We still hope for truth over our girl’s murder after she’s found at Beachy Head
The brave parents of a student who disappeared 40 years ago have finally won a key battle in their campaign to solve the mystery surrounding her death.
Jessie Earl’s remains lay undiscovered in a thicket for nine years until a family stumbled upon them in 1989.
Police thought it was missing aristocrat Lord Lucan, who had disappeared in 1974 amid claims he had murdered his family’s nanny, Sandra Rivett.
But it turned out to be 22-year-old Jessie, who was identified through her dental records.
She was found naked on Beachy Head, a cliff near Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Her watch, ring and most of her clothes were missing. Only her bra was found by her body and it had been tied in a knot.
Mum Val, now 88, and dad John, 92, were convinced Jessie was murdered, so they were devastated when a coroner returned an open verdict.
But now, in a highly unusual move, the Solicitor General has given them permission to appeal the verdict – which could pave the way for a fresh inquest.
The Rt Hon Michael Ellis QC MP said: “I have concluded the initial investigation was insufficient and further lines of inquiry should have been pursued. It is in the interest of justice the application for a new inquest be heard by the High Court.”
Val and John say they are desperate for a new hearing to take place while they still have time to solve the riddle of Jessie’s disappearance and death.
Retired yoga teacher Val said: “We’ve waited 30 years for this and we were told it couldn’t be done. Before the first inquest, the police said, ‘You might not get the verdict you want’. I didn’t see how it could be anything other than murder.
But the coroner delivered an open verdict. We were upset. We said, ‘We’ll appeal’. But we were told we couldn’t.”
The couple were inspired to continue their push for answers by Mark Williams-Thomas, the crime author and investigator best known for exposing Jimmy Savile as a paedophile in a television documentary.
Val said: “When Mark first came to see us, my reaction was, ‘I’m not doing any of this again, it’s gone on too long’. But he was so genuine and he’d done his homework.
“He put a legal team together who said we should appeal as the decision was wrong and should be overturned.
“This week, we had this wonderful phone call to say they had made the decision. We’re delighted but, given our age, we hope things move quickly.
“We want to make sure we’re around to see what the outcome is. It won’t bring Jessie back but we want it to be on record she didn’t die of natural causes.”
Williams-Thomas believes Jessie could have been murdered by serial killer Peter Tobin, who is serving a whole life term for the murders of Angelika Kluk, 23, Dinah McNicol, 18, and Vicky Hamilton, 15.
The fiend was living in Sussex when Jessie vanished and is said to have boasted he has dozens more victims. A pathologist who examined Jessie’s body believed her hands could have been tied with her bra.
Tobin bound the bodies of his victims before hiding them. In theory, the 74- year-old could be asked to give evidence at a new inquest – and a verdict of unlawful killing could spark a fresh police probe.
But as Tobin is seriously unwell, the couple have accepted he may never face questions about Jessie.
Val said: “The scenario Mark worked out makes a lot of sense. He thinks she was walking on Beachy Head when this man came up to her. It seems likely it was him. She liked talking to people.
“A new police investigation isn’t a priority for us but it’s just so wrong that there is still a great big question mark over how she died.”
In 1980, Val and John were delighted when Jessie got into art college in Eastbourne as the resort seemed so safe. She called them the night before she vanished in May and opened the door of the phonebox so they could hear music from a nearby bandstand.
Val recalled: “She said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t come down to East- bourne more often, it’s absolutely beautiful’. She was so happy there.”
But that was their last conversation. Jessie was due to visit them in Eltham, South London, the next day but never arrived.
Val became overwhelmed by a feeling something was wrong. She went to Jessie’s lodgings, where a neighbour let her into her room.
The window was open, there was an unfinished cup of coffee and her purse was lying on the bed. Val said. “It looked like she’d just gone out.”
She called John and they agreed it was time to alert the police. He said: “I knew from Val’s tone of voice there was something really wrong. It was like a cold hand coming round my heart.”
Val spent the night in her daughter’s bed waiting for news – but none came.
For the next nine years, the couple never gave up searching for clues.
They printed leaflets and sent them all over the UK. They told themselves Jessie could be suffering from amnesia. They even turned to psychics
Val said: “One of the strangest things we did was stand by a dual carriageway as a clairvoyant said she was coming down the road in a blue van.
“I thought of people whose sons and daughters had been missing years. I thought, ‘I couldn’t do that. How can they go on?’ But we had to keep going.”
John added: “I didn’t want to admit she was dead but there was no trace.”
The breakthrough came in March 1989, when the couple were about to go on holiday to Paris.
Val said: “I had Radio 4 on and heard on the news that a body had been found on Beachy Head. I rang the police and they said, ‘It’s probably Lord Lucan’. They didn’t think it was Jessie. They told us to go to Paris. But next day, we went down for breakfast and the police had called.
“They told us not to come home as there would be reporters at our door. We walked around Paris in a daze.”
When the couple got back to the UK, they went straight to the spot where Jessie was discovered.
John said: “It had been stripped down to the earth and the police were fingertip-searching the ground.”
There was so little left of Jessie they had to bury her in a child’s coffin.
The couple are now too frail to visit their daughter’s grave but they remember her funeral well. Val said: “As the coffin was being lowered into the ground, a fir cone fell on top of it.
“Everyone looked up and there was a squirrel sitting on the edge of a branch. It was quite magical. We all said this was Jessie’s way of saying,‘I’m OK, you can go ahead’.
“I brought the fir cone home and it’s still on the mantelpiece.”
Just one verdict a year gets quashed
While some 30,000 inquests are carried out each year, it is extremely rare for a verdict to be quashed – typically happening once a year.
The most famous recent example is the case of the 96 Liverpool fans killed in the Hillsborough disaster.
The Earls’ lawyer, David Wells, said: “The family has been granted permission to make an application to the High Court for the inquest to be overturned. It’s an uphill struggle to get consent for this so that is some achievement. If the verdict was quashed by the High Court, there would be a new inquest.
“What we are looking to do is show the verdict fits the evidence and it was unlawful killing.”
Charity Inquest added: “There are ways to challenge an inquest but these involve complicated legal processes which can take years.
“It is possible that if the High Court accepts that there has been fraud, rejection of evidence, irregularity of proceedings, an insufficiency of inquiry or if it is in the interests of justice, a new inquest can be ordered.”