The Australian murderer who left no trace behind
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