In June 1980, the body of Maria James was found in the bedroom of the flat adjoining her second-hand bookshop in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury. She had been bound, tortured and stabbed 68 times in what police described as a frenzied attack.
It was Ron Iddles’ first homicide investigation – and one of the very few he has never solved.
Her two young sons Mark and Adam were horrified and bewildered by the crime, and for years after, continued to push for investigations into the murder. There were numerous suspects but never enough evidence to charge anyone. 30 years later, a surprising new suspect emerged – someone very close to Maria’s family.
For the case file: Five things learned
1. Every Family Deserves Answers
The case was amazing in several ways, not the least being the extraordinary number of credible suspects that emerged soon after the investigations began. At least ten individuals, including Maria’s estranged husband, were suspected by the police, all with strong circumstantial evidence connecting them with the crime.
The police had to sift through each lead and evaluate it, being careful not to assume guilt with any suspect. However, time passed and it looked increasingly likely that the murderer would never be identified.
It was disappointing at the time that I didn’t solve it because I think that every family deserves answers – Ron Iddles, as the police investigations stalled.
2. DNA Can Have a Dramatic Effect
Despite all the leads and suspects, police were unable to identify the murderer. The case went “cold”, and by 2000 the killing had gradually faded from the public memory.
But in the early 2000s the case was revisited – this time with the benefit of DNA technology. The exhibits stored in the case file were re-examined under the direction of the Cold Case Unit headed by Ron Iddles.
A DNA sample was discovered and this was believed to have come from the offender. All the original suspects were reinvestigated and eliminated one-by-one through their DNA samples.
In 1980 there was no such thing as DNA. Then as time progressed by 2000, DNA was reasonably sensitive – Ron Iddles after DNA technology was introduced into the case.
3. Someone Close is Often the Culprit
Then there was a dramatic development. It emerged that the Parish priest who provided pastoral care for the area – including Maria and her two boys – had previously sexually molested young boys.
This revelation prompted the older of Maria’s sons Mark, to ask his younger brother Adam a question that turned out to be a real game-changer.
“Did Father Bongiorno ever do anything strange to you?” Adam answered yes – pointing to his private parts. This sensationally altered the entire course of the investigation and for Ron Iddles it was a huge breakthrough. He also learned that Adam had told his mother of the situation and that she may have confronted the priest soon after – just a short time before her murder.
This provided a highly potent motive for the killing – the attempted concealment of a child molestation crime – and Ron Iddles immediately began to dig further.
Adam said, “I later told my mother, but I didn’t tell Mark – I told my mother and she went over to the church and challenged him about the fact that he had sexually assaulted me.” – Ron Iddles recounting his conversation with Adam James in 2013.
4. The Media Can Be a Powerful Ally
Father Bongiorno had died in 2002, but despite this, Ron Iddles was determined to continue his line of investigation.
In 2016, a great boost to the inquiry came through ABC journalist Rachel Brown who closely reinvestigated the case and this generated widespread publicity. As a result, an electrician came forward with some sensational evidence. On the day of the murder he had encountered Father Bongornio walking down the road with his hands covered in blood. The priest explained this by claiming to have cut his hands on a rose bush.
She reinvestigated and stirred it up. She interviewed hundreds of people and she put together a podcast called “Trace” – Rod Iddles speaking about the 2016 involvement of Rachel Brown.
5. The Balance of Probabilities
DNA evidence can usually point the way to the murderer – as long as the right DNA is provided to the investigators.
Another incredible twist to the Maria James case came in 2017 when it was revealed that the old exhibits – in this case, pillows from the crime scene – had been mixed up with those of another case. This meant that the DNA Ron Iddles possessed was totally unconnected with the Maria James case.
This was a hammer blow to the investigation – but the Father Bongiorno lead remained strong.
In the absence of certainty in a homicide, investigators sometimes use the “balance of probabilities” to guide their investigations. This process adds up all the actual evidence and tries to reach a decision.
Using this process Ron Iddles concluded that Bongiorno was the prime suspect and he became convinced that the priest was the culprit.
In December 2018, the Coroner’s Court of Victoria announced it will hold a new inquest into the death of Maria James, and Victoria Police also launched an official review of the case.
I think on the balance of probabilities at least, Father Bongiorno is responsible – Ron Iddles recounts his conclusion some 37 years after the murder