Detectives yesterday spent a second day questioning the former public-school teacher Chris Jefferies about the murder of Joanna Yeates, while a neighbour described how the English master helped to start the car of the landscape architect's boyfriend on the night of her disappearance.
Forensic specialists continued to search the mansion flat belonging to Mr Jefferies in the affluent Bristol suburb of Clifton, and last night magistrates gave police permission to keep him in custody to face further questions. Police refused to say how long they can keep him, but magistrates have the power to give them up to 36 hours.
Mr Jefferies, who leased out the basement flat below his own to 25-year-old Ms Yeates and her boyfriend Greg Reardon two months ago, was arrested on Thursday morning after he was reported to have told police that he had seen her on 17 December – the night she disappeared. It emerged yesterday that detectives had been watching the retired teacher for several days prior to his arrest.
Speaking to reporters outside his home on Wednesday, Mr Jefferies contradicted the accounts of neighbours who said earlier that he had told them he saw Ms Yeates with two other people at about 9pm on 17 December. He said such reports were a "serious distortion" of information he had given to police officers. He said: "I definitely cannot say that I saw Joanna Yeates that evening. No."
Peter Stanley, a neighbour of Mr Jefferies who is a joint co-ordinator with him of the local Neighbourhood Watch committee, told yesterday how they had both helped Mr Reardon to get his car started on 17 December. The car had suffered a flat battery as he was preparing to leave for a weekend trip to Yorkshire.
Mr Stanley, 56, said he received a phone call from Mr Jefferies asking to borrow his jump leads: "It was a non-event at the time, but absolutely poignant now – what if we hadn't got the car to start?"
Mr Stanley, who was interviewed by police as a witness yesterday, cast doubt on claims that Mr Jefferies would have known that Mr Reardon was going away for the weekend as a result of the incident, saying that pair had not discussed the journey in his presence.
Police have removed a silver Chrysler Neon car belonging to Mr Jefferies, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering Ms Yeates. Her snow-covered body was found on Christmas Day at a remote spot three miles away from her home.
Mr Jefferies was well-known within his community, campaigning on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and on issues from the conservation of historic buildings to the continued use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in Anglican churches.
He taught for more than 30 years at nearby Clifton College. An only child who was raised in Cheshire, he is a bachelor. Friends said yesterday they had assumed he was gay.
Oliver Cullen, who once lived in the same block as Mr Jefferies and has known him for several years, said: "I don't believe for one minute that Chris has done this. He is a nice man. A bit vocal perhaps, and certainly rather eccentric, but he was just an old school teacher really."
The widespread media interest in Mr Jefferies' arrest prompted the Attorney General to warn newspapers to be mindful of the contempt of court laws. Dominic Grieve, the Government's most senior law officer, said: "We need to avoid a situation where trials cannot take place or are prejudiced as a result of irrelevant or improper material being published."