Whoever wanted Maria James dead made sure. The 38-year-old divorced mother of two was stabbed 68 times in the bedroom where she lived above the bookshop where she worked in Thornbury, Australia, in 1980. Her hands were bound with twine.
Six men have recently been named as persons of interest in the perplexing case, and they’re all being examined as part of an inquest into James’ unsolved murder. The persons of interest include the married man she was having an affair with; two Catholic priests who had allegedly both sexually abused her 11-year-old son, Adam, the weekend before she was killed; convicted murderer Peter Keogh; a telecom worker named Lyle Perkins, with whom she argued hours before she was stabbed; and a magazine salesman named Mario Falcucci, who had tried to sell her magazines to display in her store.
None of the six were ever arrested, and most of the evidence—including a bloodied sheet and two witness statements that supposedly corroborated alibis of the priests—were destroyed in the 1980s.
James was killed while she was on the telephone with her ex-husband, John James, who heard the screams after she angrily told someone, “You go and get it.” According to authorities’ reconstructions of the crime, the assailant then chased her upstairs, killed her on her bed, and then fled through the front door of the shop. In an effort to try to get him to remember details about the voice of the perpetrator, the ex-husband was hypnotized, but it proved unsuccessful.
Dodgy police work and forensic flaws meant that fingerprints taken at the site were inconclusive. Evidence that could have proved crucial, including the pillowcases on the bed where she was killed, were not removed from the crime scene. And the duvet stained with her blood was destroyed after not having been stored properly, the court was told.
More than 40 years after the crime, the Coroners Court of Victoria reopened the cold case after Adam James told his brother, Mark, in 2017 about the abuse at the hands of the priests. Prior to that, Adam had only told his mother and father of the abuse—days before she was murdered.
Mark then petitioned the court to reopen the case with an eye on the priests, Father Anthony Bongiorno and Father Thomas O’Keeffe—both of whom are now dead.
On Sept. 6, Coroner Caitlin English outlined the justification for reopening the case: “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.” The inquest is expected to wrap up this week.
The court heard from an electrician who was at the church where Rev. Bongiorno said Mass on the afternoon of the murder. Allan Hircoe told the court last week that he had seen Bongiorno with blood on his hands and arms on the afternoon James was killed. “He had a sleeve pushed up high on the forearm, blood on both hands, and he had blood up near his ear and on the side of his neck,” Hircoe told the coroners court. He then offered to clean up the priest. “I said I had a first-aid kit in the car, ‘Stay there and I’ll get you cleaned up.’ I walked back to get the first-aid kit, I turned around to look at him again and there was nobody there. He had disappeared.”
Hircoe only came to police to tell them what he saw in 2013, when a photo of the priest flashed across his TV as a potential suspect in James’ murder after her sons tried to get their mother’s case reopened, he said.
The only suspect who is still alive is Peco Macevski, who was James’ lover at the time of her murder. But he was rushed to a hospital last week after falling ill days before he was supposed to give evidence. Macevski’s wife, Stojanca Macevski, told the Victoria court that she only learned of her husband’s infidelity when the court reopened the case last year. “I never knew,” she told the court. “I asked him, ‘Is that true?’ He said, ‘Yes, it was true, and I’m sorry.’”
“Nothing more to discuss,” Macevski told the court. “He’s still with me, I’m still happy, I was still having a good life now—and then.”
On Monday, homicide detective Ron Iddles told the court that he agreed with the exoneration of another suspect: convicted murderer Peter Keogh, who fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend Vicki Cleary outside a preschool where she worked in 1987. Keogh became a suspect after it emerged that he threatened his ex by warning her, “I’ll do to you what I did to the bookshop woman” days before he stabbed her. What Iddles believes was a false confession was the only evidence linking him to the crime, and Iddles said he believed it amounted to nothing more than braggadocio. “Very rarely is the offender out there basically bragging to people that he’s the actual offender,” Iddles told the court. “Sometimes I think it’s male bravado.”
The telecom worker and magazine salesman were both originally dismissed after witnesses corroborated their alibis.
That leaves the two priests as the most likely suspects. Bongiorno had in the early days after the murder squarely inserted himself into the investigation under a ruse to support the surviving sons—and at one point even tried to break into the crime scene.
Iddles told the court that in his mind, the strongest evidence leads straight to him. “I think he has got the motive, I think he’s got the opportunity, I think he’s got the means,” Iddles told the court.
He just isn’t alive to face justice.