Australian police were hunting for three young men last night as they pieced together clues to the murder of a teenage British backpacker who was robbed of her mobile phone and handbag and thrown off a 65ft-high bridge.
The men were seen near the spot where the body of 19-year-old Caroline Stuttle, from York, was discovered by Queensland Police at about 10.30pm local time on Wednesday night.
Her sandals were found on the opposite bank of the river Burnett in Bundaberg, a town popular with backpackers 220 miles north of Brisbane, where she and a school friend had arrived on Sunday evening in search of work picking tomatoes. Miss Stuttle, who was touring Australia with Sarah Holiday, 20, was returning in the darkness to the Riverdale caravan park after phoning her boyfriend back in York when the attack happened.
Police are also seeking a woman who made an anonymous call reporting screams in the area, an hour before the body was found.
Miss Stuttle's mother Marjorie was said to be "inconsolable" last night. Her father Alan, a leading figure in the York art scene over 30 years, had placed a notice yesterday afternoon in the window of the studio he runs in central Micklegate: It read: "This shop is closed due to family bereavement until further notice."
The tragedy is the latest to befall young Britons travelling in Australia. Bundaberg is a few miles from the fruit-picking town of Childers, where 15 people including seven Britons died in a youth hostel fire in June 2000. A drifter, Robert Long, was jailed for life last month after being found guilty of arson and murder.
Last July, 28-year-old Peter Falconio disappeared – presumed murdered – north of Alice Springs after he and his girlfriend were flagged down by a gunman on a lonely highway.
Ms Stuttle, who was due to take up a psychology course at Manchester University later this year and planned a career in forensic medicine, had been touring Australia since February. After several days at the caravan park spent sunbathing, reading and waiting for tomatoes to ripen for picking, she took the 10-minute walk over the bridge into the town at 7.30pm on Wednesday to use a public telephone, the nearest she could find which took coins.
She made her call at around 9.15pm, then telephoned Miss Holiday on her mobile to say she was heading back. Miss Holiday, who was being comforted by police last night, raised the alarm when her friend failed to return. Her bag, containing some cash and credit cards, has not been found. A spokeswoman for Queensland Police said there was no evidence Miss Stuttle had been sexually assaulted, shot or stabbed. "The investigation is focusing on the possibility she was robbed and died from injuries suffered from being thrown from the bridge," she said.
Miss Stuttle's brother Richard, 24, who is working as a chef at holiday chalets in the French Alps, was expected to fly home last night.
A family friend, Dave Marks, said: "Caroline was a lovely girl, a beautiful girl and very easy going – combine that with very clever and it's just a tragedy at that age that her life has been snuffed when she had everything to live for." The family had no current plans to fly to Australia, said Mr Marks. "Caroline regularly called her mum. Marjorie spoke to her on either Sunday or Monday. She said she was tomato picking and she wasn't really enjoying it but that she was earning some money and that she loved her mum."
Sheila Howarth, assistant headteacher at Huntington School, York, which Miss Stuttle left three years ago, said: "She was cheerful, co-operative and hard working and had a wide circle of good friends. Her GCSE results were excellent, and you know she would have had a very bright future."
Condolences poured in for Mr Stuttle, who lives in Scarborough, north Yorkshire. He is remembered in York for raising £1,500 in just six days for an appeal fund after the York Minster fire in 1984, by selling 200 watercolours depicting the effects of the blaze.