19 June 2024

Leah Croucher may have been killed after trying to defend herself – inquest

19 June 2024

Teenager Leah Croucher is believed to have been unlawfully killed by sex offender Neil Maxwell after she tried to defend herself, a police officer told an inquest.

Ms Croucher, 19, who was a black belt in martial arts and was known for it internationally, disappeared while walking to work on February 15 2019 and no trace of her was found for more than three years despite a large search operation.

Her remains were discovered in the loft of a house in October 2022 in Furzton, Milton Keynes, less than half a mile from where she was last seen, after a tip-off from a maintenance worker.

Prime suspect Neil Maxwell, a previously convicted sex offender, killed himself while on the run from police in April 2019, two months after Ms Croucher vanished.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Brown, of Thames Valley Police, told an inquest at Milton Keynes Coroner’s Court on Wednesday that he believes on the balance of probabilities, that Ms Croucher was unlawfully killed by Maxwell.

Asked by senior coroner Tom Osborne if on the balance of probabilities he would say Ms Croucher was unlawfully killed by Maxwell, Mr Brown replied: “Absolutely.”

Mr Brown added: “In normal circumstances, had he been alive, we would have approached the Crown Prosecution Service for their advice around charging.”

He added that his “professional experience and knowledge would suggest Leah would have died very close to the day she went missing, if not on it”.

Caroline Haughey KC, representing Ms Croucher’s family, asked if he believed it was “likely to be an unwarranted sexual attack and in fact because of her martial arts ability, she reacted and subsequently died”.

I believe she would have defended herself, that may have escalated the situation

Mr Brown said: “I believe she would have defended herself, that may have escalated the situation.”

Maxwell came on the force’s radar in May 2019 after it received information on him via a phone call but officers did not link him to Ms Croucher at the time.

A murder investigation was launched in October 2022 after a maintenance worker who had been trying to eradicate a smell in a property discovered what he thought were remains and called the police, the inquest was told.

Mr Osborne said: “Whoever had placed the body in the loft had taken steps to remove certain limbs and place them in plastic bags.”

Ms Croucher’s body was found in the house in Loxbeare Drive, Furzton, which was owned by people who lived abroad and used it as a holiday home and had not visited during the Covid pandemic, the officer said.

Mr Brown said Ms Croucher would walk to work which took about 40 minutes and, depending on which route she took, one route took her past the Loxbeare Drive house.

Mr Brown said called the police investigation “huge” and said it generated 1,500 lines of inquiry.

The inquest heard a post-mortem examination was inconclusive and Ms Croucher was identified by her dental records. Her cause of death was unascertained due to decomposition.

Maxwell was a handyman and the only person with keys to the property where Ms Croucher’s body was found.

He was wanted for a sex attack in Newport Pagnell, Milton Keynes, in November 2018, and used false names to evade arrest, as well as stopping using his phone and car.

Officers believe he also lost weight and grew a beard to change his appearance.

In a pen portrait, Claire Croucher described her daughter as a “kind, caring soul who worried about others and did her best to ensure those around her were comfortable and happy”.

She said her friends described Ms Croucher as a “force of power with an infectious giggle and a smile that was always present”.

Ms Croucher’s mother said: “We knew she would succeed in life with her attitudes to situations, she was strong both physically and mentally.”

She added that “Leah had grown from a shy little girl into a confident young woman” and they were “so proud of the woman she was becoming”.

Claire Croucher said the “void her loss has left has broken us”.

Detective Chief Superintendent Joe Kidman, from Thames Valley Police, told the inquest a number of improvements have been made after reviews carried out following Ms Croucher’s death.

The inquest heard Maxwell was assessed as medium risk after he was convicted of sexual assault in February 2018, but subsequently it was decided he should have been assessed as being high risk.

Maxwell had failed to attend a number of probation appointments in 2018 after his conviction, the inquest heard.

An officer dealing with him raised concerns about Maxwell’s lack of communication in January 2019, Ms Haughey said.

Geoff Davis, head of operations for the south central probation service, said in 2018 Maxwell was “good at disguising his compliance in terms of his reporting to us”.

He added that Maxwell was reporting to probation as instructed and completed 200 hours of unpaid work.

A risk matrix was used which showed there was a “high likelihood of reoffending in Maxwell’s case”, Ms Haughey said, and Mr Davis said the result was “professionally overridden”.

In January 2023, Thames Valley Police released a computer generated e-fit of Maxwell as detectives tried to confirm that he had killed Ms Croucher.

The inquest continues.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox