Rachael Brown on TRACE: Who Killed Maria James?

by |July 20, 2018

Rachael BrownTRACE: Who killed Maria James?
by Rachael Brown

Investigative journalism is time-consuming, and often all-consuming. In Trace — who killed Maria James?, step through the case that stuck its hooks into me — just like it did to a homicide detective four decades earlier — and refused to let go. There’s the murder, then things get dark.

Maria James was murdered in the back of her second-hand bookshop in Thornbury, on 17 June 1980. She’d just made a shocking discovery, involving a trusted member of the community, and was set to confront him when she was stabbed to death. Her two sons, Mark and Adam, were just 13 and 11 at the time, and have been searching for answers ever since.

The trail ran cold, until recently. I learned of an explosive witness statement given to police, about a man covered in blood seen near the crime scene. Yet the statement never saw daylight, and this man was eliminated as a suspect. This left me suspicious, given who this man was, and I wondered whether Maria James’s cold case has remained this temperature because of a cover-up. So the ABC podcast Trace was born, a journalistic deep-dive into Maria James’s murder, which called for fresh leads from the public in the hope of tugging on someone’s conscience.

‘It’s enthralling to track Brown’s stubborn little lantern as she forges into these dark forests.’ – Helen Garner

Helping with my investigation was Ron Iddles. Despite his Bradmanesque record of 99% of cases solved, this, his very first homicide case, got away from him, and it still grates. He’s convinced someone in the community is holding onto the missing puzzle piece. So Ron briefed me on the initial ‘persons of interest’, and I reviewed them and the case to check if something, or someone, was overlooked. This sent me on a 16-month crawl down the darkest of rabbit holes: interviewing abuse survivors, one with stories of a murderous satanic cult.

I was dealing with dark material and suicidal survivors around my actual job — radio current-affairs shift work — while furiously lobbying to get Trace commissioned. And on weekends while my mates were posting Facebook photos of fun dinners and dates, I was swotting up on mitochondrial DNA and which Italian town hall would house certain birth records. None of it was fun. But it was important. I suspected two of Victorian’s biggest institutions were responsible for massive failures, and possibly also a cover-up.

My investigation was better first served as a podcast, because the innovative interactivity, and the medium’s diverse audiences, helped flush out the new leads I was desperately hoping for. Also, just as importantly, the podcast’s fine balance of being both forensic and compassionate fostered phenomenal audience investment; listeners wrote in with offers of support for the James family, and cheered on Mark James at his local shopping centre : ‘Good on you, keep going!’

‘Trace the podcast is a tour de force of investigation and storytelling against the odds. Trace the book is the story behind the story.’ – Andrew Rule

But the podcast left a lot unsaid. So Trace — who killed Maria James? details the anatomy of this: meticulous investigation that has prompted a Victoria Police admission about an embarrassing DNA bungle, and has inspired the coroner to consider reopening Maria James’s inquest. Through all the dead-ends and discoveries, the tears and the triumphs, I show readers the gritty toll on all those caught up in this case. On the family that lives in a foggy holding pattern. On sex-abuse survivors who bravely share their nightmares, hoping it might unmask the killer. And on the veteran detective, who can’t wait to call the James brothers with an answer. Remarkably, despite the darkness, or maybe because of it, this book also says a lot about hope, and about how we can all effect change in the world, in our own little ways.

‘A cold case brought to life via the energy of enquiry and extraordinarily, given it’s starting point, the redemptive warmth of humanity.’ – Chris Masters


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rachael brown

TRACE by Rachael Brown


Who killed Maria James?

by Rachael Brown

The riveting inside story of a journalist’s cold-case investigation of a shocking murder.

Every cop has a case that dug its claws in and would not let go. For veteran detective Ron Iddles, it was his very first homicide case — the 1980 murder of single mother Maria James in the back of her Melbourne bookshop. He never managed to solve it, and it still grates like hell.

Maria’s two sons, Mark and Adam, have lived in a holding pattern longer than Rachael Brown has been alive. When the investigative journalist learned that a crucial witness’s evidence had never seen daylight, the case would start to consume her — just as it had the detective nearly four decades prior — so she asked for his blessing, and that of the James brothers, to review Maria's case.

In her exhaustive and exhausting 16-month investigation for the ABC podcast Trace, Rachael reviewed initial suspects, found one of her own, and uncovered devastating revelations about a forensic bungle and possible conspiracies that have inspired the coroner to consider holding a new inquest.

This is a mesmerising account, as Rachael traces back through her investigation — one that blew the dust off a 38-year-old cold case, gave a voice to the forgotten and the abused, and could have serious implications for two of the state’s most powerful institutions.

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