Madly in love with her boyfriend Greg Reardon, 27, Jo was going to spend Christmas with him and her parents.
After finishing work on December 17, the talented 25-year-old landscape architect and her colleagues piled into a pub for festive drinks. Ordering a glass of cider, she seemed her usual, jovial self, telling her friends she planned to spend the weekend baking cakes. With Greg away visiting his brother, Jo would be home alone.
After leaving the pub at 8pm, CCTV showed her buying a supermarket pizza and two bottles of cider before heading home. It was the last time she was seen alive.
When Greg returned to the apartment two days later, he noticed a half-drunk bottle of cider. He called Jo’s mobile and heard it ringing from inside her coat pocket. Panic starting to rise, Greg saw Jo’s handbag sitting undisturbed on the kitchen table. Then he found her keys and glasses.
Although there were no signs of a struggle, he realised something was horribly wrong and called the police and Jo’s parents, David and Teresa. As police launched a massive search, Jo’s parents searched bins and banged on car boots in case Jo had been abducted and was inside. ‘We walked around the block looking over walls to see the pizza, or some of her clothes,’ Teresa told the Daily Mirror. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’
During the search, Jo’s parents were approached with an offer of help by neighbour Tanja Morson, 32, who lived next door with her boyfriend Vincent Tabak, 33. On December 23, police carried out a routine search of their unit and interviewed Tabak. Tabak later joked to friends that they must have thought he’d stashed Jo in a drawer.
For eight painful days, Jo’s loved ones waited and hoped. But at 9am on Christmas Day, her frozen body was found by walkers in an area 4.8 kilometres from home. She’d been bashed, strangled and then covered in leaves and a pile of snow next to a quarry wall at Longwood Lane, Failand, UK.
It looked as if her killer had tried to heave her body over the wall, in which case she might never have been found. The search was now a manhunt, with a reward of over $100,000 on offer.
The public became entranced with the case. What happened to the pizza? Why did Jo buy two bottles of drink? Was she expecting someone? Was the killer waiting in her flat? Did she know the person who’d attacked her?
On December 30, police arrested Jo’s landlord, Chris Jefferies, 65, as a suspect. Meanwhile, Tabak and his girlfriend had travelled to the Netherlands to spend Christmas with his family. But when Tabak saw a news report about Jefferies being arrested, he called police with information.
He told them he’d seen their landlord in his car on the night of Jo’s murder. So police went to Holland to interview Tabak again. This time, Tabak gave a different account of what he’d done the night of the murder, saying he went out twice – once to take a photo of the snow, and once to go to the supermarket.
Police noted he seemed ‘overly interested’ in the forensic investigation, but was cooperative and provided a DNA sample. Jefferies was released on bail after two days, his face splashed all over the papers as the main suspect.
Meanwhile, a reconstruction of Jo’s last moments was filmed and her devastated family and boyfriend took part in a heart-wrenching appeal. Police received over 300 calls, including one from an anonymous caller pointing to Jo’s neighbour – Vincent Tabak. Male DNA found on Jo’s chest was also a match to Tabak, so the 33-year-old Dutch-born engineer was arrested and charged.
‘We couldn’t say whether the DNA was from saliva or semen or even touch,’ a DNA specialist said.
At first, Tabak claimed he was innocent and accused officials of fabricating evidence. But by May, he realised the net was closing in. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming Jo’s death was an accident. Despite being virtual strangers, he said Jo had invited him in for a drink. ‘She said that her boyfriend was away and she was alone. He said that his girlfriend was away and he was alone,’ Tabak’s QC William Clegg told the Bristol Crown Court. ‘Joanna was only being sociable, as many neighbours would be, particularly as it was Christmas.’
The QC said that Tabak had misread the signals and made a move to kiss Jo. Tabak claimed when Jo screamed, he gripped her throat with his right hand while covering her mouth with his left.
Twenty seconds later, her lifeless body slumped to the floor and he dumped her body in a panic. But police investigations uncovered Tabak’s dark side.
While those close to him described him as intelligent, sociable and a devoted partner, he had a fascination with violent pornography featuring bondage and strangulation.
Analysts discovered images and films on his computer showing women bound, gagged and degraded. One film depicted two women being bundled into a car boot and there were three images of a blonde woman who drew a striking resemblance to Jo. She was even wearing a pink top and was positioned in a similar way as Jo when she was found.
The prosecution believed Tabak had been spying on Jo. They said he’d found an excuse to knock on her door the night she was killed. Jo had suffered 43 injuries to her face, throat and arms. Her T-shirt had been pulled up over her breasts, where Tabak’s DNA was found.
In a sickening twist shortly after the murder, Tabak was seen on CCTV shopping for chips and beer, possibly with Jo’s body still in his boot. He also sent a text to his girlfriend, who was out at a Christmas party, saying: Miss you loads. It’s boring here without you. Vxx
Tabak had tried to frame their landlord, who was completely exonerated of any involvement. During the case, Tabak accepted that, following the killing, he had researched topics such as the difference between murder and manslaughter. But he repeatedly said he couldn’t remember how Jo sustained 43 injuries. He also said he’d taken the pizza from Jo’s apartment and thrown it in a bin when he left, but the prosecution believed he stopped to eat it.
On October 28, 2011, Tabak was found guilty of Jo’s murder and jailed for life, to serve a minimum of 20 years. A devastated Greg told The Sun newspaper that the hardest part was listening to Tabak’s twisted claims that Jo invited him in.‘The trial was a bloody nightmare, but we all had to grit our teeth and ride it through,’ he said. But arguably no-one was more shocked by the crime than Tanja Morson, Tabak’s girlfriend of three years.
The daughter of a Harvard-educated lawyer and a successful financial analyst, Tanja thought she had found the love of her life. Close friends of the couple said Tanja believed he was ‘the one’ and Tabak was always very loving. On the day Jo’s body was found, Tabak was even spending Christmas Day with Tanja’s family. And as Tanja helped Jo’s distraught parents search for clues in the days after the murder, she had no idea her own partner was responsible.
When Tanja’s father Geoffrey, 68, spoke to The Telegraph, he said his thoughts were with the Yeates family and they were grateful for the ‘guardian angel’ that had protected their daughter from Tabak’s wicked ways.
‘We cannot begin to understand the grief and pain they are suffering,’ he said. ‘We are now trying to rationalise events as they unfolded months and months ago and this is quite a task. Anyone who has a daughter will understand this. We don’t know where that guardian angel is… our daughter is still alive.
‘There was a guardian angel for us, but not unfortunately for Joanna. That is so sad. ‘Tanja is still absorbing the verdict. She is coping. He fooled us. He fooled everybody.’
This year, seven years on from her death, Jo’s parents are preparing to finally lay her headstone. ‘We just carry on, but it doesn’t get any easier. Time doesn’t heal,’ Teresa told the Daily Express.
Meanwhile, Jo’s devoted boyfriend Greg said he was doing his best to live a life Jo would be proud of. ‘I’ll continue to support charities Jo was passionate about,’ he told The Guardian. ‘I’m certainly not going to forget her.’
See more in this week's issue of that's life! on sale now.