Family's despair at lonely death of drifter

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The Independent Online

Jennifer Kiely enjoyed her life as a mother, bringing up her young family with her partner. She took her children to the park and was proud of her home in Orpington, Kent.

Jennifer Kiely enjoyed her life as a mother, bringing up her young family with her partner. She took her children to the park and was proud of her home in Orpington, Kent.

But shortly after the birth of her third child, a boy, her life started to go wrong. That was 11 years ago.

Last month, her partially burnt body was found in a shelter on the seafront close to Beachy Head in Eastbourne, Sussex. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 16 times.

When police began to investigate the background of the 35-year-old, they found that, on an official form, under the heading of family, "no next of kin" had been inserted.

Ms Kiely's story, up until her violent death, is typical of many other homeless adults suffering from mental illness.

Around eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a serious illness, thought most likely to have been schizophrenia, which was becoming worse and had left her delusional and withdrawn. She eventually split up with her partner, a computer specialist, who was given the custody of their children, two boys and a girl. Shortly afterwards, she vanished from their home and from their lives.

Despite numerous attempts by her family to trace Ms Kiely, she had made no contact with them for the past six years. After leaving Kent, Ms Kiely went to Brighton, where she sold The Big Issue magazine. In September 2003, she made her way to Canterbury and stayed in a sheltered-housing scheme run by the Scrine Foundation.

Lloyd Hobbard-Mitchell, the chief executive of the organisation, recalled: "She was co-operative. She was not aggressive or angry and kept herself very, very clean - she defied the stereotype of the homeless.''

In the meantime, her former partner and children, now a 15-year-old daughter and two sons aged 12 and 11, had tried in vain to get a message to her to say that she was still loved.

Ms Kiely left Canterbury in September 2004 and made her way to Eastbourne. Largely built in the late 19th century as a resort for the Victorian upper classes, the town has split into two distinct parts. It remains a fashionable tourist resort and longer-term destination for young, London families looking for a change in lifestyle and cheaper housing, but it also has another side. Large housing estates, bedsit conversions and hostels for asylum-seekers provide a stark contrast to the upmarket image. It was into this second world that Ms Kiely moved.

Police said that while in Eastbourne Ms Kiely was befriended by a woman who let her sleep in her house and take a bath, but that she regularly chose to sleep in the open. She was often seen on the seafront late at night. She is not thought to have had a drink or drugs problem but she was considered to be extremely vulnerable.

Her former partner, however, says the image of an unwanted rough sleeper is unfair. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: "She was a young, attractive and loving lady with children and family that are missing her and not just a homeless bag lady that will not be missed.''

He continued: "She was a caring and friendly person who was left in a vulnerable position due to being affected by an illness. I wish that the family could have found her before this happened."

The police are still unsure what happened early on Saturday 22 January. They know that earlier she had taken a bath at the house where she often stayed, and then went into town. At about 1am she was walking along the seafront when she was probably confronted by her killer. Her body was found in the early hours by council workers in a thatched, half-timbered shelter overlooking the sea. Her killer built a bonfire in the shelter and set fire to the body in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

Two local men have been arrested but both have been released without charge.

Detective Chief Inspector Tony O'Donnell, heading the murder hunt, said: "She was a housewife and mum of three young kids. They seemed to be her life and then she developed this mental health problem and eventually lost everything."