Young Mother Unlawfully Killed

A verdict of unlawful killing was recorded today over the death of a young mother whose father killed himself two days before he was due to stand trial accused of her murder.

The naked body of 19-year-old Victoria Couchman was found dumped in woodland where children found her skull in October 2008.

More human remains, including her femur and pelvis, were discovered in the same area in Redgeland Wood, St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.

Single mother Ms Couchman had probably been killed five months earlier but none of her family or friends reported her missing to police, the inquest at Hastings Magistrates' Court heard.

Tony Couchman arrives at court in 2009Her father, Tony Couchman, was charged with her murder and perverting the course of justice by Sussex Police detectives.

The 46-year-old committed suicide by slashing his arm with a razor blade in his cell at HMP Lewes on January 2, 2010, two days before he was due to stand trial at Lewes Crown Court. He had denied both charges.

Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, East Sussex coroner Alan Craze said it was ``one of the most significant and difficult set of cases'' he had dealt with.

The case against unemployed Couchman was ``circumstantial'' and due to Ms Couchman's remains being left exposed for several months a cause of death could not be determined.

But Detective Chief Inspector Adam Hibbert, from Sussex Police's major crime branch, said that ``taken cumulatively'' there was ``good reason'' for Couchman to be charged and to stand trial.

The inquest heard that Couchman was suspected to have sent text messages purporting to be from his daughter after she had been killed.

These included texts sent to her mother, Fiona Masters, with whom Couchman had split, saying she had set up home with a new boyfriend.

Mr Hibbert said: ``A text expert examined the texts purporting to be sent by Victoria. He came to the view that it was very likely that the texts were sent by Tony.''

A phone used to send texts claiming to be from Ms Couchman had been bought by a man fitting her father's description at a shop. A walking stick was also bought, which Couchman had cause to use.

Other reasons to suspect she had been killed included the fact that her body had possibly been concealed, and that she had not taken any money or possessions with her.

There was also no contact with friends or family, including her own daughter, and there were ``lies and inconsistencies'' in Couchman's accounts to police, Mr Hibbert said.

Couchman had told police that he had not reported her missing because she had vanished on previous occasions and was on a final warning with social services.

He claimed to fear that social services would take away his grandchild but the authorities denied to police that she had been given a ``final warning''.

According to Mr Hibbert, Couchman had 11 convictions ranging from theft to firearms offences.

He said: ``There was a possibility that Tony Couchman was involved in drug dealing.

``In diaries seized he had a 'dealer's list', and foil and electronic scales consistent with dealing were found, but he didn't have convictions for drugs offences.''

At around the time of her disappearance, Ms Couchman was seen outside the house she shared with her father in Beecham Place, St Leonards, and was heard to say: ``I have had enough. He's too controlling.''

Later that day, a neighbour with whom Ms Couchman had started a relationship called at her home and was told by Couchman that she had gone out.

Mr Hibbert said it would have been the prosecution's assertion at trial that Couchman had disposed of her body in his car, which he sold 12 days later.

He also said he had lost his mobile phone shortly after she disappeared, which police said would have been of important evidential value.