Art student whose body was found in 1989 ‘likely tied to a tree’, inquest finds
An ART student who disappeared more than 40 years ago was ‘likely’ tied to a tree and ‘possibly’ sexually assaulted before she was murdered, an inquest has heard.
But a retired detective sergeant claimed potentially vital evidence in the alleged murder of 22-year-old Jessie Earl had been ‘destroyed’ by police, the inquest heard.
A 1989 inquest into Ms Earl’s death recorded an open verdict, and it was not until 2000 that Sussex Police concluded that Ms Earl had been murdered. No one has been arrested.
A second inquest, which was ordered by the High Court in December, opened at Eastbourne Town Hall on Tuesday.
Ms Earl’s body was found in an undergrowth at Beachy Head in 1989, nine years after she disappeared from her nearby studio.
The only item of clothing found with her bones was her bra, which the inquest learned was tied and could have been used as a “restraint, gag, weapon or ligature”.
Anne Capon, a retired Sussex Police Detective Sergeant, told the inquest: ‘We thought she had been restrained somehow by her bra, and because it was found near a tree, we thought she might have been tied to a tree.”
Ms Capon told the coroner she believed Ms Earl had ‘probably’ been tied to a tree, possibly using her bra, and said there ‘maybe’ there was a sexual element involved .
However, it is impossible to be certain of the alleged sexual assault due to the time that elapsed before she was found, Ms Capon told the inquest.
Ms Capon said Ms Earl’s bones were ‘scattered’ but ‘a number of bones were closer to the tree’ and the bra, the only item of clothing recovered, was ‘found very close to the base of the tree”.
Ms Capon, who has been involved in the case at its various stages over the decades, said that bra was ‘disposed of’ by police.
She took part in the original 1981 inquiry and was seconded to the investigation after Miss Earl’s body was found in 1989.
She also worked on a 2000 investigation, Operation Silk, which ultimately concluded that Ms Earl had been murdered.
Ms Capon told the new inquest she still believed what she said at the first inquest in 1989: ‘My opinion was that she had been murdered.
She said this was due to “circumstances”, such as “the way the bra was tied” and “the fact that she was in such dense undergrowth”.
She said she “just couldn’t see how Jessie could have gotten into dense bushes like that, and there were various other things that made me think she was murdered”, such as the fact that it was “out of his normal walking route”.
After the inquest into Ms Earl’s death in 2000 was reopened, Ms Capon said she learned that some evidence, such as the bra, had been “destroyed some time before”.
She told the inquest it was part of Sussex Police’s ‘disposal policy’ where items are ‘disposed of after a certain period of time’.
She said: “I think it was one of those cases where, because it wasn’t considered a murder in 1989, I don’t think anyone insisted that those rooms should be kept forever.”
Ms Capon said the ‘tremendous progress’ in forensic testing since the body was discovered means there is ‘every chance’ police could have found DNA evidence on the bra, which she think the alleged killer would have hit.
She later added, “At the very least, a note should have been left, a very visible note, with these exhibits, saying they should never be disposed of.”
She said the ‘majority’ of those working on the investigation shared her view that Ms Earl was likely to have been murdered.
But she claimed the lead investigator had “insisted” that they not air such views, the inquest found.
She added: ‘He made a political decision, he was not going to be considered murder.
“I remember some time after the investigation began, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were not to refer to it as murder or not to speak of it as murder.”
The investigation continues on Wednesday.