The families of Mary McCrystal, Graeme Jensen and Laurence Prendergast are stuck in legal limbo after cold case laws were changed. (Supplied)
The cases range from the gruesome to the mysterious — a police shooting, a drug overdose, an accident, a cold-blooded murder.
In some, the Victorian coroner couldn’t work out the cause of death, while in others it appeared cut-and-dry.
But after years of frustration, and the undeniable inkling that the coroner missed something, several Victorian families are petitioning for their cold cases to be prised open again.
It’s sparked a legal battle over whether the coroner even has the power to open fresh inquests.
In 1999, the power to reopen historical inquests shifted from the Supreme Court to the Coroner.
So Slater and Gordon’s Naty Guerrero-Diaz says, “The question is: what happens when you have an inquest that occurred before the 1999 changes, but you’re asking a coroner of today to reopen the inquest?”
“Does the law that was in place at the time of the inquest apply? Or does the law that is in place now apply?”
Today, the family of Maria James — who was murdered in the back of her Melbourne bookshop in 1980 — will ask the Supreme Court to resolve this legal limbo.
If the court declares it is the coroner who has jurisdiction to reopen the James inquest, it could also end the similar painful holding pattern for six other Victorian families.
The stabbing of Maria James
Ms James was stabbed to death in the back of her secondhand bookshop in Thornbury.
For 33 years, police were baffled as to a motive, until in 2013 Maria’s youngest son, Adam James, dropped the bombshell that he’d been abused by Father Anthony Bongiorno three times in the months leading up to his mother’s death.
Maria James was found stabbed to death in the back of her Melbourne bookshop. (Supplied: James family)
Mr James said he confided in his mother the day before she was murdered:
“She said to me, ‘Adam, tomorrow I’m going to ask Father Bongiorno to come and have a chat with me’.”
A trace of the killer?
Maria James’ exhibits have been retested, and police have found something on a pillow and piece of twine. But will it help solve the 38 year old cold case?
Despite Father Bongiorno being seen covered in blood around the time of the murder, the priest was ruled out as a suspect in 2015.
Sources told the ABC his DNA didn’t match that found at the crime scene.
But last year, the ABC’s Trace podcast revealed a DNA bungle that derailed the investigation and sent detectives on a 16-year wild goose chase.
The bloodied pillow that police thought had yielded the killer’s DNA was actually from a completely different crime scene and had nothing to do with Ms James.
This means everyone is back in the frame, including Father Bongiorno, and his colleague, Father Thomas O’Keeffe, the parish priest at St Mary’s Thornbury, who Mr James said also abused him.
Both priests have since died.
The James family has seemingly faced hurdles at every turn, each more bizarre than the last — for example, their mother’s bloodied quilt, which could hold traces of the killer’s blood, has disappeared, along with important documents about the investigation.
Father Anthony Bongiorno was ruled out as a suspect in Maria James’ murder as a result of a DNA bungle. (Supplied)
Her eldest son, Mark, wants the coroner to probe whether the Catholic Church was involved in his mum’s death.
“What we’re talking about is not just a sexual assault, or a series of sexual assaults,” Mark James said.
“We’re talking about the possibility that these priests have been involved with the murder of my mother. This brings a whole new order of magnitude to this case.
“There would be interested parties in this that would very much like it to just go away. The answers to this case are out there, we just need a new inquest to get to the bottom of it.”
The police shooting of Graeme Jensen
Graeme Jensen was shot dead in his car by members of Victoria Police’s armed robbery squad in 1988.
The fatal bullet was fired by detective Robert Hill, who’s since risen to the rank of assistant commissioner. He stood trial for Mr Jensen’s murder in 1995 but was acquitted in record time.
Eleven hours after Mr Jensen was shot, two young police officers were ambushed and gunned down as payback, in what’s become known as the Walsh Street Killings.
Robert Hill, who was acquitted of Graeme Jensen’s murder, is now an assistant commissioner with Victoria Police. (ABC News)
Like the James case, if Mr Jensen’s family is granted a fresh inquest, it could prise open a can of worms for Victoria Police
Police have always maintained that they shot Mr Jensen in self-defence because he was wielding a gun.
But to date, witnesses have been unable to corroborate that account and now, a former surveillance officer claims he saw another detective — not Mr Hill — plant a sawn-off rifle in Mr Jensen’s car.
“It’s a huge deal, it’s the first bit of truth that’s come out,” his sister, Fay Spear, said.
Ms Spear has asked the coroner to set aside the original inquest finding, which ruled he was partly to blame for his own death.
Fay Spear says her brother wasn’t the ruthless criminal that detectives made him out to be. (Supplied)
“I lost faith in the system, I guess, and didn’t know if anything would happen or not,” she said.
“It’s a big toll. I’m certainly not the person I used to be. It’s just horrible, hanging there year after year after year.
While she concedes her bank-robbing brother wasn’t an angel, she believes he was also not the ruthless criminal that detectives painted him to be.
Ms Spear is convinced detectives haven’t been honest about his death.
“We need a door that can be open for the families, not just mine, for the truth to come out and to get justice. If we don’t have that door open we’ve got nowhere to go,” she said.
If a fresh inquest is granted, and if it’s found key witnesses gave false evidence, it could mean a whole new police investigation.
The assistant commissioner declined the ABC’s request for comment.
The overdose of Mary McCrystal
For the past two decades, every cent of her savings and every scintilla of Cheriekah Ramirez’s time has been devoted to solving her mother’s death.
Mary McCrystal was found dead in her bedroom in the country Victorian town of Maffra. Two notes were discovered next to Ms McCrystal’s body, one that appeared to be her will.
The coroner ruled she contributed to her own death, because of a toxic volume of drugs and alcohol found in her system.
Her doctor said she was a chronic alcoholic who was “treated unsuccessfully”.
Ms Ramirez has applied to the coroner for a fresh inquest. She believes someone stood to profit from keeping her mother confined and drugged.
She says that because police regularly turned her away, she took herself back to university to find the answers the authorities have denied her.
“I’ve run out of doors to knock on,” she said.
She’s studied science, forensics, biology, forensic psychology, toxicology and pathology, and is now undertaking a Bachelor of Criminology and Justice.
“I’ve been so consumed by this, I’ve forgotten to live my own life. Instead, this mystery has become my life’s work.
Cheriekah Ramirez has applied to the coroner for a fresh inquest into her mother’s death. (Supplied)
“My quest is to prove the person I suspect not only stole my mother’s life, but also stole my ability to live my own,” she said.
This obsession has come at a cost. She’s now estranged from her entire family.
“They treat me like I’m crazy. I’ve been ostracised completely,” Ms Ramirez said.
“They just want me to let her be dead and buried and leave her in peace. I can’t. I’m not at peace, my children aren’t at peace and I am the only voice she has now she is gone.”
The executions of Dorothy and Ramon Abbey
Heidelberg couple Dorothy and Ramon Abbey were found shot in the back of the head in what appeared to be a gangland-style execution in 1987.
Their three children were in the house when they were killed.
About a year later the then-coroner, Raffaele Barberio, found Mark Andrew McConville “contributed to the cause of death”.
He was found guilty of the murders but the case was re-tried and he was acquitted.
Rodney Collins has since been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the Abbeys.
Victoria Police wants the fact that Collins was found guilty of the murders to be updated in coronial records, and has applied to the coroner for that change to be formally made.
Collins died in prison of natural causes last month.
The murder of Barbara Dawson
Barbara Dawson’s stepfather remains the prime suspect in her murder.
Ms Dawson bled to death after her throat was slashed. Her naked body was found lying face down in Kororoit Creek in North Altona, covered in a black plastic bag.
The coroner couldn’t work out when exactly Ms Dawson died, but decided it was sometime between October 29 and November 1, 1980.
“Such injuries were feloniously unlawfully and maliciously inflicted by a person or persons unknown to me,” wrote the coroner.
Victoria Police detectives have made an application to the coroner to set aside the original findings.
A spokeswoman said Ms Dawson’s stepfather, Peter Dawson, remains a suspect.
“As this application is before the coroner, it would not be appropriate to comment further,” she said.
The Herald Sun has reported autopsy results finding Ms Dawson had sex shortly before her death, and was still alive when her killer tied a cord around her neck.
It’s also been reported Ms Dawson was home alone with her stepfather the day she went missing.
Peter Dawson, who has since died, was also charged with the murder of his first wife, Patricia, but this murder charge was withdrawn. Her body has never been found.
The disappearance of Laurence Prendergast
Laurence Prendergast’s wife, Ursula, thought her husband was a “professional punter” but his sister thought he led a life of crime, complete with criminal associates and criminal enemies.
He disappeared on August 23, 1985.
Mrs Prendergast has applied to the coroner to set aside the findings of the original inquest, so she can finally be granted her husband’s death certificate, 33 years on.
“This has been overwhelming and distressing for each and every one of us, not to mention the mental and emotional toll it has taken,” Mrs Prendergast said.
“It’s time to lay our beloved Laurie to rest. We deserve an end to this never-ending heartache that has been our life for 33 years.
“We desperately need a place to mourn and remember.”
Mr Prendergast’s daughter, Lauren, said her father was a fantastic man who was loyal to those who knew him.
She said her family was searching for closure.
“We have had an open wound that’s been unable to heal for 33 years. Can you imagine, nowhere to go on birthdays and anniversaries to grieve or to lay flowers?
In the 1990 inquest finding, the then-coroner, Maurice Gurvich, said Mr Prendergast “lived a life of crime and deception and had so done for many years”.
Mr Prendergast spent time in prison for various assault offences.
“His criminal record is literally as ‘long as your arm’,” Mr Gurvich said.
A week before her husband disappeared, Mrs Prendergast travelled to Queensland to visit her parents. She spoke to him the day before he vanished and he was in good spirits.
After he disappeared, she visited a psychic who told her to search the Volvo her husband drove.
She said she found hair, a footprint and evidence of saliva and blood in the boot that the forensic expert couldn’t find.
Instead of reporting them to police, she took them to a lawyer who has since died. The items have been lost.
“It is difficult to know where fiction ends and truth begins,” Mr Gurvich wrote.
“The story that unfolded here resembled the plot of a gangster movie.
“All this together with the intervention of a clairvoyant make the ingredients of a good B grade screenplay.
“The facts in my view do not justify my concluding Laurence Prendergast is dead.”
He instead found Mr Prendergast had a strong incentive to go missing intentionally. But according to legal sources, the more that time marches on, the more unlikely it is he’s hiding out somewhere behind another identity.
Mr Gurvich’s acknowledgement that Mr Prendergast could have been abducted and murdered now seems more likely.
The death of Oswaldo Diaz-Lopez
On the day he died, Oswaldo Diaz-Lopez was repairing his son’s 1978 Mercedes sedan.
The 56-year-old certainly had the know-how. He was a retired fitter and turner and he was good with his hands.
But the coroner found that the hydraulic trolley jack that he was using to suspend the car either “slowly collapsed or slipped”, trapping him.
“Mr Diaz-Lopez contributed to his own death by working under the vehicle without taking appropriate additional safety precautions,” the coroner wrote.
He was found under the car by his other son, Christian, who found the jack lying on its side.
In this case the applicant, whose identity is still unknown, has asked for the findings to be set aside, which would lead to a new investigation.