The French government has ordered that the unsolved murder of a young British woman should be linked to a top-level investigation into the unexplained death or disappearance of 16 young women in northern Burgundy over the past 30 years.
The death of Joanna Parrish in 1990 will be be reinvestigated by the French judicial inspection service as part of an inquiry into a growing scandal over an inexplicable pattern of judicial failures in the Auxerre area, 100 miles south of Paris. The decision will satisfy Ms Parrish's family, which has been pushing for years to have the investigation re-examined. The family's lawyer made a formal request late last year for her case to be linked to a wider inquiry into judicial failures – or cover-ups or even sabotage – in the Yonne département.
Marylise Lebranchu, the French Justice Minister, said the inquiry by the Inspection des Services Judiciares would cover 17 cases of vanished or murdered young women, including that of Ms Parrish. She promised that the investigation would finally "unravel" the mysteries and suspicions over the deaths and disappearances. "We will get to the bottom of all this," she said.
Joanna Parrish, 21, a student from Gloucestershire, was teaching English at a school in Auxerre during a year out from Leeds University. She disappeared on 16 May 1990 after meeting a man who answered her newspaper advertisement offering private English lessons to children. Her naked body was found floating in the river Yonne the next day.
Her family and their lawyer, Maître Xavier Autain, say her death was never properly investigated. Obvious leads were ignored, crucial DNA evidence was lost for 10 years and the evidence given by one witness had disappeared from the file.
The "Yonne affair" arose originally from a belated inquiry into the fate of seven young, mentally handicapped women who disappeared in the Auxerre area in 1977 and 1979. Although the women were dismissed at the time as runaways, proof has emerged in the past 18 months that they were sexually abused and murdered.
Investigations into the affair ordered by the Justice Ministry in Paris revealed a wider pattern of unexplained disappearances and unsolved murders of young women over three decades. Just before Christmas, the prosecutor's office in Auxerre revealed that almost all the records of criminal investigations started and dropped by the office between 1958 and 1982 – including many cases of missing women – had been stolen or destroyed.
There is evidence that a violent sex ring was operating in the Yonne area, at least up to the mid-1980s.
A book written about the affair last year suggests that the principal suspect in the case of the seven missing, mentally handicapped girls was part of a wider conspiracy to abduct, sexually abuse and then murder young women.
The investigative French newspaper Le Canard Enchainé said the ministerial investigation was looking not only at incompetence but possible "sabotage" of investigations. The implication is that prosecutors in the Auxerre area deliberately covered up the deaths and disappearances for reasons as yet unknown.