16/01/2012 14:00 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 09:12 GMT

Victoria Couchman Inquest: Children Played With Dead Mother's Skull

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.

Children playing in woodland found the skull belonging to Victoria Couchman months after her death, the inquest heard.

Youngsters took pictures of it and played with it using a stick after discovering it in Redgeland Wood in the Queensway area of St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, in October 2008.

The skull had its lower jaw missing but some top teeth remained intact, the inquest at Hastings Magistrates Court was told.

Further detailed searches of the area uncovered a femur and pelvis which were later found to be those of 19-year-old Victoria Couchman who lived in nearby Beecham Place.

Her father, Tony Couchman, was later charged with her murder and perverting the course of justice.

But the 46-year-old killed himself by slashing his arm in his single cell at HMP Lewes on January 2 2010, two days before he was to face trial at Lewes Crown Court. He denied both charges.

East Sussex coroner Alan Craze said it was "extremely unusual" for a coroner to be holding an inquest in a case such as this.

But because there had been "no ventilation" of the facts of the case it fell to the coroner to establish the background.

Forensic archaeologist Lucy Sibun said various body parts belonging to Couchman were missing including her hands, feet and right arm.

She said: "There was no evidence of any attempt to bury. All the remains were laying on the surface without any burial."

No clothing and no personal possessions were found during a fingertip search, she added.

A plate with a unique serial number which was fitted after she broke her leg in a serious road accident in which her brother died helped identify her.

The remains had been left uncovered in the open for several months, resulting in interference from animals and making it difficult for experts to conclude how Couchman died.

Forensic pathologist Dr Kenneth Shorrock was unable to give a cause of death but said it was "very unlikely" that her feet and hands had been removed by a human.

He told the hearing: "My view is that it is much more likely that her feet and hands were removed as a result of activity with animals."

Couchman had probably been dead for a "few months", meaning she died in around the summer of 2008 and not during 2007, he added.

There was no evidence of a fractured skull or broken ribs, he said. And if she had been stabbed, there may have been evidence of damage to bones.

Dr Shorrock spoke of the range of possible causes of death but said that the "distinct possibility" was that she was strangled, although he was unable to say so conclusively.

He said: "Victoria was a young woman and a common way to kill young women is to strangle them. In my view strangulation is a distinct possibility."

He went on: "I can't say for certain that she was strangled but I bear in mind that is a common means of killing young people, particularly women."

On a possible cause of death, Dr Shorrock said: "I didn't find anything on the skeleton to tell me how she died. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence but I have to deal with what I positively found."

Linda Piper, deputy general manager of surgery at the Conquest Hospital in St Leonards-on-Sea, said in a statement that Couchman had surgery following a car crash in November 2005.

This resulted in her being fitted with pins and screws with a unique reference number which helped identify her, along with dental records.