When Jessie Earl’s naked body was found under a bush, police ruled there’d been no crime… Now, her parents’ 42-year quest for justice could prove she was victim of a notorious serial killer
Valerie Earl will never forget the day, more than 40 years ago, when she walked into her missing daughter’s student bedsit and felt the cold hand of fear tighten around her heart.
‘It looked as though she had just popped out of her room for a minute. The window was open and the curtains were blowing. Her purse was on the bed and there was a coffee mug half-drunk on the floor,’ recalls Valerie, who turns 90 in July. ‘There were the remains of a chicken and rice meal in a dish on the table. It was as if a hand had come down out of nowhere and just lifted her out.’
On Wednesday, May 14, 1980, Jessie Earl, a 22-year-old art student in Eastbourne, East Sussex, called her parents from a seafront phonebox to say she’d be home for the weekend. She sounded happy, opening the door so her mother could hear a brass band playing nearby, telling her: ‘You’d love it here.’
It would be the last time Valerie would ever speak to her only daughter. By 11pm on Friday night, with no sign of Jessie, Valerie worried she’d missed the last train. The following morning, when Jessie still hadn’t rung, her concern had turned to panic.
Imagining her daughter, who had asthma, lying ill in her flat, she told her husband John, ‘There’s something not right, I’m going to Eastbourne’ and jumped on a train from their home in Eltham, South-East London.
It would be the start of a mystery — still unsolved to this day — and the trigger for an extraordinary quest for the truth by this dignified, now very elderly, couple.
On Wednesday, May 14, 1980, Jessie Earl, a 22-year-old art student in Eastbourne, East Sussex, called her parents from a seafront phonebox to say she’d be home for the weekend. She sounded happy, opening the door so her mother could hear a brass band playing nearby, telling her: ‘You’d love it here.’ It would be the last time Valerie would ever speak to her only daughter
Last seen alive by a tenant at her student house on May 15, Jessie’s remains were found in a thicket on Beachy Head in March 1989 — nine years after she went missing.
Though the Earls had long suspected their daughter must be dead, the discovery was devastating. Apparently murdered, all her clothes were missing apart from her bra, which had been knotted and was found among Jessie’s bones. They had been disturbed by animals over the years.
Despite this, the Sussex Police investigation was shut down after just four weeks and her death declared ‘non-suspicious’. An inquest four months later returned an open verdict. ‘We were horrified,’ says John, now 93.
‘It seemed obvious to us from the start that she’d been murdered and all the evidence appeared to point that way. Jessie was found without a stitch of clothing apart from her bra, which was so tightly knotted it could only be undone with a metal probe. She didn’t do that to herself, did she?’
The Earls refused to accept the verdict and began their tireless campaign to overturn it. Last December — 41 years after Jessie’s disappearance and the day before what would have been her 64th birthday — they finally won a High Court legal battle for a new inquest. This week they learned the inquest will now take place on May 10.
The High Court quashed the original verdict after hearing the ‘flawed’ police investigation in 1989 was shut down by a senior investigating officer — for reasons which remain unclear — leaving 103 open lines of inquiry that were never followed up.
Shockingly, Jessie’s death wasn’t even recorded as a crime, let alone a potential homicide. As a result, physical evidence, including the bra, was later disposed of.
Valerie and John (pictured), who watched the latest hearing via videolink, agreed to meet me at their home — where Jessie and her elder brother James grew up — after their High Court victory, as they were anxiously awaiting a date for the new inquest
Stephen Kamlish QC, acting for the Earls, said the investigation had been ‘undermined from within’ and infected the original July 1989 inquest, which failed to properly examine evidence that pointed to unlawful killing.
This included the findings of an eminent knot expert and former Met Police inspector, who had told detectives the knotted bra was ‘similar to impromptu handcuff contrivances commonly found on victims at scenes of crime’.
The pathologist, unable to ascertain exactly how Jessie had died, had also noted the bra could have been used to tie Jessie’s wrists, but he was not even called to give evidence. Lord Justice Warby, Mr Justice Saini and Chief Coroner of England and Wales, His Honour Judge Teague QC, said in their written judgment that two matters clearly pointed to unlawful killing.
The location of the body, hidden in dense undergrowth, was ‘consistent with someone, possibly her killer, wanting to conceal her body’. And the bra, deliberately tied in a loop, was ‘highly persuasive evidence that she did not die from natural causes’.
This week at a pre-inquest hearing, Sussex deputy coroner James Healy-Pratt told Miss Earl’s family: ‘I recognise the extremely long legal and emotional journey you have had to endure.’
Valerie and John, who watched the latest hearing via videolink, agreed to meet me at their home — where Jessie and her elder brother James grew up — after their High Court victory, as they were anxiously awaiting a date for the new inquest.
‘The truth is important, even after 40 years,’ John told me. ‘I just hope we are still alive to hear it.’
Before our interview, it had been reported that convicted serial killer Peter Tobin, 75, (pictured) known to have been living in the Brighton area at the time of Jessie’s disappearance, could be a potential suspect
Before our interview, it had been reported that convicted serial killer Peter Tobin, 75, known to have been living in the Brighton area at the time of Jessie’s disappearance, could be a potential suspect.
Tobin, serving a whole life sentence for the murders of three young women, has also been suggested as a suspect in the disappearance of Louise Kay, 18, who was last seen at Beachy Head in June 1988.
This week it was reported that Jessie’s body could be exhumed in the hope of linking her death to Tobin.
The Earls, it emerged, had already given DNA so that police forensic experts can search databases for a match to any crime scene.
‘Whether Tobin was involved or not, the point is somebody was,’ Valerie explained. ‘It would be enough for us just to be able to change Jessie’s death certificate, which states ’cause unknown’.’ Despite the traumas of the past four decades, the Earls — who celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary this summer — are far from broken.
They exude a warmth as they proudly talk about their artistic daughter, who never went anywhere without pen and pencil to draw wildlife, or jot down her thoughts. They remember how relieved they were when Jessie chose to study in the southern coastal town, with its low crime rates, thinking ‘nothing bad ever happens in Eastbourne’.
Despite the passage of time, Valerie’s memory of the day she went to the police after Jessie went missing remains crystal clear.
‘Two officers came back with me to the flat and I was very worried that Jessie might turn up and see these two big men going through all her things,’ recalls Valerie, a former yoga teacher. ‘I thought, ‘She’ll go mad if she walks in now’. But that never happened.’
In Valerie’s 1980 statement to police, she recalled that Jessie (pictured) had told her — less than two weeks before she went missing — that she’d met a middle-aged man on the downs during one of her walks
In Valerie’s 1980 statement to police, she recalled that Jessie had told her — less than two weeks before she went missing — that she’d met a middle-aged man on the downs during one of her walks. She seemed worried he wanted more than friendship and might come knocking on her door.
This potential lead, however, was never followed up by police.
John, a former historical building conservationist, adds: ‘Back then, the police seemed quite certain about what had happened. We were told Jessie had probably gone abroad, possibly with a boyfriend, and would eventually turn up.
‘We knew this was all wrong. Her passport was at home for one thing, but they said she’d probably applied for a new one. We told them this was completely out of character, but it seemed to us that our opinion didn’t count a jot.’
The weekend Jessie was due home, she was looking forward to seeing a childhood pen-pal visiting from Australia.
Her journals revealed she was loving college life, while her GP would later confirm that Jessie had no mental health problems.
‘We thought maybe Jessie had been hurt in an accident, or was lost somewhere, suffering from amnesia,’ says Valerie, who tells me of the lengths they went to try and find Jessie themselves.
They printed missing posters, appeared on the TV show Wogan and followed up potential leads, no matter how crazy they seemed.
After Tobin was jailed for life for the rape and murder of Polish student Angelika Kluk, 23,(left) whose body he hid in a church in Glasgow in 2006, the search for more potential victims had begun (middle and far right)
‘Once we had a phone call from a clairvoyant to say Jessie was in a bin or box at the back of some garages in a place near Dagenham, so we literally just dropped everything and went,’ says Valerie.
John adds: ‘We had to do it. We worried that the one we decided not to follow up might turn out to be true. But as time passed it slowly dawned on us that Jessie was almost certainly dead.’
The Earls were preparing to go on holiday to Paris when Valerie heard on the radio that the remains of a body had been found on Beachy Head by a father searching for his daughter’s missing kite.
‘I phoned the police and asked, ‘Has this got anything to do with our daughter?’ and they said, ‘No, we think it’s a man’s body’ — but they asked us to leave our hotel number,’ says Valerie.
‘The next morning we were coming downstairs to breakfast when the lady on reception said, ‘English police for you’. They told us it was Jessie. She’d been identified by her dental records.’
Advised to stay in France to avoid media attention, the Earls wandered around Paris in a daze, tormented by thoughts of how she might have died. ‘After the slow stress of the first nine years, suddenly it hits you, ‘My God, she is dead’,’ says John.
‘When we returned and saw her bones and the knotted bra we had no doubt she’d been murdered. We thought there’d be a hell of an investigation.’ So they were mystified when it just seemed to peter out, then crushed by the inquest verdict four months later.
Valerie says they wanted to appeal, but were told it was virtually impossible to challenge a coroner’s verdict. ‘James brought his sister’s bones back by train, in a box on his lap’, says John.
She was later buried in a child’s white coffin, zinc-lined to preserve the remains should the case ever be reopened. In 2000, their hopes were raised when Sussex Police launched a cold case review, which concluded that the initial investigation had made a ‘serious error from the start’ in ruling out the possibility of homicide.
The remains of two teens who went missing in 1991 were discovered in Margate, Kent. Tobin was convicted for the murders of Vicky Hamilton, 15, in 2008 and Dinah McNicol, 18, in 2009
It declared Jessie had almost certainly been murdered. There was a ‘high probability’ she’d been strangled with her own clothing.
After 11 years, however, the chances of identifying a potential suspect were remote. Jessie’s bra, which could have yielded DNA, had been disposed of along with the soil surrounding her bones.
‘At the end of the original investigation, I’d wanted to ask the police for the bra, but then thought, ‘No, I can’t’,’ says Valerie. ‘When we were told it was lost, I was really cross with myself because I still have all of Jessie’s possessions.’
The Earls again resigned themselves to defeat — until four years ago when they were contacted by Mark Williams-Thomas, the investigative journalist who first exposed Jimmy Savile.
He was working on a TV documentary about Tobin and his potential links to missing Louise Kay, 18, who disappeared after a night out with friends in 1988, telling them she was planning to drive to Beachy Head to sleep in her car. Neither she, nor her Ford Fiesta, were ever seen again.
Both women fitted the profile Tobin targeted: small, young and vulnerable. He was known to strip and tie up his victims. After Tobin was jailed for life for the rape and murder of Polish student Angelika Kluk, 23, whose body he hid in a church in Glasgow in 2006, the search for more potential victims had begun. The remains of two teens who went missing in 1991 were discovered in Margate, Kent. Tobin was convicted for the murders of Vicky Hamilton, 15, in 2008 and Dinah McNicol, 18, in 2009.
Scot Tobin, who reportedly boasted to a prison psychiatrist of 48 victims, had moved to Brighton in 1969. He had abruptly returned to Scotland the year after Jessie’s remains were found. He has so far refused to answer any questions relating to her.
‘It wasn’t until Mark came along that we realised we could even challenge the inquest verdict, but he told us, ‘It’s very rare, it’s expensive, but it can be done and I think, in your case, you ought to try’,’ recalls Valerie. John adds: ‘He put together a strong legal team who came to our house and told us, ‘What happened is legally wrong’ and that’s when this whole story changed course.’
George Thomas, representing the Chief Constable of Sussex Police, told the High Court last December they remained ‘neutral’ over the application for a fresh inquest. The case remains open but with no active lines of inquiry.
He acknowledged the 1989 investigation was ‘flawed’ because it ‘appeared to discount the possibility that Jessie had been murdered’, but refuted allegations police had deliberately not followed lines of inquiry. He called claims it was misdirected ‘unjustified’.
Sussex Police maintain the original missing person’s investigation was correctly handled and classed as ‘suspicious’, resulting in a helicopter and dog search.
‘We trusted the police and thought they knew what they were doing. I’m just sad that we were so naive,’ says Valerie.
‘We shouldn’t have had to wait this long for answers.’
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