A Victorian coroner has delivered an open finding in the inquest into the murder of Maria James, who was stabbed to death in her home adjoining her bookshop in 1980.
- Maria James was found stabbed to death in her home adjoining her bookshop in 1980
- A fresh inquest was called after new evidence was unearthed by the ABC’s Trace podcast
- The family of Maria James says it is disappointed with the outcome of the inquest
Victoria’s Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English conducted the fresh inquest after new information regarding the case was unearthed by the ABC’s Trace podcast.
Ms English recommended two people, Father Anthony Bongiorno and convicted murderer Peter Keogh, remain significant persons of interest in the case.
The family of Maria James has expressed its disappointment with the outcome of the inquest, describing it as “devastating”.
“We’ve been trying to get justice for our mum for many years and we were hopeful that we’d get some answers through the coronial process. We haven’t,” Mark James said.
“The findings handed down today have failed to name the person, or persons, responsible for taking our mum away from us in the cruellest way, which is incredibly disappointing.”
Adam James said the family would not rest until their mother’s killer was identified.
“We love her and miss her every day and will never give up trying to get justice for her,” he said.
Victoria Police said its investigation into the murder remained ongoing.
“Homicide Squad detectives remain absolutely committed to this case and achieving justice for the family of Maria James,” it said in a statement.
“Like all unsolved homicides, we believe it is still solvable and with the right information we could be in a position to provide her family with the answers they are desperately after.”
The coroner acknowledged there were several outstanding issues she was unable to take into account in her investigation, including mitochondrial DNA testing of 11 hairs found on a recently rediscovered quilt from the murder scene, and a potential witness now living in Italy.
Ms English found that Father Anthony Bongiorno should remain a significant person of interest in the investigation.
Father Bongiorno, now deceased, has long been considered by Ms James’s family and some former police investigators to be the most likely suspect in the case.
Ms English said Father Bongiorno’s alibi had been discredited and he had been seen near Ms James’s house before and after the murder.
“He had both motive, proximity and opportunity,” she said.
The coroner also stated that convicted killer Peter Keogh should continue to be considered a significant person of interest.
Keogh stabbed Melbourne woman Vicki Cleary to death in 1987, and once told an ex-girlfriend, “I’ll do to you what I did to the woman in the bookshop”.
“He had opportunity and proximity to the area and he may well have known Ms James and that she was alone in the bookshop,” Ms English said.
Ms English strongly criticised exhibit mismanagement by Victoria Police, which mislaid Ms James’s bloodstained clothing and pillowcases in the early 80s, leaving them unable to be DNA tested in later years.
She called on Victoria Police’s Chief Commissioner to order a complete physical search of police holdings for the missing items.
“In my view police should make every effort to try and locate the missing items, particularly given they lost them,” she said.
Mark James expressed the family’s discontent with the handling of the initial investigation by Victoria Police, and the subsequent loss of crucial crime scene exhibits.
“This is not good enough and we feel there should be ramifications because this has played a significant role in us being denied justice,” he said.
“No victim of crime, or their loved ones, should be denied justice because of mistakes or failures by police.”
A brutal murder and a faltering investigation
Maria James was murdered in her home adjoining her Thornbury second-hand bookshop in June 1980 in what was described as a “bizarre” attack.
She was stabbed 68 times in the front and back of her body.
Her murder has remained unsolved for decades. The case went cold until the ABC’s 2017 podcast “Trace” made numerous discoveries that sparked a new coronial inquest, which was held in September last year.
Ms James’s sons Mark and Adam have never given up hope that someone might be brought to justice.
Mark, who was 13 when his mother was murdered, remembered words his mother spoke to him the morning she died.
Mark James found out his mother had died from his local priest, Father Anthony Bongiorno.
He said the way Father Bongiorno broke the tragic news was “brutal”.
“Normally, when you give someone some bad news, you give them a few seconds to compose themselves, but when he gave me the bad news, my legs went to jelly and he didn’t give me any time, he just dragged me all the way to the principal’s office,” Mr James said.
“Why wouldn’t you give the kid 10 seconds to compose himself and absorb the news? I felt he was cold.”
Mark and Adam have long suspected Father Bongiorno and another priest, Father Thomas O’Keeffe, both now deceased, were involved in their mother’s murder.
Adam has alleged the priests abused him, and Maria James had been intending to confront Father Bongiorno with the accusation the day she was killed.
Priest emerges as ‘strongest suspect’
Police officers told the inquest Father Bongiorno had tried to barge his way into the crime scene as the murder investigation was getting underway.
Former detective Cliff Hall said the priest was adamant he needed to administer last rites to Maria James.
“It was pretty heated, he insisted on getting in … he was trying to push past me … reasonable amount of force … on both sides … I had to push him away to keep him out,” Mr Hall told the inquest.
Mr Hall said Father Bongiorno was hindering the investigation, and was put in the back of a divisional van and taken to Northcote Police Station.
When he was released, he again tried to enter the bookshop.
Veteran homicide detective Ron Iddles told the inquest that in his mind, Father Bongiorno was the strongest suspect.
The murder was Mr Iddles’s first homicide case and it is one that has gnawed at him since he left the police force in 2014.
It was Mr Iddles who took Adam James’s statement in 2013 about Father Bongiorno’s abuse.
He told the inquest Father Bongiorno had a strong motive to commit murder.
“Adam heard his mum [on the morning of her murder] talking to the presbytery, he thought she was talking to Mr Bongiorno … then on my leaving the Homicide Squad, an electrician had just come forward saying that he saw a priest covered in blood,” he told the inquest.
“Then you have a new witness … seeing Mr Bongiorno at the door of the [book] shop at 11am on the day of the murder.
“[Father Sean] O’Connell is the alibi, in 1977 he’s charged with harbouring an armed robber … in 1990 he’s charged with fraud.
Father Bongiorno died in 2002.
Missing exhibits and mistakes hampered investigation
The initial police investigation into the murder of Maria James was exhaustive and wide-ranging, but major flaws were later found in the way exhibits from the case were documented and kept.
Shortly after the crime, Ms James’s clothes were sent to be dried out before forensic testing, but vanished.
A year later pillow slips from the murder scene disappeared.
At some point a pillow from an unrelated case found its way into the exhibits, and formed the basis for DNA testing which led police to wrongly rule out suspects.
The mistake was not discovered until 2017.
Victoria Police exhibit tracker Sergeant Rod Jones was asked to do an audit of exhibits when the case was revisited.
Counsel assisting the coroner Sharon Lacy suggested to Sergeant Jones the litany of errors was unprecedented.
“Now, not raising a conspiracy theory but … do you have any other cases in which there are — through five different causes at five different points in time — errors of that magnitude?” she asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” Sergeant Jones replied. “They’re very unusual.”
Sergeant Jones said it would not happen nowadays, not on his watch.
“I’m very proud of management of the exhibits and that appals me that there’s a lack of accountability if you like,” he said.
DNA samples could be the case’s last shot
The rediscovery of two exhibits has opened potential avenues of inquiry for investigators.
A pillow has yielded a partial, mixed DNA profile — that is, some DNA from Maria James and some from an unknown male.
The male DNA matches that of convicted killer Peter Keogh, but would also be a match with 50 per cent of the population.
The DNA sample has not yet been compared against Father Bongiorno or Father O’Keeffe, something Ron Iddles told the inquest he would like to see rectified.
“I agree it should be done, if it can be done,” he said.
The discovery of hairs from Ms James’s bed quilt opens another forensic path for investigators to follow.
Molecular biologist Dadna Hartman, from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, told the inquest that a familial DNA sample could be used to do mitochondrial DNA testing.
Which means police could use a sample from Father Bongiorno’s sister, which was obtained in 2014.
Dr Hartman told the inquest that as things stood, this type of testing could be this case’s last shot.
“Other than the mitochondrial DNA testing that I’ve suggested for the hair samples, I believe that everything that’s been done recently … is all that we could hope to do with the current methodologies,” he said.