Trace: how the hit podcast is making waves in an unsolved murder case

The ABC’s first true-crime serial has revealed police bungles in their investigation of the 1980 murder of Melbourne woman Maria James

Two weeks ago, the Radio National breakfast host, Fran Kelly, issued a spoiler alert before the 7am news, warning listeners that the upcoming bulletin contained details from the hit podcast Trace, which had only been released the night before.

A similar spoiler warning precedes this story: on Tuesday, as revealed by the ABC journalist Rachael Brown on Wednesday night, detectives from Victoria police’s homicide squad apologised to the brother of the murdered Melbourne woman Maria James, saying that a crucial piece of evidence – evidence that had been used to rule out several suspects – was false.

The evidence in question was a blood-stained pillowcase that first underwent DNA testing at the police laboratory in 2001, more than 20 years after James was murdered in the flat behind her Thornbury bookshop on 17 June 1980.

Those preliminary tests revealed it had both male and female DNA, and the male DNA profile was checked against and used to exclude a number of suspects from involvement in her death.

Except, as Brown discovered on Sunday and later confirmed with police, the pillowcase was not collected from the crime scene.

It was a frustrating development for Mark and Adam James, Maria James’s two adult sons. On the one hand, it meant that suspects who had been previously ruled out could be investigated anew. On the other, the best piece of evidence linking the killer to the crime scene had been declared completely irrelevant. The suggestion is the pillowcase was bundled up with the file sometime in the mid-1990s, when Victoria police evidence was relocated to Collingwood and evidence relating to up to 40 cold cases disappeared.

Brown received the tipoff about the pillowcase, along with about 80 other emails containing tips and leads, as a response to the ABC’s podcast investigating Maria James’s murder.

Maria James
Maria James was murdered in Melbourne in 1980. Photograph: supplied by the ABC

The podcast, called Trace, is the broadcaster’s first attempt at a serialised, true-crime podcast, and quickly shot to the top of the Australian iTunes charts. It traces Brown’s re-examination of the evidence and suspects, aided by a retired homicide detective, Ron Iddles, who 32 years ago was put on this case as his first murder investigation.

It is a genre that has become familiar to podcast listeners, popularised by This American Life’s breakout hit Serial in 2015 and later flipped by the same network’s 2017 program S-Town.

Both podcasts, and those they inspired, sparked furious debate about the ethics of presenting journalism, particularly crime journalism, in a serialised, almost novelised manner – the audio equivalent of premium television.

If it’s genuine journalism and genuine news, the argument goes, then it ought not to come with spoiler warnings and cliffhangers. And if it is not news, then it is simply voyeurism.

It’s an argument Brown thought hard on before approaching Mark James, Maria James’s eldest son. James was 13 when his mother was stabbed to death; he gave the podcast his blessing and his voice is heard throughout.

“It’s a really fine line and a fine balance we have to strike between being forensic but also being compassionate,” Brown told Guardian Australia. “I was acutely aware of the kind of criticisms that were levelled at Serial.

“There were comments by Hae Min Lee’s brother that people were forgetting that it was their life, it wasn’t a story. So I had kind of the benefit of hindsight with a lot of the discussion that went on there.”

Much like the Australian’s Walkley award-winning podcast Bowraville, which investigated the murders of three Aboriginal children in the early 1990s, Trace has renewed both police and public interest in a case that had been largely forgotten.

The Bowraville murders are now headed for a retrial and Brown hopes Trace will prompt similar action. She is pushing for the Victorian coroner to set aside a previous finding on Maria James’s death and open the way for a new coronial investigation.

The evidence she presents is compelling.

Rachael Brown looks through crime scene photographs with retired homicide detective Ron Iddles
Rachael Brown looks through crime scene photographs with retired homicide detective Ron Iddles. Photograph: ABC

On the morning of her murder, Maria James told her youngest son, Adam, who was then 11, that she would call St Mary’s, the local Catholic church just a few hundred metres from their high-street house and bookshop.

The purpose of the call was to confront the assistant priest, Father Anthony Bongiorno, over Adam’s allegation that Bongiorno had sexually abused him.

Police were not told of the abuse until 2014, when Adam finally told Mark. Iddles explained that Adam, who has cerebral palsy and Tourette syndrome, can be difficult to understand and was largely ignored in 1980s investigation.

At 11.30am that day, a few hours after seeing both children off to school, James phoned her ex-husband, John James. When he phoned her back, she told him there was another person with her in the kitchen in the flat behind the shop.

John heard an argument, then a yelp. He later told police that she seemed to be talking to someone she knew.

He decided she might be in trouble and went to investigate but by the time he got into the house, James was dead. She had been stabbed 69 times. Her hands were bound in front of her.

A man, described as 5’8”, chubby and balding, was seen running from the front door of the shop while John James went in the back.

A few minutes later, an electrician spoke to a frazzled priest with a blood-stained sleeve entering an office at St Mary’s.

That priest was Bongiorno. The electrician did not come forward with his statement until almost 30 years later, when he saw Bongiorno’s photo next to a newspaper article about the murder.

It was his statement, and the silence that followed it, that prompted Brown to investigate the case.

Bongiorno was later moved to another parish in Melbourne and charged but not convicted of the sexual abuse of three other young boys. He died in 2002.

In 2015 he was ruled out as a suspect in the murder of Maria James. According to Mark James, he was ruled out because his DNA did not match that found on the pillowcase – the evidence that police have now admitted should never have been part of the file.

That revelation, and a call from Mark James for the coroner to set aside the initial findings, was aired in the fourth full episode of Trace, released on Wednesday night. It is the last episode for now but Brown promises the podcast will return when more evidence has been collected.

For Brown, this has become more than a story. What began as a murder investigation twisted down the path of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, to satanic cults, to allegations of ritualised murder – some of which, she says in the podcast, are too gruesome to put to air.

She interviewed a number of victims of sexual abuse, including Adam, whose voice is given the weight it was denied in the initial police investigation.

“The stories have just … actually brought me undone,” Brown says. “Some of them are so sad. I just thought, Mark hasn’t stopped fighting and Ron hasn’t stopped fighting so I’m not going to. I’ve tried to be faithful to the research and what the research has pulled up, and I just really hope that it helps give them an answer.”

Listen to Trace here. For information and support in Australia call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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