Student's death may be linked to French scandal

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A French lawyer has formally asked for the unsolved murder of a young British student to be linked to a growing scandal over the unexplained disappearances of up to two dozen young women in northern Burgundy over the past 30 years.

A series of breathtaking judicial and police bungles in the Auxerre area, 100 miles south of Paris – including the disappearance of scores of prosecution files – has led to allegations that France may be home to a high-level cover-up of the kind that allegedly protected Marc Dutroux, the Belgian child rapist and murderer who ran a paedophile ring.

The lawyer representing the family of Joanna Parrish, 21, a student from Leeds University found raped and murdered near Auxerre in May 1990, has now written to the most senior prosecutor in France to ask him to include her death in a year-old judicial investigation into the unsolved Burgundy killings.

Ms Parrish, from Gloucestershire, was teaching English at a school in Auxerre on a year out from university. She disappeared on 16 May 1990 after keeping an appointment with a man who answered her newspaper advertisement offering private English lessons to children. She was found dead and naked 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, key DNA evidence was lost for 10 years and the evidence given by one witness had disappeared.

Mr Autain said: "There are disturbing similarities between Joanna's case and many of the other cases in this area. Something very strange has been going on in the Yonne departement for many years.

"It defies belief that so many cases of missing or murdered women could have been so badly handled.

"We are looking either at incompetence on an unbelievable scale or something that represents the very worst of provincial France, a pattern of conspiracies and protections of people at high level."

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 have revealed a wider pattern of unsolved disappearances and murders of young women in the departement over three decades. Just before Christmas, the prosecutor's office in Auxerre said 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 have also been reports in the French press that a violent sex ring was operating in the Yonne area in the Seventies. A book written about the affair last year suggests the principal suspect in the case of the seven handicapped girls was part of a wider conspiracy to abduct, sexually abuse and then murder young women.

Thirteen months ago, the suspect, Emile Louis, a bus driver who used to take the missing seven to a day centre, was arrested. He confessed to killing them and burying them in a river bank. After extensive searches, the bodies of two of the women were discovered. Mr Louis, 66, has since retracted his confession and claims he has evidence the women were abducted by a prostitution ring.

Because more than 10 years had elapsed before a formal investigation began, Mr Louis may never be tried for murder. The highest French appeal court will decide this month whether the statute of limitations should apply.

At the time of Joanna Parrish's murder, Mr Louis was serving a prison sentence for sexual assault in a jail in Corsica. For this reason, investigators in the Auxerre area have always dismissed any attempt to link the Parrish case. But Mr Autain says there is clear evidence of a pattern of attacks on women, and official cover-ups, starting before and ending after the disappearance of the original seven. Secondly, he says, there is evidence that Mr Louis did not act alone.

"In Joanna's case, it is clear also that she was the victim of a carefully planned abduction, carried out by more than one man," Mr Autain said.

Medical evidence suggests she was drugged, tied up, beaten and raped before being killed and left in the river.

Mr Autain has written to Jean-Louis Nadal, the chief prosecutor in the Paris appeal court, asking him to link the Parrish case formally to the wider Yonne inquiry. He has not yet received a reply.

Joanna's mother, Pauline Sewell, told the French newspaper Le Parisien this week: "We cannot rebuild our lives without knowing the truth ... Don't the investigators understand what it is like to have no explanation for your daughter's death? Why were so many avenues in the investigation left unexplored?"