TRIBUTES have been paid to a “lovely, popular” man whose body was washed up on the banks of the River Exe, sparking a major police investigation into who he was and how he died.
The Echo closely followed detectives’ efforts to identify Clifford John Thorne, known as John to his family and friends, who was found by a dog walker on the Exe Estuary Cycle Trail between Exmouth and Lympstone last July.
It took officers almost seven months to discover the identity of the 67-year-old after extensive work including door-to-door enquiries, forensic work and the production of an e-fit image.
Mr Thorne had left his home in Oxfordshire in January 2012. His partner Giulia Grassi explained that he left with financial worries following buying into a time share holiday home.
He had been working as a caretaker at university accommodation.
On the morning of a meeting with his bank manager, Mr Thorne left to buy a paper but never returned.
Now, an Oxfordshire coroner has returned an “open verdict” because of insufficient evidence to determine the cause of his death.
However, the court heard the most likely cause of death was dry drowning. In the case of Mr Thorne the court heard – how a sudden immersion in cold water, coupled with his intake of alcohol, could have caused the physical reflux which shuts the lungs off from being able to take in air, causing a heart attack.
John’s partner of 26 years Ms Grassi, 63, described him as a “much-loved” person.
“He was very sociable and friendly,” she said. “He was very kind – he would help everyone, and he worked really hard.
“He loved travelling around, especially since he got his bus pass.
“He got on so well with all the students, they all really missed him, everyone was worried about him.
“I always used to think about him, wherever he was.
“Finding out he had been dead for six and a half months was the most dreadful thing. I thought he was travelling around still. I’ve been so lost without him.”
Mr Thorne’s son Kelvin, 42, described his dad as being “everyone’s friend”.
“He was loved very much by me and his three grandchildren and he is missed very much – there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” he said.
“He was the sort of person who was everyone’s friend, he could easily go into a pub for a drink and by the end of the evening be friends with everyone in there.
“As a teenager all my friends had so much respect for him, he was their friend too.”
Mr Thorne expressed his disappointment at the inaccuracy of the e-fit which officers confirmed was meant as a “recognition tool” rather than an exact likeness.
However both he and Ms Grassi expressed their gratitude to the officers in the investigation and the public’s help.
Both family members understood the coroner’s verdict.
Detective Constable Blain Bishop, one of the officers leading the investigation, said: “The coroner found no evidence of foul play or any third party involvement and went through the difficulty of answering key questions including how and when he entered the water.”
Det Con Bishop explained that witnesses included Natural History Museum scientist and diatomist, Dr David Williams who conducted tests on Mr Thorne’s right femur.
Tests were conducted as to whether his bone marrow contained traces of microscopic particles known as diatoms, found in the estuary, which could have revealed whether he was still breathing when he entered the water.
None were found so the scientist was unable to use this relatively new method of research, in determining whether he was still breathing.
Forensic pathologist Dr Russell Delaney, who conducted the postmortem, ruled there were no physical signs of drowning.
At the inquest he explained the condition of dry drowning and said it was the most likely possibility for the cause of Mr Thorne’s death.
Detectives were unable to find out where Mr Thorne may have been staying prior to his death.
His last movements were traced to Weymouth two days before his body was found, when he checked his bank account balance, on his account which had insufficient funds.
Detectives say the pensioner may have taken the X53 bus to East Devon on the day he died.
Police have issued a fresh appeal for information about Mr Thorne’s possessions which have never been recovered:
A Franklin Mint round eagle watch with a gold-coloured face in the shape of an eagle
A silver link chain of medium thickness
A small flat black leather wallet containing a Barclaycard and bus pass
Four keys on a key fob with an image of a Welsh dragon
Detective Chief Inspector Brett Mitchell also spoke at the inquest recalling the finer detail of the investigation including a tidal expert’s assessment that Mr Thorne was most likely to have entered the water at Exmouth Marina.
He said there was no evidence to support third party involvement such as any evidence of “activity” in the areas he could have entered the water.
Detectives have repeatedly stressed their gratitude to the public who’s help in identifying him was key, as finding his family was critical to find out more about him in order to build up a bigger picture and history about him which included that he was gone missing for a period of time two years before.
“This was a difficult job,” Det Con Bishop continued. “We were trying to answer as many questions as we could but the difficulty was, The investigation raised as many questions as it answered.”