The tragic mystery of Joanna Yeates:

Police try to unlock riddle of landscape architect's final hours

Identity of frozen body is confirmed, with cause of death expected to be revealed today. Rob Sharp reports from Bristol

Her handbag sat undisturbed on the kitchen table. Her purse was there. So were her keys and her mobile phone. There was even the receipt for a Tesco Finest margherita pizza – the last meal Joanna Yeates bought. There was no sign of Ms Yeates herself, though, nor of anything to indicate forced entry or a struggle.

Minutes after that simple supermarket transaction 10 days ago, she returned to her home 250 yards away, and then soon afterwards she left without any of her belongings, to disappear from the lives of her boyfriend and her parents for ever.

Detectives have struggled to make sense of the eerie scene – assuming a degree of coercion in her vanishing, but lacking any evidence to support that. Then yesterday brought the news that a frozen corpse, found covered in ice and snow on a grass verge on the outskirts of Bristol, was that of the 25-year-old landscape architect.

The Yeates family were travelling to Bristol from their home in Hampshire yesterday formally to identify her body. "It hasn't been Christmas for us," said her father, David, 63. "It's been surreal, totally unreal."

Mr Yeates was convinced that his daughter was abducted after seeing the bizarre scene at her flat. "We knew what the flat was like," he said. "We know what she does and doesn't do. We were 100 per cent convinced within 30 minutes of arriving at the flat that she had been abducted."

Detectives have moved house by house through the upmarket Clifton area of Bristol where she lived, checking bins and gardens for any evidence that will shed light on her flight.

Detectives still seek answers to two basic questions. How did Ms Yeates cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the 400-metre structure spanning the nearby Avon Gorge, which is the main artery linking Clifton to Failand, where her clothed body was found by two dog walkers on Christmas Day?

And where is the margherita pizza, the only item that appears to be missing from her flat?

Detectives are scouring CCTV footage shot around the Clifton Suspension Bridge on 17 December, the night that they believe she disappeared.

On Avon and Somerset Police's unusual pursuit of the pizza clue, Chief Superintendent Jon Stratford said: "There is obviously the possibility that she went somewhere else to eat that pizza. All we know is that we found her possessions inside the flat along with the receipt, but not the pizza. So she did get back in on the Friday evening."

Today should bring the results of a post-mortem examination – delayed until now because the freezing conditions in which her body was found made earlier examination impossible. The hope is to establish a cause of death.

Detectives have also examined the phone and the computer of her boyfriend, Greg Reardon, 27, an architect at the same firm, who reported her missing to police on 19 December, two days after the couple last spoke. Officers have said that they believe he had nothing to do with her disappearance.

Yesterday a white forensics tent stood over the golf course verge where Ms Yeates was found, close to Bristol Football Club's training ground. A police spokeswoman said: "While a formal identification procedure is yet to be completed, police are satisfied that the body is that of the 25-year-old landscape architect Joanna Yeates.

"Officers are treating Joanna's death as suspicious at this stage but will not be able to discuss this further until the results of the post-mortem are known. The police are once again appealing for information, in particular to help fill in the gap between Joanna's disappearance and the discovery of her body."

In Clifton, one of the city's most affluent neighbourhoods, residents reacted with shock. Some said that the uncertainty of Ms Yeates's disappearance had stopped them leaving home after dark.

"Our [degree of] concern really depends on what the police find. If they discover the murder was for personal reasons that's less worrying for us than if it was a random attack," said one neighbour who lives on the same road as the £200,000 flat shared by Ms Yeates and Mr Reardon. "My children were forced to come home to stay with my wife this week because I was out of town and I didn't want her in the house on her own."

Roger Feneley, 77, a retired neighbour of Joanna's living on Canynge Road, said: "She was a very smiley, congenial person, which makes it all the more sad. The police have been very thorough, and rightly so, searching through our bins for any scrap of evidence." Richard Bland, 74, a retired schoolteacher, said: "There are a lot of young professionals around here and a lot of aged residents in houses that are far too big for them. Many of them go to bed early and haven't seen anything, but the police have been around interviewing every man over 16, which has been quite exciting."

Missing person posters bearing Ms Yeates's details cling to Bristol lamp posts, already tattered by the weather. Her body may have been found, but the search for answers has barely begun.

Questions behind events that defy explanation

Who was Joanna Yeates?

Joanna Yeates, 25, a landscape architect who lived and worked in Bristol, went missing on 17 December after meeting work colleagues for a drink at The Ram pub in the city centre. Days later, her father, David, and his wife, Teresa, made an emotional appeal to her to get in touch and wept as they asked any potential kidnapper to set her free. They now say that they already thought she had been killed.



What do we know about her final movements?

She left the pub at about 8pm and began the familiar walk back to her flat at Canynge Road, in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. The journey would usually have taken her 20 minutes but that night she visited a Waitrose supermarket on the way. The last person known to have spoken to her is her best friend, Rebecca Scott. Ms Yeates phoned her at about 8.30pm to arrange a meeting on Christmas Eve.



When was the final sighting of her?

She was recorded on CCTV 10 minutes later as she bought a pizza from a Tesco Express store near her flat. No one is known to have seen or heard from her since. Police believe she did make it home because her coat, keys and mobile phone were later found in her empty apartment.



Who raised the alarm?

A couple walking their dogs found her frozen body at 9am on Christmas morning in a country lane in Failand, North Somerset. The secluded spot, next to a golf course, is three miles from her home. She was reported missing by her boyfriend Greg Reardon, 27, who lived with her and was looking forward to spending their first Christmas together. He called police on 19 December when he returned home from visiting his family in Sheffield and found the flat empty. Police issued an appeal for information the next day. Ms Yeates's parents and boyfriend also made requests for help from the public.



What leads do the police have?

The flat has been searched by forensic scientists, while Mr Reardon's phone and laptop are also being studied. Police will know more about the cause of her death after a post-mortem examination is completed, probably today. Detectives released footage of Ms Yeates buying the pizza from Tesco Express, believing it to be an important clue. While the receipt for the pizza was found in her flat, its box and wrapping were not there.



Could she have been abducted?

Her father is "100 per cent convinced" she was. Half an hour after visiting the apartment, he said: "We knew what the flat was like. We know what it's normally like." Despite the cryptic comments, Mr Yeates would not go into further details, saying he had agreed to police requests not to talk about key aspects of his daughter's disappearance. But officers say they are "keeping an open mind" about the nature of her death.



Could her disappearance be linked to others?

There are similarities with the unsolved case of Claudia Lawrence, 35, who vanished in York last March. Important personal items were also found inside her empty home. The case also has echoes of the death of Melanie Hall, who disappeared after leaving a nightclub in Bath in 1996 and was found only last year. Both she and Ms Yeates were 25 and had short, blonde hair.

Michael Savage

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