Did the chateau rapist murder Joanna Parrish?

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The Independent Online

There have been many false hopes for Roger Parrish during his 14-year quest to find his child's killer. He has fought against bureaucracy, incompetence, an alien justice system and the petty politics of rural France that don't seem to care for his "kind and gentle" daughter.

There have been many false hopes for Roger Parrish during his 14-year quest to find his child's killer. He has fought against bureaucracy, incompetence, an alien justice system and the petty politics of rural France that don't seem to care for his "kind and gentle" daughter.

Joanna Parrish was 21 when she was found raped and strangled in Auxerre in northern France as she neared the end of a gap year teaching English. That was in May 1990 and Mr Parrish has been searching for answers ever since. The wait to know who killed his daughter may now finally be over. Last week Michel Fourniret, a 62-year-old carpenter, admitted nine murders on both sides of the France-Belgium border, telling his Belgian investigators: "I needed to hunt virgins twice a year." Fourniret has been dubbed the chateau rapist, after the mansion he acquired in the Ardennes - despite having never held a steady job.

His wife has implicated him in further killings and he has a string of convictions for sexual assault. He used to live in Auxerre and has admitted a rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl in the town in 1987.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Parrish said his solicitors had written to French magistrates on Friday demanding an urgent DNA test on Fourniret, which will be compared to a sample taken at the scene of his daughter's murder.

"The police never contact us," said Mr Parrish, 61, at his home in Newnham, Gloucestershire. "I only heard of Fourniret from my contact in Paris.

"I thought he was 'just' a serial killer - France is a big country. But when other details started to emerge I started to think it was a possibility."

Ms Parrish, a student of modern languages at Leeds University, had been teaching English to schoolchildren in Auxerre during her gap year, but had also placed a small ad in a newspaper offering private lessons to earn some holiday money.

On 16 May 1990, she went to meet a man who had answered the ad by telephone requesting lessons for his son. The next day she was found naked and dead in the river Yonne.

For her parents the news was "unspeakably distressing". The only consolation for Mr Parrish and his wife Pauline Sewell, with whom he'd recently broken up, was that the authorities would be vigorously pursuing her killer - or so they thought.

"We didn't have a clue about the French system," Mr Parrish said. "We just assumed it was like here. For 18 months we heard nothing. It was extremely frustrating so we decided to go out there. We had thousands of leaflets published and in a naive way wandered around Auxerre hand- ing them out. This attracted some publicity in the English and French media and we thought that might help us.

"The French system is very slow and laborious. They don't seem to use the media constructively and don't call on the community in general. There seems to be a barrier between the community and the gendarmerie. On a number of occasions people spoke to us freely, but they were reluctant to talk to the gendarmes, they said they would be seen as 'collaborators'."

The question of a cover-up also arose. But, says Mr Parrish, it's not just people involved in a crime who want to keep it quiet, but also "people who don't want their pretty little Burgundy town besmirched by this event. Auxerre is very reliant on tourism, and we have been told that the politicians don't want this to come out."

But throughout the 1990s, Joanna's parents continued to visit the region at least once a year, sometimes more often. "We spoke to John Ward, whose daughter Julie was murdered in Kenya in 1988, and he said 'Do it - keep pestering'. That gave us confidence to keep going." Mr Ward's own persistence was rewarded when in May this year the coroner ruled that his daughter had been killed unlawfully, boosting his campaign for a new inquiry.

Joanna's parents were greatly spurred on by the arrest in France of Emil Louis who is due to stand trial in November for the murder of seven young mentally handicapped women who disappeared in the Auxerre region between 1977 and 1979.

That case itself has proved deeply murky, exposing a wider pattern of unsolved murders of women over three decades. In 2001 the Auxerre prosecutor's officer said almost all the records of criminal investigations, including those of missing women, between 1958 and 1982 had been stolen or destroyed.

In fact, there had been reports of a violent sex ring in the Yonne area operating at least until the mid-1980s. And the gendarme, Christopher Jambert, who suspected Louis long before his arrest, was himself murdered seven years ago and his case files destroyed - a murder that was initially dismissed as suicide.

It now seems unlikely that Louis was responsible for Ms Parrish's murder but the Fourniret case offers more hope. He has admitted the rape and murder of Isabelle Laville, 17, a schoolgirl who was killed in Auxerre in December 1987. He had a house in the 1980s near Auxerre, and although he had moved away by 1990 he still had links to the area.

When Joanna died, said Mr Parrish, "we received all sorts of letters, some from people that we didn't even know, who said she just gave them her time, even when she didn't have any time of her own to spare. Above all she was gentle and kind, and softly spoken. The cards from the French students said that, they had understood that in such a short time."

As he says now, "to find the killer would be a huge relief.

"We know it won't bring Jo back, but like other parents, we just felt we have to do this. It is vital that justice is done. And at the very least, we have kept the case open."