“Promises can be our undoing,” warns veteran Victoria Police detective Ron Iddles when I also ask for his blessing for the podcast. He’s now retired. The Maria James case was his first homicide investigation. As it did to him, four decades prior, this case will come to consume me. There’s the murder, then things get dark.
THE TOLL (MID 2016)
All my spare time is spent researching this case. I interview Adam James at Mark’s home, where he drops a bombshell about the lead-up to his mother’s death. I leave in a mess of ugly tears and snot, furious at what was taken from the brothers. They suspect this revelation, which their mother discovered, might have led to her murder. This starts a two-year crawl through the darkest rabbit-holes; interviewing abuse survivors, one with stories of a murderous satanic cult. My work brings on horrific nightmares. I wake for a fortnight with a racing heart and damp sheets.
THE RISK (LATE 2016)
I’ve spent more than seven months digging around this case. On weekends, while my mates are posting Facebook photos of fun dinners and dates, I’m studying mitochondrial DNA and transcribing brutal stories of rape. None of this is fun. But it’s important. If my suspicions are right, two of Victoria’s biggest institutions – the police and the Catholic Church – could be found responsible for massive failures, and possibly a cover-up.
At the same time, I’ve been lobbying hard to get the ABC to commission a podcast on the case. At one point, one of my bosses poses a simple question: “How can the podcast resolve?” For me, that’s where the beauty of such journalism lies. The public has a role to play. Listeners will be participants, not just consumers, able to meaningfully contribute information and fresh leads. The podcast will evolve as it goes to air. Maybe, just maybe, the James brothers will finally get their answers.
In November, the ABC rolls the dice, commissioning me to make its first true crime podcast on the murder of Maria James. We’re on.
THE DIG (EARLY 2017)
With any cold case, especially one which could illuminate failings within the Catholic Church and a police force, digging takes time. My to-do list of sources needing to be tracked down is ever-expanding. Strike one off, and three new targets rise up in its place. The generation of people I’m after are not easily found on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, so this investigation, even though it’s for the innovative medium of podcasting, relies on good old-fashioned legwork. It means digging into microfiche, and trawling through coronial documents, newspaper cuttings and victim statements. It involves finding addresses on federal rolls and landing on doorsteps armed with a smile and cake, hoping that, finally, we’ve found the person who can unlock this murder.
THE RESPONSE (MID 2017)
The ABC launches Trace on June 17, the 37th anniversary of Maria James’ death. The first four episodes are released in quick succession, one a week. Trace quickly becomes the ABC’s most popular podcast. It won’t release download figures, especially in this case, as it would be crass to celebrate strong statistics for such a tragic story, so the figure I celebrate is 300, the number of emails that quickly flood into Trace’s special account, with new leads. Then there are the hand-written letters, the phone calls, the kind offers of support. A detective wants to help organise a dignified memorial service for Maria James; a lawyer volunteers her services pro bono for the James family if a fresh inquest is held; people at Mark James’ local shopping centre cheer him, “Good on you, keep going!” These tributes make all the 3am finishes worth it.
Then I learn something that lifts and breaks my heart in the same micro-second. There’s been a gargantuan mistake made in the investigation, one that from 2002 led police on a wild goose chase. It means multiple suspects are back in the frame. After all the sweat and nightmares, all the bureaucratic hurdles and brave interviewees pouring their hearts out, how can this be the end? I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume I’d solve it, but I don’t want Trace’s answer to be that there can’t be an answer.
With this new lead we produce a fifth episode, which airs in September. Now things need to happen that I can’t rush. Victoria Police needs to re-test Maria James’ belongings for a possible new DNA profile of her killer. The coroner needs to decide whether to reopen the inquest. The waiting game begins.
THE EVOLUTION (LATE 2017)
Trace’s narrative and sound design help listeners feel they’re walking through the investigation right beside me, stumbling upon new information when I do. They love the real-time pursuit of leads from emails or talk-back callers. But some don’t like being part of an unfolding story. “As a podcast it’s one that’s been left half finished,” writes one iTunes reviewer. I feel like screaming, “Imagine how Maria’s sons feel!” I can’t just invent an ending to satisfy the listeners’ need for closure. This one is messy, just like life.
This tension between entertainment and justice plagues any true-crime podcast, because real lives hang in the balance. In 2016 The Age launched its own true crime podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, in which journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard reviewed the death of 24-year-old Melburnian Phoebe Handsjuk, found in December 2010 at the bottom of her apartment’s garbage chute. The coroner recorded “death by misadventure”. This podcast throws up some other scenarios, but doesn’t land on one.
“There’s inevitable pressure that comes with a story people are invested in,” says Baker. “Listeners want loose ends tied and closure, but life doesn’t work like that. I just had to be faithful to the facts, and where the story went.” Baker admits no one wants to read a book that ends on a question mark. But he says for families shouldering the toll of a cold case, “sometimes it’s enough that every rabbit hole has been burrowed into, that someone has had a good crack at it. Sometimes that is the answer.”
When Serial’s Koenig declined in the final episode to take a position on whether Syed was guilty of Lee’s murder, many of her 175 million listeners felt robbed. But Koenig stayed resolutely faithful to the journalism. One Vulture writer wasn’t surprised: “I never expected the rusty gears of justice to start up again and work in concert with these 12 episodes.” Interestingly, two years after Serial launched, Syed’s conviction was overturned. His trial remains in limbo while Maryland’s highest court waits to hear the State’s appeal. The rusty gears mightn’t turn on podcast time, but they do turn.
THE DEVASTATION (LATE 2017)
In September the podcast wins journalism’s Walkley Award for Innovation. We enjoy a little bit of light for a few weeks, until we hear the devastating news that our series producer, Jesse Cox, has been fighting a form of rare soft-tissue cancer, alveolar soft part sarcoma, but has kept mum about it. I have to read this email twice. This can’t be my Jesse? Then the guilt sets in. For not knowing. For not asking why his beard looked white at the Walkleys. For bugging the shit out of him this year, calling at all hours, stealing him away from his wife, Que, and their two-year-old son, Alfie. For all the creative tussles. But then, there were way more laughs, through every edit waltz. And he looked so bloody proud on stage accepting the Walkley.
The next email ends the breath we’ve all been holding: Jesse’s not going to make it. He dies in December. I lose it, and can’t manage to leave home for three days. He was 31, for Christ’s sake. He wanted to change the world, and he did. With his tireless enthusiasm, he brought people’s creative dreams to life. So much so that, from now on, when producers get stuck, they’ll ask, “What would Jesse do?”
LOOSE ENDS (MID 2018)
In June we release a sixth episode, the result of further leads and investigation, but we’re still not close to solving the murder. It’s always two steps forward, one back. Victoria Police finds a trace of something on Maria James’ pillow, but there’s a catch. The coroner is about to decide whether to hold a new inquest, but there’s a hurdle. There’s a growing mountain of unexplainables; a DNA bungle, a missing bloodied quilt, missing police documents, but, as yet, no smoking gun. There are other names in Maria’s cold-case boxes, but Victoria Police won’t let me anywhere near them.
Ron Iddles has long dreamed of the phone call he’d like to make to Mark James. The one with the answer. “I’ll go and visit him, we’ll probably have a big hug and sit down and have a drink. Yeah, it will be a magic moment.” As for me, no one hopes to write Maria’s final chapter more. But it’s non-fiction. It’ll mean patience and, as most Trace followers have shown in spades over the past year, care.