TRAGIC teenage mum Vicky Couchman was unlawfully killed, a coroner ruled, with forensic experts being unable to ascertain how she died.
The 19-year-old’s naked body was left in undergrowth off Queensway where it lay undiscovered for at least three months, an inquest heard.
Despite exhaustive efforts to establish a cause of death, no one will ever know exactly what happened to the popular youngster who vanished from her home in Beecham Place in 2008.
In what East Sussex Coroner Alan Craze described as one of the ‘most significant and difficult inquests he had dealt with’, detectives revealed the case against her father Tony Couchman who was charged with her murder but killed himself before trial.
Mr Craze described said the case was a ‘double tragedy’ and hoped a sense of closure had been received by the family.
During a day-long hearing at Hastings Magistrates Court on Monday, evidence was heard from the first officers on the scene following the discovery of human remains, and the forensic team tasked with identifying them.
Mr Craze read out a statement by PC Anthony Webb who was called to Redgeland Wood on Monday, October 13, 2008.
PC Webb was shown a human skull without its lower jaw, by a group of children who had been playing with it on a stick.
A search of the area was carried out and the following a day a number of bones were found.
Sussex Police then launched Operation Holbrook as forensic experts tried to piece together the person’s identity and how long the remains had been there. The search located almost a complete skeleton minus the bones of hands, feet and right arm. The court heard the identity breakthrough came during an examination of a leg bone which had a metal plate inserted following a fracture.
It was traced back to the Conquest Hospital where Vicky, aged 16, had it inserted in November 2005 following a serious car accident in Kent which claimed the life of her 17-year-old brother Dean.
The teenager from Hawkhurst died after he was thrown from a Vauxhall Omega when it overturned in the early hours of November 13 on the A229 at Kent Ditch on November 13.
Dental records were also used to help identify Vicky’s remains.
The inquest was heard how the teenager struck up a relationship with Joseph Case but her father disapproved after she became pregnant.
Mr Case’s sister Joanne Keating became friends with Vicky. Giving evidence she said: “Tony became obsessed and Vicky said she was scared of him.
“Tony made threats against Joseph. When the baby was stillborn, he came in and said I kill you if you go anywhere near Vicky again.”
The baby was stillborn and the couple eventually drifted apart.
A copy of the defence statement which would have been used during Couchman’s trial was admitted as evidence by Mr Craze.
Couchman, who never reported Vicky missing, would have denied any involvement with the death of his daughter and deny killing her.
Home office pathologist Dr Kenneth Shurrock carried out a post mortem examination of the remains.
He said: “I did not have anything to tell me how she had died.
“I can’t say that she did not overdose from drugs. I can rule out beating as she had no fractures to bones.
“I can’t say whether or not she was stabbed.
“In my view strangulation is a distinct possibility. There is a highway bone underneath the back of the throat. We never found that bone. She could have been strangled or stabbed but I have no evidence to say that she was. “Everything is possible.
“The pathological evidence does not allow me to say how Miss Couchman died or where she died.”
Evidence was also given of the police case against Couchman.
The man leading the investigation Detective chief inspector Adam Hibbert read through a 15 page dossier of evidence against Couchman.
This included details of him sending texts to family members pretending to be his daughter after she had gone missing, taking money out of her post office account, threatening neighbours who had been talking to the police about him, his car being spotted near where the remains were found around the time of Vicky’s disappearance and disposing of a perfectly good car around the same time.
DCI Hibbert said: “The case against Couchman was circumstantial through his actions, lies and inconsistencies.
“The cause of death could not be determined but it was likely to have occurred three months to less than a year before her remains were found.
“She had been transported naked with no burial attempt.
“Couchman had 11 convictions from theft to firearms offences and was serving four and a half months for theft at the time.
“While on bail he was constantly visiting his neighbours trying to find out what they knew. He was harassing them. “He even gave a neighbour a copy of his firearms offences.”
Summing up the inquest, Mr Craze asked himself a series of crucial questions. He said: “Am I sure it is Vicky’s body; yes I am.
“Did she die elsewhere and was then taken to the woods; I am 90 per cent sure.
“Am I sure of her cause of death, no I am not.
“Taking in all the evidence, I am sure she has been unlawfully killed.”
Mr Craze then went on to address the family and all who had contributed to the inquest.
He added: “It’s been one of the most significant and difficult cases I have had to deal with.
“If everybody is left with a sense that closure has been achieved they will feel a sense of relief that things are over.
“It’s not been an easy inquest. This has been a double tragedy, a triple fatality for the family as her brother was involved as well.
“It has been the most terrible tragedy.”