Joanna Parrish: ‘We just want to know who killed our daughter’
Twenty-one years after the unsolved murder of an English student in France, the parents of Joanna Parrish still search for answers. Last week, they learnt they may never find justice.
It was a last, desperate attempt by Pauline Murrell to discover who killed her daughter Joanna more than 20 years ago: a heart-rending three-page letter to the wife of the suspected killer, begging her “as one mother to another” to tell her the truth.
“I hope that you will be able to give us a bit of the peace of mind that we have been seeking for so long,” reads the letter. “We need to know the truth and you are the only person who can help us… Madame, I beg you to re-examine your conscience and tell me the truth.”
“I thought that, as a mother of three sons, she would understand; that maybe she would have the same parental feelings as a normal person,” says Mrs Murrell sadly, sipping a cup of tea. We are sitting in the handsome Gloucestershire cottage owned by Roger Parrish, Joanna’s 67-year-old father. The couple are divorced, and Pauline remarried, but their shared grief means they remain close friends.
Joanna Parrish’s parents have spent more than two decades fighting for justice for their 20-year-old daughter who was found raped and strangled in a river in Auxerre, Burgundy.
Then last week they received another crushing blow, one that almost certainly means they will never know who killed their daughter. They were informed that a Paris prosecutor had asked a judge to rule that there is “no case to answer” against Fourniret and Olivier.
“We had been dreading the day when we would hear this news,” says Mr Parrish, a retired civil servant. “That’s why we sent the letter. It is a terrible shock. It means the case is closed and we will never know who killed Jo. All we ever wanted was the truth so that we could move on with our lives. That almost certainly won’t be possible now.”
Joanna, a languages student at Leeds University, was found dead on May 17, 1990, a week before she was due to finish teaching English as an assistante at a lycée in Auxerre, where she was spending the third year of her four-year course.
Her parents had planned to visit her and take her belongings home. Meanwhile, Joanna was set to travel on to the Czech Republic to join her boyfriend Patrick, another Leeds student spending a year abroad.
According to a flatmate, Jo had received a phone call from a man responding to a newspaper advert she had placed offering private English classes. He said he wanted Joanna to teach his son. She arranged to meet the mystery caller outside the Banque Populaire in Auxerre at 7pm – but she never returned home. Her naked body was found the following day in the River Yonne, three miles outside the town. She had been raped and strangled.
The death of such a popular, friendly girl, with her adult life just beginning, shattered her family. “She was at that age when she was slipping free of the apron strings,” Mr Parrish says as he flicks through photographs of Jo – his “bright, happy, caring” daughter – as a sweet 14-year-old; Jo aged 16 as Sleeping Beauty in a pantomime; Jo with her brother, Barney, three years her junior. “She was sailing across a smooth sea. She was at a top university, with a bright career ahead of her, and in a fulfilling relationship. She was doing well and was happy. Then she was taken from us, from everyone, in such a terrible way.
“She had done nothing wrong, she was innocent. I cannot find the words to describe the impact her loss has had – and is still having – on us. It was like the end of our lives.”
Once, even twice, a year following their daughter’s murder, her grief-stricken parents would travel to France to hand out leaflets, appeal for information, and search for clues, witnesses, anything that might help.
Then in May 2008, Michel Fourniret, now 68, was jailed for life for murdering seven women aged between seven and 21 in north-east France and Belgium. He was dubbed The Beast of Ardennes. His wife, Monique Olivier, who had helped lure the victims, was also given a life sentence for complicity.
Mr Parrish says there are “too many similarities” with the other murders. At Fourniret’s trial, they heard how he was obsessed with raping and killing girls and young women, preferably virgins, aided by his wife, who was described in court as “a deceitful witch”. His victims were strangled, like Joanna, or shot or stabbed to death with a screwdriver, mostly in the forests of Ardennes.
In several cases Olivier gave a lift to a girl, sometimes with her baby son in the back of the car, and would then “pick up” Fourniret who would be waving an empty petrol can at the roadside. He was eventually caught in 2003 after a 13-year-old girl he had abducted escaped from the back of his white van when it stopped at traffic lights. She told police Fourniret had said to her: “Shut up or I’ll kill you. You must give me pleasure.”
Monique Olivier has thrice told prosecutors that she had seen her husband murder a young woman in Auxerre and then dump the body in the Yonne river in 1990 – which is precisely what happened to Joanna. But each time she had retracted the confession, claiming it was made under duress.
Joanna’s parents remain calm and dignified, but they are still angry that the police did not do more to find Jo’s killer. The investigation has been beset by blunders and delays as the Auxerre police “lost” crucial DNA evidence that, with today’s technology, could have led them to the murderer.
Crucially, officers also failed to trace the phone call made to Joanna to arrange the English lessons. “There is something very wrong with the way the investigation was handled,” says Mr Parrish. “It’s been incredibly frustrating.”
Parents never recover from the loss of a child; they can only cope as best they can. Mr Parrish says the torment is worst at night. He has had to take sleeping pills every evening since Jo’s death.
Joanna’s mother is similarly tormented. “Never a day goes by that we don’t think about her.” She admits she didn’t cry for months after her daughter’s death, partly because she was in denial, partly because they were used to Jo being away from home for long periods. But the reality hit her in October, and the tears flowed, when she read a copy of the post-mortem report. The details of Jo’s death were gruesome. “I told Roger not to read it, but he did. It was just so horrible,” she says.
Their turbulent emotions include an element of guilt, irrational perhaps, but real to those who are left behind when children die. “It feels we have let her down,” says Mrs Murrell. “I think that perhaps we could have done some things differently.”
Indeed, memories of Jo come back to haunt them at unexpected times – when they hear a song or music that she loved, for instance, such as Pachelbel’s Canon or Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, which the family would sing as “before you Jo-Jo”.
Stumbling across something that belonged to their lost daughter can also trigger powerful emotions. “I found her school scarf the other day and I just started crying,” says her mother.
Jo’s brother, Barney, was “knocked sideways” by his sister’s death. “He saw her as a guiding light and was a lost soul when she was killed,” says Mr Parrish. “He didn’t talk about Jo for months.”
Barney missed the summer term of his lower sixth and, though he returned to school for his upper sixth year, was unable to sit his A-levels. He also had to cope with another shock: the news that his parents were separating.
They had decided to split up six weeks before Jo was killed. Roger and Pauline had told Jo who, they say, “understood”, but didn’t plan to tell Barney until his sister was back from her travels. In the end, he had to deal with both blows at once.
“He was a young 17 and we were worried about him,” says Mr Parrish. “It took him until he was well into his thirties before he settled down.”
Jo and Barney’s parents went ahead with the separation but remain close. Barney, now 39, and his wife Hayley have given Roger and Pauline three grandchildren – a source, they say, of immense comfort.
Locals in the picture-perfect village of Newnham on Severn, where Jo spent most of her teenage years, rallied round after the murder, calling in regularly to check on the family. Her funeral was held at the local St Peter’s church, with 600 people attending the service. “Neighbours still ask me about the investigation,” says Mrs Murrell.
Even today, the family receives emails from many of Jo’s French pupils and university friends. Her boyfriend Patrick, now married with two daughters, visits the family and puts flowers on Jo’s grave every year.
Her family gathers on Jo’s birthday – July 30 – to “celebrate” her life, while her parents also meet, more quietly, on the anniversary of her death.
But Joanna’s parents have also had to cope with criticism of their quest to find the truth about what happened to their daughter. When they went on their regular trips to France to check on the investigation and make their own inquiries, one teacher accused them of giving the Lycée Jacques Amyot, where Joanna had taught, a bad name. Others in the town said they were damaging the reputation of Auxerre and putting off tourists. Mr Parrish was even criticised for saying the fact that Joanna was dragged to the river along a small, hidden track suggested the killer was a local person.
Twenty-one years after their daughter’s murder, her parents know that the last legal door has probably been slammed in their faces, even though their lawyers will challenge the decision. The case against Fourniret can be reopened if new evidence emerges in the next 10 years – but they know this is unlikely.
But Joanna’s parents have not yet given up hope entirely. The couple are pinning their hopes on Monique Olivier – perhaps even Fourniret himself – confessing before they die.
“They will both get older and they may just decide to say something,” believes Mr Parrish. “And we have to cling to that hope.”