Inquest into murder of Maria James hears DNA evidence not found on rediscovered evidence

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

September 6, 2021

By Rachael Brown for Trace

There’s been another knock for Mark and Adam James, in their 41-year quest for answers as to who murdered their mother, Maria James.

Key points:

  • A coronial inquiry into the death of Maria James, set up in the wake of the ABC podcast Trace, has begun
  • The counsel assisting the coroner, Sharon Lacy, says a recently found bloodied quilt has not yielded usable DNA evidence
  • The inquest is set to continue for three weeks

The 38-year-old single mother was killed in a frenzied stabbing attack in her Thornbury bookshop in 1980.

Maria’s bed quilt, a police exhibit that had been missing for decades, showed up recently.

But DNA testing has failed to find any clues pointing to her killer.

Counsel Assisting the coroner Sharon Lacy broke the news to the Victorian Coroners Court today.

“In June 2021, remarkably, the continental quilt was found. Unfortunately, DNA analysis since then has failed to produce any results that are useful in identifying a likely suspect,” she said.

The bloodstained quilt at the Maria James crime scene. Sections of the photo have been redacted by the coroner.(Supplied: Victorian Coroner's Court)
The bloodstained quilt at the Maria James crime scene. Sections of the photo have been redacted by the coroner.(Supplied: Victorian Coroner’s Court)

Inquest still raises family’s hopes

A great weight now rests on a new coronial inquest that got underway this morning.

Mark James said it had been a long time coming.

“It feels like this is the climax, where we have a chance of finally getting an answer as to who killed our mum,” he said.

Mark James has been pushing for a new inquest into his mother's death. (ABC RN: Jeremy Story Carter)
Mark James has been pushing for a new inquest into his mother’s death. (ABC RN: Jeremy Story Carter)

Coroner Caitlin English will be looking into six persons of interest.

“As a result of investigations uncovered by the Trace podcast in June/July of 2017, Mark James made an application to reopen the coronial investigation,” she said.

“… New evidence implicating two Catholic priests — and their abuse of Adam James being a possible motive — the evidence of an electrician at the presbytery around the time of Ms James’s death, errors with exhibit management which mistakenly led to the exclusion of potential suspects, and new evidence that drew into question one of the priest’s alibis.”

Today the coroners court outlined the fateful string of events on June 17, 1980.

Ms James was on the phone to her ex-husband John James, who thought he heard two people in the bookshop, and an argument.

He heard Ms James angrily say: “You go and get it.”

The late John James told an ABC Nationwide program in 1980, he thought the killer was known to her.

Coroner outlines persons of interest

The coroners court heard the weekend before the murder, Ms James’ younger son, Adam James, told his mother that Father Anthony Bongiorno had sexually abused him.

Ms James intended to confront the priest.

By midday on Tuesday, she had been killed.

“… Whether the priests who assaulted my brother Adam had anything to do with it, we’re hoping that after all of this time that the coroner can dig deep and get to the bottom of what happened and why,” Mark James said.

Coroner Caitlyn English will look into Father Bongiorno, whom the court heard had tried to involve himself in the police investigation and at one stage attempted to force entry to the crime scene.

A photo taken at the scene of Maria James's death shows the phone off the hook. (Supplied)
A photo taken at the scene of Maria James’s death shows the phone off the hook. (Supplied)

Afterwards, he had to be taken away in a police car.

The inquest was told there were five other persons of interest.

One is Father Thomas O’Keeffe — the parish priest at St Mary’s Church, three doors down from the Thornbury bookstore. Adam James has said Father O’Keeffe also sexually abused him.

Witnesses have submitted statements about Father O’Keeffe’s history of sexual abuse and violence.

Both Father O’Keeffe and Father Bongiorno are now dead.

The only person of interest still alive is Peco Macevski, a local real estate agent who was having an affair with Ms James shortly before her death.

There is also Peter Keogh, a man with a criminal history and a hatred of women.

Keogh went on to kill Vicki Cleary in 1987, stabbing her outside the kindergarten she worked. Police were tipped off about Keogh in 1980 and 1982, and again in 1989, by people who knew him, including his own psychologist.

Another individual who will be examined is Lyle Perkins — a Telecom worker who, soon after Ms James’s murder, was convicted of assaulting two female hitchhikers.

Finally, Mario Falcucci is another person of interest. He was local to the area and argued with Ms James the morning of her death. She refused to buy magazines that Mr Falcucci was trying to sell her.

Forensic bungles to be scrutinised

The coroner will also be scrutinising Victoria Police’s exhibit management.

The disappearance of Ms James’s bloodstained bed quilt was just one in a series of forensic bungles.

Critical exhibits, such as Ms James’s clothes, remain missing.

And a pillow, that had nothing to do with her, was thrown in with her exhibits.

This red herring led to certain persons of interest being — wrongly — ruled out as suspects.

The counsel assisting the coroner said this potentially crippled the investigation.

“Fourteen years of potential progress in this investigation were lost. By then, several persons of interest had died,” Ms Lacy said.

This inquest is set down for three weeks.