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Jessie Earl: parents of student who went missing in 1980 say she has now ‘got justice’ after murder ruling

Jessie Earl’s remains were found nine years after she went missing and an inquest held in 1989 recorded an open verdict

The parents of a woman who went missing in 1980 have told of how she has now “got justice” after a coroner ruled she was murdered.

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.

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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.

The parents of Jessie Earl who went missing in 1980 said their daughter has “got justice” after a coroner ruled her death was murder.

A hearing at the end of last year heard that serial killer Peter Tobin, was “suspected of having been at large in the Eastbourne area during the 1980s.”

It was said that a DNA profile from Ms Earl’s parents was compared to unidentified DNA in relation to an operation investigating Tobin, but this produced no matches.

1989 investigation was ‘flawed from the start’

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.

An inquest in 1989 into Ms Earl’s death recorded an open verdict following the police inquiry.

However, the new inquest heard Ms Earl was “probably” tied to a tree and “possibly” sexually assaulted before she was murdered.

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”.

The original missing persons poster of Jessie Earl created by her parents.

‘Jessie has got justice out of this’

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.

“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.”

Jessie Earl aged 21.

‘There’s somebody still out there’

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.

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.

Jessie Earl’s parents, John and Valerie Earl.

‘Investigation remains open’

After the coroner’s verdict, Jo Shiner, Chief Constable of Sussex Police, said: “I extend my full and sincere apologies to Mr and Mrs Earl for the pain and distress they have endured and, of course, for the loss of their much-loved daughter Jessie.

“Today’s verdict of unlawful killing formally confirms the police decision in 2000 that Jessie was the victim of homicide. On two occasions, Sussex Police sought to have the original inquest re-opened.

The chief constable acknowledged the investigations of 1980 and 1989 were “inadequate”, and said the inquiry remained open. “I fully accept the historic failures of Sussex Police in this case and acknowledge that the police investigations in 1980 and 1989 were inadequate, with some aspects wholly inadequate.

“More than anything, Jessie’s parents want to know what happened to her. The investigation remains open and I commit to ensuring any new lines of enquiry are effectively investigated. I have offered to meet with Mr and Mrs Earl to extend my apology in person and discuss what further assistance I can provide.”