Sussex health trust apologises for failings before death of student

A health trust has apologised “unreservedly” for failings in the case of a 21-year-old student whose body was found in a burnt-out car after she absconded from a mental health ward.

How Janet Müller, a German national in her final year at Brighton University, ended up in the boot of a torched Volkswagen Jetta is a mystery. She died from inhalation of fire fumes within hours of going missing. Christopher Jeffrey-Shaw, 27, was convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned for 17 years.

Speaking publicly about the young woman’s death for the first time, her mother, Ramona Müller, 47, said she blamed Sussex Partnership NHS foundation trust for errors that led to her “bright, intelligent and beautiful” twin daughter being able to abscond from Mill View hospital in Hove, twice in one day before her death.

It was not the first time a patient had climbed over an 8ft garden wall and it was a known awol risk, her mother said. “It’s just the first time it ended that badly,” said Müller, who raised Janet and twin sister, Selina, in Berlin.

She had allowed her daughters to come to the UK “because I thought it was safe there. They wanted to do it for their education. So, I tried my best to make it possible for them. I raised them on my own. And then, finally, someone just comes along and takes her life.”

Müller, who was studying international event management, had no previous mental illness but became unwell ahead of her final exams in March 2015, and was admitted to the hospital 10 days before her death.

Her twin, who was studying at Kent University, visited her there and reported her to be agitated and desperate to leave. Her mother said she begged staff to allow Janet home to Germany, or allow her to visit or speak to her. “I tried to call a million times, I tried to speak to Janet.” But, she says she was always reassured: “Janet is fine, she is safe, don’t worry,” and was told her daughter could soon be transferred to a hospital near home in Germany. She never managed to speak to her before her death.

Janet first absconded from the female-only ward on the morning of 12 March 2015, and was found by a farmer in a field and returned by police.

She absconded again later that night and is thought to have gone over the wall, the inquest heard. CCTV footage showed her walking in the early hours of 13 March in Brighton. Her body was found in the car near Ifield golf club near Horsham in West Sussex.

When she learned her daughter was missing, Müller, a paramedic and teacher at a school in Berlin, flew to the UK to search for her. She was met at Eastbourne station by Selina. “I told her: ‘Don’t worry. We will find her.’ And she said to me: ‘Mama. They’ve found her. She’s dead.’”

The family have no idea how she came to be in the car. She had been severely beaten before being burned alive. An inquest found she died from fire fumes inhalation. She had no known connections to Jeffrey-Shaw. “There are so many unanswered questions. Why did she end up with him, not knowing him at all?” said her mother.

Jeffrey-Shaw, who has previous convictions for blackmail and harassment, was charged and convicted of manslaughter at Guildford crown court, but his trial yielded no answers. He admitted setting the car alight, but claimed he did not know the student was in the boot. He told the court he had been involved with drug dealers who borrowed his hire car for a robbery which went wrong and who ordered him to torch it.

The judge, rejecting his account, said the only reason he was not guilty of murder, “is because you did not have the human decency to check if the person in the boot of your car was dead or alive”.

An inquest jury, which agreed a verdict of unlawful killing, found lack of communication between healthcare staff, insufficient records and inadequate risk assessment were contributory, with no extra measures taken after she first absconded, and staff shortages and building works also factors.

Janet’s mother and sister have settled with the trust after issuing a civil claim under the Human Rights Act.

Sam Allen, the trust’s chief executive, admitted: “We failed in our duty of care to Janet, for which I am truly sorry.”

In a public apology, she said: “I want to give my personal assurance that we have worked hard to address the shortcomings identified following Janet’s tragic, untimely death.

“Words of apology from me cannot bring Janet back. The awful events that happened after she absconded from our care will forever be borne by her family.”

Janet’s mother said it had been “a long, hard fight” to get the trust to admit its mistakes, but she had been determined “to get justice for Janet, to force them to make changes, to speak out. Janet’s voice has to be heard, and things should not and must not happen again.”

The family had been devastated by Janet’s death, her mother said. Janet’s sister had abandoned her studies in UK. Once part of a close threesome, both feel responsible for not having done enough to save Janet, she said.

She hoped now the same mistakes could not be repeated. “For us it is too late. Nothing can change what happened to us. Janet will not come back. No apology, nothing, can do that. It’s all too late,” she said.

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