Sussex art student who died in 1989 was murdered, coroner rules

Small justice for Jessie Earl’s family as coroner rules she WAS murdered: Art student vanished in 1980 before being found tied to a tree in her bra – but ‘flawed’ police investigation means her killer could still be on streets

  • Jessie Earl, 22, went missing from a bedsit in 1980
  • She was found dead at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1989
  • The first inquest into her death which was held in 1989 recorded an open verdict
  • Coroner said today her family were ‘victims of substantial miscarriage of justice’
  • Inquest also heard police failed to disclose important documents to the family
  • Her death has now been ruled as unlawful killing by murder

A coroner today ruled art student Jessie Earl was murdered – 33 years after her body was found tied up to a tree using her bra.

Her parents Valerie and John, who are in their 90s, have tirelessly battled to have their daughter’s death recognised as murder after police concluded it was probably suicide in their ‘flawed investigation’. 

And this morning, East Sussex assistant coroner James Healy-Pratt ruled that the 22-year-old’s death was unlawful killing by murder.

Ms Earl’s body was found in undergrowth at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, East Sussex, in 1989 – nine years after she vanished from her nearby bedsit.

A fresh inquest into her death this week heard she was ‘probably’ tied to a tree and ‘possibly’ sexually assaulted before she died.

Coroner Mr Healy-Pratt said: ‘The Earl family have, through no fault of their own, had to endure nearly 42 years of waiting since their daughter Jessie was taken from them, for meaningful official recognition of how she died.

‘They have at all times demonstrated remarkable resilience and stoicism, and are to be commended. I trust that the conclusion of this inquest will provide a measure of comfort to the family.’

In 1989 an inquiry recorded an open verdict into her death, but a second inquest which started this week at Eastbourne Town Hall was told her bra had been used to bind her wrists and knotted in such a way that it could have been used as a ‘restraint, gag, weapon or ligature’.

Jessie Earl, 22, disappeared near Beachy Head, East Sussex, back in 1980 without a trace. Her body was found nine years later

Pictured, Jessie’s parents John and Valerie who have never given up trying to get justice for their daughter

Coroner Mr Healy-Pratt said Sussex Police’s 1989 investigation and subsequent decision to dispose of key forensic evidence as ‘significantly flawed’.

In 2000, Sussex Police reopened the case under the name Operation Silk and concluded that Ms Earl was murdered, but no-one has been arrested.

In December last year, the High Court ruled there should be an order quashing the original inquest and that a fresh one should be held.

Speculation has previously linked Ms Earl’s death to Scottish serial killer Peter Tobin, who was said to be living nearby in Brighton at the time of her disappearance.

Ms Earl had described meeting a middle-aged Scottish man at Beachy Head to her mother shortly before her disappearance. 

Tobin is currently serving a whole life sentence in Edinburgh for the murders of three other women.

Mr Healy-Pratt told the inquest that the scientific cause of death is ‘unascertained’ but that he will record the conclusion that Ms Earl was murdered.

‘On the evidence heard in this inquest, I do not consider there to be evidence of suicide, accident, misadventure or natural causes that would justify any conclusion of such short form conclusion,’ he said.

‘I’m satisfied on the evidence that Jessie was murdered, that she was killed by a third party perpetrator who intended to kill her.’

The coroner ruled that Ms Earl’s body was ‘hidden some 70 metres inside an inaccessible area of dense thicket’.

‘The only item accompanying her remains was a knotted brassiere,’ he said.

‘A third party perpetrator used the brassiere to restrain Jessie by the wrists and had intentionally killed her by means unknown.’

He added that the tightness of the knot in the bra was ‘was due to being tied tightly by a third party, or subjected to struggling, or being loaded with weight through suspension or dragging’.

East Sussex assistant coroner James Healy-Pratt ruled on Thursday that her death was unlawful killing by murder 

Mr Healy-Pratt also said that a 1980 report by Sussex Police Detective Sergeant Dusty Miller, which ruled suicide as the most likely explanation in the original missing persons case, ‘had a chilling effect on police efforts to investigate her disappearance’.

Mr Healy-Pratt said DS Miller had written that Ms Earl was facing pressure with her studies and exams, was an introvert with not many friends, had to endure allergies for life, and lived ‘a life apart from others’.

But the coroner said the evidence did not support this conclusion, with Ms Earl’s journal being a ‘fairly reliable personal account of an intelligent, well-balanced young woman enjoying almost every moment of her life’.

He said: ‘Curiously, there is no evidence to support these reasons that were given as supporting suicide as the most likely outcome.

‘Neither has there been any explanation why that report made a conclusion that was seemingly dissonant with the available evidence.’

Tobin was living nearby in Brighton when Jessie disappeared and she had described meeting a middle-aged Scottish man at Beachy Head to her mother

Mr Healy-Pratt said that, as a result, ‘the Earl family suffered a great deal of distress’ during the nine years until her body was found.

He went on to say that the subsequent 1989 Sussex Police investigation, by their own admission, was ‘flawed from the start’ as the senior investigating officer ‘discounted the possibility that Jessie was murdered from the beginning’.

He added that the disposal shortly thereafter of ‘key forensically important evidence was highly unfortunate’.

‘The disposal of the bra and the decision-making by the Sussex Police leading up to its disposal was significantly flawed.’

The inquest had previously heard that the police failed to submit a 2009 review of Operation Silk to the Earls and High Court proceedings, with the coroner’s court only receiving a copy on May 10 – days before proceedings began.

Mr Healy-Pratt said: ‘The court has not received the adequate explanation as to why this 2009 report was not disclosed earlier.

‘Clearly the Earl family felt let down by Sussex Police and the Sussex Coroner in 1989.’

He added that the High Court had already outlined that the ‘Earls were victims of a substantial injustice due to insufficiency of inquiry in 1989’.

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