have to,” she says.
Lee reveals that some families become close with her following the service she provides, including one woman who later sold her house after a family tragedy even asking her to come to the auction.
“I become their best friend because I’ve done something they never thought they would have to deal with,” Lee says. “They trust me and believe in me and that’s the most important thing.”
One of the graphic scenes Lee has cleaned up (Image: supplied)
For Lee, the most difficult part of the job is when children are involved.
Lee’s voice strains as she recounted her experience cleaning up after an eight-year-old boy who committed suicide.
“In my heart everyday is this little darling,” she remembers sadly. “He was getting bullied at school, I think because he was different, very artistic and into dance.”
The boy was found by his sister hanging from his bedpost on a school morning.
Despite having to witness such sad scenes, Lee loves her job. Her husband also loves the fact that she loves her job.
Lee’s husband is supportive of her profession (Image: Supplied)
“I took him on a couple of jobs to show him what I do and he goes ‘you work hard’ and I went ‘yeah I do,'” Lee explains.
“And that’s because we have to rip up carpets and floors, we have to take down curtains, and we have to find tilers if they’ve shot themselves in the bathroom and blown the tiles away.”
The veteran forensic cleaner was once gone for three days working on a scene until her husband stopped by and suggested she take a day off.
“You lose track of time when you’re in the job because you’re concentrating so much, you’re picking up maggots, bits of skin,” she said, “You never forget the smell of a dead body.”
When asked what tips she would give someone who wanted to get into the industry, Lee had this to say:
“I had one big macho guy say ‘I can do this, it’s easy’ and when I opened the door, he smelt it, he saw it, and didn’t come back,” she offers.
“So if you want to do this job, great! But I advise you have a trial to see if you can do it first.”