Priest tried to enter murdered mum's store

·3-min read

A priest tried to push past detectives into a crime scene soon after murdered mother Maria James' body was found, only to be taken away in a police van, a coroner has been told.

Father Anthony Bongiorno is one of six main suspects in the unsolved murder of the 38-year-old Melbourne woman at her Thornbury home more than 40 years ago.

A new inquest began on Monday to examine the circumstances of the murder, identify the killer and assess the police investigation.

One of the first police on the scene, semi-retired Northcote detective Cliff Hall, gave evidence on Tuesday.

Mr Hall and another detective arrived at the home, which was attached to a bookshop, minutes after being called to the scene on June 17 1980. There he met Ms James' ex-husband John James, who was the first to find her body.

Before an ambulance arrived, he said an "aggressive and domineering" man dressed in black priest robes arrived at the front of the shop and identified himself as Father Anthony Bongiorno.

"When I told him he couldn't enter because a lady had died, he said he was her priest and needed to go inside to administer last rites," Mr Hall said.

"He was adamant about getting in and giving last rites, he actually tried physically pushing past me and I had to physically push him away to keep him out.

"It got pretty heated and he just wouldn't stop insisting on getting in."

He said the priest was then escorted to a police van because his behaviour became a hindrance.

Father Bongiorno was taken to Northcote police station but "some time later" returned to the crime scene and hung out the front, continuing to try getting inside before eventually leaving, Mr Hall said.

Crime scene examiner Terrence Collins also appeared on Tuesday, and said when he arrived at the scene he found Ms James lying on her back with her hands tied together with twine, across her stomach.

She was stabbed 68 times, including 38 times in her back and 11 in her neck, with three wounds on her head.

Mr Collins said he found Ms James' bedroom walls, door, carpet and wardrobe were covered in blood, and there were two blood-stained pillow cases.

He admitted the pillow cases were not taken away as evidence until the day after her body was found and were lost shortly after being recorded as exhibits, with no written evidence of what happened to the items.

A green jumper taken from the scene is also missing, after it was admitted to a "sink room" for drying.

Mr Collins said he did not know what happened to the two pillow cases, one of which had a partial fingerprint, nor the green jumper.

Six main suspects have been identified during the inquest, but only one is still alive - a real estate agent who was having an affair with Ms James at the time of her death.

Other suspects include two priests, Father Bongiorno and Father Thomas O'Keeffe, who have both since died, and have been accused of molesting Ms James' son Adam on the weekend before the murder.

Local man Mario Falcucci who argued with Ms James before she died, Peter Keogh who stabbed his partner to death, and Lyle Perkins who was convicted of assaulting two hitchhikers in August 1980, were also named.

The inquest before Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English continues on Wednesday, when Ms James' son Mark is expected to give evidence.

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