Book Review: Trace: Who Killed Maria James? by Rachael Brown
Trace by investigative reporter and journalist Rachael Brown tells the story of Brown’s internationally acclaimed true crime podcast which reexamines the cold case murder of Maria James in Australia in 1980 and the potential foul-play of major institutions that disrupted progress.
Maria James, a 38-year-old mother of two boys, was brutally murdered in her bookstore in Melbourne, Australia in June of 1980. For more than 30 years, her murder case has remained open. In 2016 journalist Rachael Brown approached Maria’s son Mark, then in his 40’s, about researching his mother’s murder. Wanted to bring more light to Maria’s case, Rachael’s goal was to find a key lead that was potentially overlooked by authorities to finally solve the case and bring the killer to justice.
I want to review his mum’s case through a podcast. I feel this intimate medium will allow for sensitive treatment. But some true-crime podcasts treat crime like a spectator sport. Maria James’ story should be both forensic and respectful, so my early caveat was getting Mark’s blessing. Had he said no, I wouldn’t have pursued the case.
Rachael’s investigative deep-dive into his mother’s case proved the best chance to resolve the decades-old crime, so of course, Mark agreed and urged Rachael to proceed. On its release, Rachael’s Trace podcast was widely popular on the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC).
Rachael clarifies in both her book and in her podcast; her motive behind telling Maria’s story isn’t entertainment, but rather, to try once more to uncover truth where it’s been overlooked, blurred by the passing of time, or intentionally hidden. At the end of each episode of the podcast, Rachael makes a request of her audience; she asks for any listeners who may have information about Maria James’ case to please email her team.
What Rachael finds out almost immediately at the outset is that the case involves not only the James family, but there are troubling signs of involvement in the case by two of Australia’s major institutions—the police force and the Catholic Church.
Some context behind the murder: Maria James was a recently divorced, single mother of two young boys. When she was in a pinch, her sons would be left with a babysitter or a parish priest. One priest—Father Anthony Bongiorno—stands out in particular. It was only after Rachael began her reexamination of Maria’s case that she learned a groundbreaking piece of news—Adam, Maria’s younger son who has Tourette’s and Cerebral Palsy, was molested by Bongiorno. Why did Adam keep this to himself for the better part of 30 years? Because Bongiorno, a man in a position of high authority who Adam James trusted, told him never to mention the encounter. Adam had only told ever told his mother Maria previously and after much prodding when she noticed her son’s behavior changed. Once she learned about Adam’s molestation, Maria contacted the Church asking to speak to Bongiorno, and later that day she was found with 68 stab wounds.
After the publication of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight article about the systematic abuses and coverups in the Catholic Church, it was no longer totally surprising to learn about more reports of child molestation, hush payments, and hastily relocated parish priests. However, Maria’s murder took place in 1980, well before the documentation of the Church’s coverups and wrongdoing. But the timing of Maria James’s death—on the day when she demanded to confront the priest who abused her son—seems far too tragically convenient to be a coincidence. It begs the question of whether the Church would go so far as to cover up a murder. Maybe a better question is “How would the Church have enough resources to cover up a murder?”
As an investigative journalist and author, Rachael has a keen eye for interconnected narratives. She quickly realizes and demonstrates that Maria’s case with all of its peculiarities is not an isolated incident. Rather it’s another example of a mishandled case that took place within an overarchingly flawed system. Rachael turns aside briefly to tell the story of Denis Ryan. Former detective Denis Ryan of Mildura township attempted to book Father John Day in an unrelated case on charges of soliciting a prostitute—an illegal act at the time. Even with solid evidence, Ryan was met with ostracism by his own colleagues in the police force and citizens of the township.
My sergeant, Tom Jenkins, rang the cathedral, and two priests came down and took him away. I asked Jenkins why he wasn’t charged, and he said, “You don’t charge a priest short of murder.
Ryan encountered what is known as the Catholic Mafia, a group of staunch Catholics with loyalty to the institution of the Church above all else. They stand by high-ranking members even when (or perhaps, especially when) their actions are beyond reproach. Years later, an apology was eventually given to Denis Ryan, after his career was ruined. The apology took place behind closed doors, with only a handful of reporters present. Ryan wrote Unholy Trinity about the corruption that existed in the police force at the time, and his story feels all the more poignant when you then turn back to the murder case of Maria James.
If Victoria police were willing to sweep pedophilia and prostitution under the rug to protect the institution they cherished, could they have worked in conjunction with the Church to distort a murder investigation?
Rachael Brown often says that in her experience as a reporter and journalist when something is apparently amiss and it’s either the result of unintentional human error or conspiracy, 9 times out of 10 it’s the former. So in order to cover all the bases as she relaunches an investigation from decades earlier, Rachael and her team retest DNA samples collected from the original crime scene. That is when they stumble on another piece of disturbing news: they discover that a pillow in evidence that was splattered with blood and was originally tested and used to exculpate Father Anthony Bongiorno in Maria James’ murder does not even have Maria’s blood on it. The official stance of the police is that pillow was accidentally introduced to evidence from an unrelated crime. In other words, testing the pillow for suspects’ DNA would not only lead to zero matches, but it would also incorrectly clear those suspects.
This poses yet another question to the growing list: was the pillow mistakenly entered into evidence, or did someone ensure that the pillow was planted in evidence? Rachael poses even more questions like this. While it can be frustrating to know that the case remains open, Rachael’s investigation truly does justice in giving a voice to those who were victims of abuse and corrupt systems, which in and of itself is commendable.
The podcast gives listeners great insight into the case and is very well-done, and Rachael’s Trace book now relates her findings and explores more of the twisting roads that she had to follow (some to no avail) to uncover these facts. Such exhaustive scrutiny of all of the details does come at a cost, which Rachael ponders in a comically dark way when she hits a roadblock at one point in her investigation:
My mates have been falling in love and having babies. I’ve invested my past year in a dead woman, missed two overseas weddings, and it’s fairly likely I’ll end up a spinster with eight cats. And I hate cats.
Rachael’s wonderfully quirky voice comes through more often in the book than in the podcast, which adds some much-needed levity to a bleak story. Though silly, her reflections on becoming a cat lady point out the sad fact that there are ongoing human costs from this case that was influenced by corruption and incompetence. And as difficult as her journey has been for the couple of years that she’s been researching, it’s still no comparison to the experience of the James brothers who haven’t had clear answers regarding their mother’s murder nearly 40 years later.
My biggest takeaway is how—like the Serial podcast before it—Trace comments on the criminal justice system by nature of its existence. Any organization is susceptible to corruption, as we’ve seen with the Church and police force. True crime podcasts don’t have to deal with all of the bureaucracy and red tape that organizations do. They can simply operate with one goal in mind: finding the truth, and podcasts do have the potential for real-life change, especially in the field of true crime. As a massively-streamed podcast (and now available as a print book), Trace is easily accessible to millions of impartial listeners, listeners who can contribute leads, regardless of how seemingly insignificant they may appear at first. This allows Rachael Brown and her team to fill in the gaps, cast a wide net in their search for clues, and most importantly, follow up on all important leads. Trace can pick up the slack from politically-motivated institutions who might choose to ignore leads because of preexisting biases.
Rachael’s motivation for conducting her grassroots investigation has always been to help the James family find solace in finally identifying Maria’s killer. With the publication of this book and with future updates via the Trace podcast, we can only hope that Trace finds the right reader/listener and helps Rachael give the James family the answers they’ve been seeking.