Detectives hunting the killer of Hannah Foster are investigating claims that the teenager was stalked by a stranger in the nine months before she was strangled.
Detectives said Hannah, aged 17, confided to friends that a man, believed to be Asian, had approached her three times close to her Southampton home, and near to the spot where she was last seen on Friday night. Her friends said the man once asked for her mobile telephone number and may have called her by name.
The new lead came as police announced another potential clue in their investigation after finding her handbag at a waste tip. The handbag, containing her mobile phone and purse, had been left in a bottle bank nearly 20 miles from where her body was dumped.
Scientific tests were continuing to see whether the items held any clues to the identity of her killer. Experts were using the latest technological techniques to try to discover if any calls or text messages had been sent or received by her Nokia handset on the night she disappeared.
Hampshire police said Hannah had told a friend she was approached in January near her home by a man in a car who may have called her by name. She next saw him towards the end of February. He was waiting at the end of the road where she lived and he is thought to have used her name again. She also told a friend that she was walking near her home nine months ago when a man approached her in a car and asked for her mobile telephone number. She did not appear to have told her parents about the encounters.
Detective Inspector Tony Adams said: "We can't discount the possibility that this could have been the same man on all three occasions. His intentions may well be perfectly innocent but it is vital that we identify this man or these men so that we can speak to them to clarify the circumstances."
Hannah was last seen just before 11pm on Friday as she walked the last five minutes to her home in Portswood, Southampton, after a night out with friends. Her parents raised the alarm on Saturday morning. She was found dead by a walker on Sunday afternoon in undergrowth in a semi-rural area alongside a shrub-lined road five miles from her home.
She had been strangled but was fully clothed and there was no evidence of a sexual attack, a Hampshire police spokeswoman said. Officers said they were keeping an open mind about the motive for the attack.
In a statement yesterday, her parents, Trevor Foster, 53, a manager for a gas exploration company, and his wife, Hilary, 46, a nurse, told of their despair and their desperation to find their daughter's killer.
"If there is anyone out there who knows or suspects who was responsible we beg you to listen to your conscience," they said. "What is important now is to catch this person, or persons, who perpetrated this cruel, brutal act, so that no other family will have to suffer the trauma we are going through and the numbing emptiness that has entered our lives and destroyed our family.
The family went on to say that she always wanted to help others and had been training for a career in medicine. She had been taking four A-levels and had been offered a place at Bristol University to study the subject.
Officers have been examining other crimes against women in the area and further afield, including liaising with detectives investigating the unsolved murder of the Surrey schoolgirl Amanda Dowler. A police spokeswoman said no link had been made with other attacks, but inquiries were "still progressing on this line of inquiry".
Forensic science officers were focusing their search on the recycling centre in Portsmouth where Hannah's handbag was found. Nothing appeared to have been taken from it. More than 100 officers are working on the inquiry, some of whom were scouring the area where Hannah is thought to have been abducted. Police believe she was driven along a B-road to the spot where her body was found.
Detective Inspector Adams said police were making a detailed search of the container where the handbag was found. "We need to find out when it was put there and who by, and inquiries are ongoing to establish this," he said.
He appealed for any witnesses who saw her around the time that her friend waved her off. They had walked together from the Bevois Valley area of Southampton, which has a number of clubs and bars, until they were half a mile from Hannah's home, where the friend caught a bus.