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Parents of student who went missing in 1980 call murder ruling ‘justice’

Jessie Earl’s parents, John and Valerie Earl (Aaron Chow/PA)
Jessie Earl’s parents, John and Valerie Earl (Aaron Chow/PA)

The parents of an art student who went missing in 1980 said their daughter has “got justice” after a coroner ruled her death was murder 42 years later.

Jessie 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.

The 22-year-old’s remains were found in an area of dense thicket with no belongings or clothes apart from her bra, which was tied in a knot.

Crime – Jessie Earl Missing Case – Eltham, London
Valerie Earl with a poster of her missing daughter, Jessie (PA)

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

He also described Sussex Police’s 1989 investigation as “flawed” and said the Earl family had been “victims of a substantial injustice”.

The inquest conclusion comes after a second inquest into the 22-year-old’s death at Eastbourne Town Hall, which began on Tuesday.

It comes decades after a 1989 inquest into Ms Earl’s death recorded an open verdict following the police inquiry.

Jessie Earl inquest
Jessie Earl aged 22 taken 1976 (Family handout)

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.

Her parents, John and Valerie Earl – who are in their 90s, told PA news agency that the inquest’s conclusion was “the most important day”.

Asked how they were feeling about, Mrs Earl said: “Elated, definitely very pleased.”

“Yes, slightly exhausted,” Mr Earl added.

Jessie Earl inquest
Jessie Earl’s parents, John and Valerie Earl (Aaron Chown/PA)

“It’s a terrific statement from the coroner that’s covered every single point that we’ve been worrying about for 30-odd years.

“Every single point – he’s left nothing behind and he’s cleared absolutely everything that’s on our minds.

“So it’s a terrific result and the fact that we now have a finding of unlawful killing instead of what’s on the present death certificate, which is unknown causes of death, for us this is a triumph because it means that Jessie has got justice out of this.

“It’s been a very long road,” he added.

Mrs Earl added: “It’s the most important day really, if we hadn’t had today then we would have just gone on with that death certificate in the draw and I would have ranted about it forever.”

Mr Earl said: “We had the verdict we wanted and it’s more than just the verdict, it’s everything surrounding it, all the comments he made were wonderful.

On what emerged during the inquest about the police investigation, Mrs Earl said they were “surprised” by the extent of what they weren’t told.

She said: “It’s been quite illuminating in the fact that when we went into the investigation we were quite young and naive and I really believed everything I was told particularly by the police who were in charge and all good.

“Looking back now I realise there were so many awful things that happened.”

Asked if they felt the police had been held to account over their handling of the case, Mr Earl: “Not really no. I think they’ve got to do it themselves.

“I’d like to see the police investigating this themselves, not he crime but their attitudes towards it from the beginning.”

Describing what their daughter was like, Mrs Earl said she was “a bit eccentric”, “an original”, “terrific” and “wonderful”.

On what’s next, Mrs Earl said: “It must be closure”, but added: “I can’t help feeling it’s not the end.”

She said the inquest conclusion can “go into the family folder and our grandchildren will be able to see what happened to her aunt.

“I think this is probably as far as it will go unless somebody comes up. I think this last three days has probably been as much as we can cope with.”

“Whoever it is, there’s somebody still out there,” Mr Earl added.

It comes after Mr Healy-Pratt concluded on Thursday that the scientific cause of death is “unascertained”, but he will record the conclusion that Ms Earl was murdered.

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.”

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