The distraught family of Joanna Yeates, the 25-year-old architect who vanished from Bristol more than a week ago, were informed by the police yesterday that the body of a young woman had been found just a few miles from where she lived.
A couple walking their dogs found the body near a golf course in Failand, Somerset, early yesterday morning. The site is four miles from the Clifton area of Bristol where Ms Yeates disappeared without trace on 17 December.
The body was found frozen, in a ditch, which has delayed a post mortem examination and formal identification until later today or possibly tomorrow.
Ms Yeates's father, David, told The Sunday Telegraph that he "would be relieved" if the body of the young woman was that of his daughter. "We don't know for sure that it's her, but we assume that it is. We're just waiting now for the police to tell us what we suspect.
"In truth, we would be relieved if it was her. We don't want to go to our graves wondering where she is and not being given the chance to say goodbye to her."
But Avon and Somerset Police are keen not to jump to conclusions and want to avoid a repeat of what happened during the search for the missing chef Claudia Lawrence, when a body discovered in April 2009 – a month after the 36-year-old went missing – turned out to be that of somebody else.
Detective Superintendent Jon Stratford of Avon and Somerset Police said: "I can confirm that Joanna Yeates's parents have been informed of this development. They are naturally distressed, and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time." He added: "It is far too early to be able to establish the identity of the body or the cause of death."
The news comes after a week in which dozens of officers have been assigned to the hunt for Ms Yeates, and thousands of people have joined online appeals set up by her family and friends.
Officers insisted yesterday that the case is still being treated as a vulnerable missing person case rather than one of suspected murder or, as the family claimed last week, abduction.
Mr Yeates, 63, said: "I think she was abducted after getting home to her flat." He begged her purported kidnapper: "If she's dead, please tell somebody where she is."
The anguish of the family was highlighted last week when Mr Yeates and his wife, Theresa, broke down in tears during Thursday's press conference, which was set up to appeal for information about their missing daughter.
Ms Yeates has not been seen or heard from since that Friday, after a night out with work colleagues in Bristol. She was last seen leaving the Ram pub in Park Street at about 8pm, walking up the street.
Her boyfriend and colleague, Greg Reardon, 27, reported her missing on Sunday night when he returned home to their flat in Canynge Road after a weekend away in Sheffield, where he was visiting family.
And on Friday police released security-camera images of Ms Yeates buying a pizza on the night she disappeared.
But there was no trace of the pizza, the wrapping or the box in the flat that she shared with her boyfriend – despite the fact that the receipt, the coat she was wearing, and her mobile phone and keys were inside the flat.
Mr Yeates said: "We're just waiting now for the police to tell us what we suspect. We assume that she's dead so we'd like to say goodbye; our lives have gone." The family were being supported by police liaison officers last night.