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Justice for Maria James: A look at the decades-old cold case murder

After the Maria James case has been re-opened by the Victorian Coroner, Sue Smethurst takes a look at the decades-old mystery cold case.
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This article originally appeared in the February 2018 in The Australian Women’s Weekly.

On the morning of June 17, 1980, as she prepared scrambled eggs for her boys’ breakfast, Maria James made a strange request. “If something ever happens to me,” she told her 13-year-old son Mark, “I want you to promise me you’ll look after your younger brother.”

It was for all intents and purposes a routine morning in the James home. Maria packed the school lunches for Mark and 11-year-old Adam then walked the boys to the school bus. Yet within hours of returning home, the church-going 38-year-old was dead.

Maria’s ex-husband John, with whom she’d remained friends, made the grisly discovery of her body lying in a thick pool of blood in her home at the back of her popular Thornbury bookstore in suburban Melbourne.

The young mum’s hands were tightly bound. She’d been stabbed 68 times in a frenzied attack.

Maria James

Maria James was murdered in 1980. (Image: Supplied)

Crime scene clues, such as half-drunk coffee mugs on the kitchen bench and cake ready to be served to a guest, indicate Maria’s murderer was someone she knew, someone she’d welcomed into her home.

Despite an intense investigation which uncovered several key suspects and identified 1400 pieces of information, the case went cold, until 33 years later, when Adam revealed a terrible secret to his brother Mark.

In the days prior to Maria’s murder, Adam who has cerebral palsy and Tourette Syndrome, told his mother that he’d been sexually abused by their local priest Father Anthony Bongiorno, a trusted family confidante and babysitter of the James boys. Maria, a devout Catholic and a regular at the nearby St. Mary’s parish, where the priest was a popular figure, planned to confront him the day she died.

Mark (left) and Adam in 2013 with a photo of Maria. (Image: Supplied)

Now with the help of ABC journalist Rachael Brown, whose two-year investigation for the podcast Trace has uncovered serious mistakes with the police investigation – including bungled DNA – and uncovered new witnesses and leads, Mark and Adam James hope a breakthrough is on the horizon.

“It weighs on me that Maria’s sons have been searching for answers about their mother’s murder for longer than I’ve been alive,” Rachael says. “I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like living with that sort of black cloud hanging over you. Someone knows who killed Maria James, and I hope we’ve tugged at their heartstrings to come forward.’

When Maria returned from the morning school run, she rang her former husband John at work to discuss a “family matter”. He’d just stepped out, his secretary said, she’d get him to call back as soon as he walked in.

When John phoned Maria a few minutes later, she asked him to hold on because someone was in the kitchen. The phone was off the hook, so John could hear chatting in the background, indicating that the visitor was someone Maria knew, but as he held on listening, the banter quickly turned into strange and distressing sounds. She never made it back to the phone.

Horrific scene

“She gave a startled yelp, then there was more conversation and a period of silence for several minutes and another yelp,” John said in an interview with ABC’s Nationwide in 1980.

John began whistling into the phone and calling Maria’s name to raise her attention. When she didn’t return to the call, he left his office and raced around to the house; sadly, he was too late.

“I was calling out to her, I felt something was very wrong,” he said, describing how the front and back doors to the bookstore were locked, so with the help of a neighbour, he climbed through a window. John James, who died in 1996 and is not considered a suspect, uncovered a horrific scene. “I switched the light on and her body was on the floor.”

It is now believed the killer was still inside the house at the time John arrived, after witnesses said they saw a man running from the bookstore in the minutes after the murder.

In the immediate days after Maria’s murder, family friend Father Anthony Bongiorno was on hand to comfort the grief-stricken boys, and later he officiated over her funeral.

John James never knew his youngest son was allegedly being abused by the priest, because after Maria’s death, the terrified boy buried his secret deep down and never breathed another word.

The case went stone cold until 2013, when a family friend aired concerns about Father Bongiorno with Mark. The priest had been moved from the parish after facing court on charges of abusing three young boys. In 1996 he faced court twice, on two separate charges on two separate occasions. Neither jury was aware of the other charge and he was acquitted. A third case arose, but was subsequently discontinued. He died in 2002.

The James brothers as young boys. (Image: Instagram @missrachaelbrown)

Something important to ask

“At the time I didn’t give it much credence,” Mark says, “but a week or so later I had Adam in the car and I said, ‘I have something to ask you about Mum’s murder, it’s very important you tell me the truth’. I asked if Bongiorno had ever done anything to him or touched him inappropriately. He said yes. I was silent for a while, then I started to cry.”

Since their mother’s investigation, the boys formed a close bond with young detective Ron Iddles, who was working on his first murder case.

Over the years they have kept in touch with Ron, whose solve rate of 99 per cent earned him the moniker, ‘Australia’s greatest detective’. When Mark shared Adam’s secret, it was the key the veteran officer needed to unlock the cold case again.

Using a blood-stained pillow from the crime scene, they created a DNA profile of the killer, but strangely it ruled out Father Bongiorno and several other key suspects. Mark and Adam were gutted.

Detective Senior Sergeant Iddles Iddles retired from the Police force in 2014 and it looked like this would be the case that got away, until Rachael Brown came along.

For the past 18 months, Rachael has spent every day with a dead woman. From the moment Maria James came into her life, she has consumed the ABC journalist’s thoughts and kept her awake at night.

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On any given weekend, while her friends were out enjoying drinks, weddings and family celebrations, Rachael, an investigative reporter, could be found hunched over her computer, knocking on doors or painstakingly scouring documents looking for any clue that might unlock the secrets of one of Australia’s most baffling cold cases.

“I’ve invested more time in a woman I’ve never met than myself over the past twelve months,” she says without the slightest hint of regret.

Rachael wasn’t even born when Maria James was murdered; it was June 1980, and baby Rachael would arrive a few months later to a city on tenterhooks at the height of a chilling homicide investigation.

READ MORE: Six True Crime docos you absolutely HAVE to watch right now.

Today Rachael is intrinsically linked to the case. In 2014, her ABC colleague Kerri Ritchie filed a story for 7:30 about Adam’s abuse revelations and handed the file to Rachael as she headed off on maternity leave.

“Keep an eye on this,” she said. Rachael had heard whispers about the case that made her believe a witness has been overlooked.

“I’d learned Father Bongiorno had been seen covered in blood near the murder scene. I was suspicious why police never acted on this, especially given the priest’s strong motive, which we now knew,” she says.

She started digging and found a case full of leads and loose ends. She tracked down Allan Hircoe, an electrician who was working at the parish on the morning of Maria’s murder. He vividly recalled seeing Father Bongiorno rushing into the presbytery covered in blood.

Rachael contacted Mark and Adam and, with their blessing and the help of Ron Iddles, she began investigating.

Sadistic abuse

Over a period of 16 months, working day and night on the cold case, Rachael discovered that Father Bongiorno’s alibi was leaky and that the senior priest at the parish, Father Thomas O’Keefe, had a history of violent behaviour, sadistic and sexual abuse. Adam then reluctantly revealed that O’Keeffe had abused him too. Father O’Keeffe died in 1984 and police never looked into him as a potential suspect, despite his shocking history.

Rachael convinced her bosses at the ABC that this cold case could make a gripping true-crime series and they agreed, and on Wednesday, June 21, 2017, her podcast Trace went to air. It was an instant hit. More than 250,000 people downloaded the first episode and the audience’s interest grew with every instalment.

“I had no idea where this was going when we first started,” she says. “It was to be a four-part true crime series taking a deep dive into this case. No one knew how dark it would become or how many leads we would follow.”

After the first podcast was released, Rachael and the Trace team received 150 emails from the public with new information relevant to the case, which led to a shocking twist.

Rachael discovered that the DNA found on the bloodied pillowcase, which police thought was the killer’s and was used to rule out suspects such as Father Bongiorno, was in fact from an unrelated crime scene. It had been mistakenly placed in the evidence file of Maria James.

The police had known this for three months and had not informed the family. They were forced into making an embarrassing public apology.

Maria with Mark and Adam on holiday. Sadly, their time together was cut brutally short. (Image: Supplied)

“I burst into tears when I found out,” Rachael says. “There were so many twists and turns in this case and we wanted answers but no one expected this. I broke the news to Mark James,” she says.

“I gave the police a 5pm deadline to confirm or deny the bungle and hadn’t heard back. At 5.20pm on that day, two detectives arrived on Mark James’ doorstep, to inform him of the mistake. I should not have been the one that had to tell these men of such a crucial development in the case.”

The breakthrough offers real hope that the case maybe be re-opened.

“Basically, this means we need to go back and re-examine all the exhibits from the Maria James investigation,” Assistant Commissioner Steve Fontana said when the matter became public. “We’ve got to go back and see whether we can actually identify whether the offender has left any trace evidence behind.”

With the help of Ron Iddles, Mark and Adam James have now applied to the Victorian Coroner to have the case, which was closed with “killer unknown” formally recorded, to be formally re-examined. Victoria Police has refused all interviews with the Trace podcast, and has refused all requests from The Australian Women’s Weekly for an update on the investigation or comment.

Ron Iddles believes the DNA bungle and the testimony of Allan Hircoe are sufficiently compelling to warrant a coronial investigation.

“Victoria Police has said there has been a mistake with the exhibits. First and foremost, that needs to be clarified. How did that happen? And are there any exhibits left that could now be retested for DNA. While some suspects were eliminated, they’ll need to be revisited. I think this needs to be tested at a coronial inquest.”

Rachael is at pains to point out that there may well be other evidence, other leads and others suspects locked away in the police files, which she has not had access to.

At this stage there are five genuine ‘persons of interest’, including Maria’s neighbour Mario, who was a loner and who lived with his mother, and a love interest who committed suicide days after being questioned by police over the murder. But with the new witnesses and evidence she has uncovered, Rachael believes the spotlight firmly still rests on Father Bongiorno and his colleague Father O’Keefe.

More forensic investigation hinges on Father Bongiorno’s sister, his closest living relative, providing a DNA sample.

“The signs point clearly to Bongiorno,” Rachael says, “but O’Keefe had a psychopathic background. It could be neither of them – police may have someone else in their files that they are looking at, we have to wait and see, but someone knows something.”

The prolific work of Rachael and her team was reward with a prestigious Walkley Award last year, but Rachael says the real prize would be justice for Maria James.

“I never saw myself as being able to solve the case, but I hoped we would gather enough information for the Coroner to re-open the case. Trace has been all-consuming and transformative, but we need to finish it off now to do this case justice for Maria and Mark and Adam.”

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