Who killed Maria James?

 abc.net.au  6/20/2017 8:14:19 PM   RN By Trace Podcast Team

Posted June 21, 2017 06:14:19

Maria James was stabbed 68 times in her home. For 37 years, police have failed to solve her murder. Her two sons — and one former top cop — have never given up hope.

On the morning of her murder, Maria James made her sons Mark and Adam, then 13 and 11, their favourite breakfast: scrambled eggs.

Mark, now 50, remembers her turning to him from the stove.

"If anything happens to me," she said, "make sure that Adam is looked after."

Four hours later, Maria James was dead.

Maria James was a fiercely protective mother.

Her second-hand bookshop on the northern end of High Street, Thornbury in Melbourne was well-known in the community, but her boys were her everything.

She was separated from her ex-husband John James, but the two spoke regularly about their kids and were on good terms.


The ABC's new true crime podcast, Trace, re-examines the mysterious murder of Maria James. Find out why one former top cop can't stop digging, even in his retirement, and why her two sons have never given up hope.

After Mark and Adam went to school that Tuesday morning in 1980, Maria called John at the Fitzroy Town Hall where he worked as a town clerk.

He was out of the office and his secretary Isabella Fabris answered. Usually Maria was up for a chat, but on this day Isabella said she was short with her, and left a message for John to call her.

When John returned and called Maria back, she was not alone.

She asked him to hold the line, because she had someone with her in the kitchen.

As he waited for her to return to the phone, John heard what he thought was an argument. Then a startled yelp.

The conversation continued — but to John's ears it sounded one-sided, like someone was being talked at. Then, there was silence. Several minutes of it.

John started to get edgy, and began whistling down the line to attract attention, but Maria never returned to the phone.

He told Isabella something was wrong, and he was going to drive over to the bookshop.

It took around 15 minutes for him to drive there.

John James arrived to find the bookshop locked. It was just after midday.

He ran down a laneway around the back of the shop and tried to enter through the back door. It was locked. He thumped on the door, but there was no answer.

He ran back to the front, then back down the laneway, in a series of panicked laps.

Now desperate, he ran back around and broke into the house by climbing through a window around the side of the property.

The house was dark inside and there was no sound. John moved into the kitchen and called out down the hallway. There was no answer.

Enveloped with dread, he picked up a small green-handled knife from the kitchen drawer, and started inching through the house —first into the lounge room, then to the boys' room. Both were empty.

Next he entered Maria's bedroom and flicked on the light. There on the floor, eyes and mouth open, drenched in blood and covered in stab wounds, lay Maria.

At this time, according to police, the killer was mere metres from John, hiding behind the door.

Distressed and confused, John ran out of the house without seeing the killer, found a nearby phone and called police. He paced up and down the laneway, before coming back around to the front of the bookshop.

This time, the door to the shop was open. There was someone inside; a woman browsing the shelves.

She told John that the door, which had been locked minutes before, had been open when she walked in.

Maria James was fully clothed when she was stabbed 68 times in the front and back of her body.

Her hands were bound — most likely after she was killed — and she was dragged across the floor of her bedroom in a frenzied attack police described as "bizarre".

Detectives believed whoever killed her would have been covered in blood from the attack.

They also suspected that the murderer would have been known to Maria James.

John was certain the other individual he could hear down the phone line was someone familiar to Maria.

Two coffee cups on her kitchen counter added further weight to the theory.

The killer has never been found

By modern standards, the investigation of Maria James' murder was strange.

In the days following her death, a team of homicide detectives set up shop in Maria's living room, out the back of the High Street Thornbury bookshop. It was considered easier to work directly out of there, rather than commute from the Fitzroy police station.

Every day, they would walk past the blood-stained carpet of the bedroom crime scene to their makeshift office.

For months, they pursued a dizzying number of leads.

There was a real estate agent from two doors up, who Maria had a relationship with until she discovered he was married.

His alibi — that he was showing a client a house at the time of the murder — held up.

There was the local loner who tried to sell magazines with sexual content to Maria, who was seen at the doorstep of the bookshop on the morning of the murder.

When detectives searched his home, they found a receipt for the dry cleaning removal of a blood-like substance from his trousers, and binding twine in his yard.

He was thoroughly investigated and eventually ruled out due to DNA evidence.

Then there was a Telecom worker, who police thought may have been friendly with Maria.

Days after he was interviewed by police, he committed suicide.

Then there were the links to the nearby church. These continue to be investigated, and will form part of Trace's investigation next week.

Police were convinced someone on High Street on the day of the murder would have seen a person running from the crime scene.

They set up a caravan out the front of the bookshop where people could come to offer up information.

In a first for Victoria Police, a suspect's photofit was compiled via hypnosis of a morning garbage man. The technique has long since been abandoned.

The murder and subsequent investigation shocked and fascinated 1980s Melbourne and attracted intense media coverage.

Before Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance two months later, the James case was front page news and the subject of an ABC documentary.

Then the media moved on.

But Maria's sons Adam and Mark James have never had closure over their mother's death.

Both are working closely with the ABC's Trace podcast team, which is re-investigating the murder and pursuing leads that police had previously discounted.

'Everything just stopped dead'

Mark is now 50. Adam is 48.

Their father John died in 1996, meaning Mark has looked after Adam, who has cerebral palsy and Tourette syndrome, for 37 years — just like he promised his mum.

Adam has great difficulty communicating, so it is the softly-spoken Mark who does most of the talking.

He remembers being collected from school by a parish priest on the day his mum was killed.

"He broke the news to me and I could barely stand up after he said it. He had to half drag me into the principal's office," he said.

"It was almost like my life stopped and everything just stopped dead."

The retired cop who won't let it go

Standing in the laneway behind Maria James' former home, face worn from thousands of late nights on the job, Ron Iddles is certain of a few things.

"Even though we're 37 years on, somebody in the community knows who stabbed Maria James."

"I would say that from the amount of stab wounds — 68 — there's no doubt she knew who the person was who killed her."

"I've investigated over 320 homicides. Those where you have absolute multiple stab wounds like this, I don't think I've ever charged anyone where there is no connection between the killer."

This year, Iddles retired from Victoria Police after close to 40 years.

To call his a decorated career doesn't even come close. He has been called Australia's greatest detective, though he loathes the label.

By all rights, Iddles should be sitting in his Queensland holiday home, enjoying retirement.

Instead, he is pacing High Street, Thornbury, recalling every minute detail about the Maria James investigation.

Hers was his very first case as a homicide detective. Over the ensuing decades, Iddles achieved a staggering 99 per cent rate of cases solved.

But this one has remained unsolved, and it's one he can't let go.

For months, Iddles has assisted the Trace podcast team in reinvestigating Maria James' murder.

He is confident someone in the community holds critical information that could help solve the case.

"There is absolutely no doubt, whoever killed Maria told somebody. And they're the people that we should appeal to," he said.

"They're the people who on their conscience should come forward so that both Mark and Adam can have the answers that they deserve."

Trace is a new true crime podcast re-investigating the unsolved murder of Maria James.
Join reporter Rachael Brown as she pursues previously discounted leads and uncovers new information that could hold the key to uncovering Maria's murderer.

Credits

  • Reporter/investigator: Rachael Brown
  • Additional reporting/photos: Jeremy Story Carter
  • Design: Ben Spraggon
  • Development: Colin Gourlay
  • Digital production: Matt Liddy

Topics: law-crime-and-justice, crime, family-and-children, thornbury-3071

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