The Aus­tralian mur­derer who left no trace be­hind

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - DAR­RAGH McMANUS

True crime has been a huge seller in books since time im­memo­rial. These days, cross­ing medi­ums, pod­casts are the new hot ticket in au­dio/ra­dio, with true­crime sto­ries driv­ing many of the most sem­i­nal ones: Se­rial, West Cork, etc.

It was in­evitable, then, that some­one would even­tu­ally write a true-crime book based on a true-crime pod­cast. Trace, Rachael Brown’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a no­to­ri­ous un­solved mur­der in 1980s Aus­tralia, serves as a ti­tle for both.

Its sub­ti­tle is ‘Who Killed Maria James?’; in some ways, she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter here, de­spite or be­cause of her ab­sence. On June 17, 1980, Maria’s ex-hus­band John — am­i­ca­bly sep­a­rated — re­turned a call she’d made from the house-cum-book­store where she lived with sons Mark and Adam.

Maria an­swered, asked him to wait, said some­one was com­ing. He heard odd noises in the dis­tance: muf­fled dis­cus­sion with an­other per­son, per­haps an ar­gu­ment; a yelp of sur­prise; a lot of si­lence. Fi­nally, John got wor­ried, drove to his old home. He found Maria dead in her bed­room, stabbed 68 times.

Po­lice, led by De­tec­tive Ron Id­dles, never solved the crime. Leads ta­pered out, the few sus­pects had al­i­bis, Maria’s mur­der got shelved in the “cold-case” files. A few years ago, Rachael Brown — an award-win­ning in­ves­ti­gate jour­nal­ist and broad­caster — re­opened it.

Her main mo­ti­va­tion is to help Maria’s sur­viv­ing fam­ily, Mark and Adam (John died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1996). They were just 13 and 10 when their mother died, and this sud­den, bru­tal loss has, un­der­stand­ably, cast a very dark shadow over their en­tire lives since then.

Rachael and her pro­duc­ing team pitch Maria’s story as a pod­cast to ABC (Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion). In the mean­time, they get crack­ing on try­ing to break the case, work­ing in tan­dem with Ron Id­dles, now re­tired but with a keen in­ter­est in solv­ing this: one of few cases he didn’t suc­cess­ful pros­e­cute dur­ing a stel­lar po­lice ca­reer.

Ron Id­dles — R. Id­dles — riddles: as Rachael points out, an ap­pro­pri­ate name for a man who devoted his life to un­rav­el­ling some of life’s mys­ter­ies. In a funny way, he and Rachael are cut from the same cloth. They’re both dogged, cu­ri­ous and, at times, ob­ses­sive.

Any­way: she soon be­gins to un­cover a very murky story. An Ital­ian priest, An­thony Bon­giorno, who died in 2002, had been a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in Maria’s par­ish. Adam James — who has cer­tain in­tel­lec­tual dif­fi­cul­ties — tells Rachael that Bon­giorno sex­u­ally as­saulted him nu­mer­ous times.

The last in­ci­dent was the day be­fore Maria’s death, when she promised to con­front the priest. The morn­ing of her mur­der, a lo­cal elec­tri­cian says he saw Bon­giorno cov­ered in blood, claim­ing to have cut him­self on a wire fence or a rose bush (mem­o­ries at this re­move are ob­vi­ously a bit hazy).

Amaz­ingly, he was never leaned on heav­ily by orig­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors, as a (to my eyes) fairly ob­vi­ous sus­pect. Now, in 2016 and 2017, Rachael keeps dig­ging and un­cov­ers an­other dodgy char­ac­ter: Fa­ther Thomas O’Ke­effe, who also abused Adam James and an­other man she meets, James Shana­han.

His ex­pe­ri­ence of O’Ke­effe, dat­ing back to the 1970s, is a scarcely be­liev­able hor­ror story in­volv­ing rape, sex­ual tor­ture and mur­der. Shana­han claimed that O’Ke­effe and oth­ers ran a Satanic cult, and that he wit­nessed the killings of at least four peo­ple, in­clud­ing a baby.

The sub­ti­tle is ‘Who Killed Maria James?’; in some ways, she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter here, de­spite or be­cause of her ab­sence

As­ton­ish­ingly, decades later, the Church’s own in­ves­ti­ga­tor into al­leged sex crimes agreed with him. O’Ke­effe is long dead, but at least Shana­han had that small sat­is­fac­tion.

And, Brown thinks, could this dan­ger­ous Fa­ther O’Ke­effe be the killer of Maria James? It’s pos­si­ble. He was vi­o­lent, strange, lived nearby — and had the mo­ti­va­tion of si­lenc­ing an an­gry mother.

Trace runs along par­al­lel lines: on the one hand, Rachael’s ex­plo­ration of the James case, and then how that was worked into a pod­cast, spark­ing off mas­sive pub­lic in­ter­est Down Un­der which it­self sparked off fresh lines of in­quiry.

Do we find out who­dun­nit? I won’t spoil the end­ing, ex­cept to say re­al­ity, un­like fic­tion, doesn’t al­ways give us happy end­ings, re­solve it­self neatly, de­liver jus­tice or even make a lot of sense.

I’m not a mas­sive fan of true-crime stuff, or pod­casts, so Trace didn’t knock my socks off. But if you de­voured Se­rial or love real-life crime books — es­pe­cially the un­solved ones — it’ll de­liver the goods for you.

Un­solved: Maria, who died in 1980, with sons Mark and Adam

TRUE CRIME Trace Rachael Brown Scribe, trade pa­per­back, 312 pages, €17

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