ABC podcast Trace leads to reopening of a 38 year old cold case

In an Australian first, a decades old cold case investigation will be re-opened following revelations uncovered in the ABC’s first true-crime podcast Trace.

The decision by the Victorian Coroner to reopen the investigation into the murder of Melbourne bookshop owner Maria James comes after Trace exposed new information about the unsolved case, including revelations about possible suspects and a forensics bungle which meant Police never had the killer’s DNA to begin with.

According to information outlined in Trace episode 4, a blood stained pillow case that was thought to contain samples of the murderer’s blood was found not to be the item found at Maria James’ murder scene.

“As I sit here now, if I was to reinvestigate it, I would say that (deceased priest) Father Bonjourno is the strongest suspect,” retired detective Ron Iddles told ABC investigative reporter Rachel Brown in the 4th episode.

Maria James was stabbed to death in the back of her Melbourne bookshop in June 1980.

Rachael Brown started reviewing the case almost three years ago. Tip-offs and fresh leads from listeners have played a crucial role in the latest development.

She says this shows the power of journalism to bring about change, and the value of the podcast format.

“It is a powerful and serious reminder that Trace is telling the story of real people and has real-life implications. The audience mobilisation we’ve had around this podcast is unlike anything we’ve seen before.  

“The intimacy of the podcast genre affords the respect, consideration and anonymity required when confronting these difficult stories, which is tricky or impossible to achieve through other genres.”

Victoria Police has also launched its own official review of the cold case.

Former detective Ron Iddles commended Trace for its role in reopening the investigation. “Historically, Victoria Police has relied on rewards and some selected media [for case breakthroughs],” he told ABC News. “But the world is changing and when a podcast gets (millions of) downloads that is a new initiative that needs to be seriously looked at as a way of solving unsolved cases.”

Trace won the Innovation award at the 2017 Walkley Awards, recognising excellence in journalism.

Speaking in a special discussion episode of the podcast recorded in front of a live audience, Maria James’ son Mark said: “I would like to see in the future that Victoria Police would look at [using podcasts] to solve other unsolved cases.”

Detective Ron Idle said: “I don’t think there is any other medium that could draw 2.5 million people interested in something like this. I’ve always said there is somebody in the community who holds the answer to every unsolved homicide. It’s about touching them… Of all the homicides I’ve done, most times they told someone, there is no doubt whoever is responsible has told someone, its about getting the right set of circumstances for them to come forward… the medium and the way it was done is fantastic.”

The podcast was investigated painstakingly for over a year and the production and storytelling techniques are executed with high level craft skills.

The ABC has built on the success of Trace with a new collection of true crime stories, including the Unravel podcast, the first series of which, Blood on the Tracks, won the 2018 Walkley Award for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs.

A new episode of Trace will be released early next week. All episodes of the original podcast are available on the free ABC listen appApple Podcasts, and other podcast platforms.

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