A teenager has been found guilty of murdering a teaching assistant after he claimed no involvement in her death, saying he was instead offered money to move the body.
Mother-of-two Lindsay Birbeck, 47, was found dead wrapped in two plastic bags in a shallow ditch by a dog walker in Accrington Cemetery in Lancashire on 24 August last year.
An attempt had also been made to cut off a leg, possibly with a saw.
The 17-year-old male defendant, who cannot be named for legal reasons, denied her murder but was convicted on Wednesday.
David McLachlan QC, prosecuting, told the jury at Preston Crown Court that Birbeck left her home at about 4pm on 12 August and went to a patch of woodland called The Coppice, where she would often walk.
The prosecution believed she was killed in the woods shortly after and said the defendant, who was 16 at the time, was seen on CCTV in that area on the same afternoon. He was also seen taking a blue wheelie bin to the woodland in the evening.
Police launched an investigation after Birbeck was reported missing by her family at midnight.
She was found more than a week later. A post-mortem examination found she had died from neck injuries and severe compressive force appeared to have been used, possibly through stamping, kicking or kneeling on the front of the neck, the court heard.
On 17 August, the defendant, who has autism, was seen moving a wheelie bin from the woods to the cemetery, the court heard, which McLachlan said now appeared “heavy”.
“The prosecution case is that the reason for this is simple and straightforward: the wheelie bin now contained the body of Lindsay Birbeck,” he told the jury.
The teenage defendant voluntarily attended a a police station with family members after a police appeal about the CCTV footage of the wheelie bin.
In a statement, he admitted moving the bin and burying the body but said he had no involvement in Birbeck’s death.
He said he was walking alone in the area when a stranger said he would give the teenager “a lot of money” if he disposed of the body.
He stated: “He showed me where the body was and he went away straight away, leaving me to ‘get rid of the body’.
“I have not met this man before. I have not met him since, nor have I had any contact with him. He has not paid me any money. He told me that he would leave the money for me near where the body had been at first once everything was clear.
“I cannot describe the man other than to say he was white, male, spoke English. I could not see his face well as he was covering it with his hood. I am not sure of his height, build or age.”
The teenager admitted assisting an offender but that plea was not accepted by prosecutors.
McLachlan said: “Far from it being a case of (the youth) assisting and helping a mystery man, the prosecution case is he is in fact the mystery man and he is guilty of murder.
“A young man who went to exceptional lengths to move Mrs Birbeck’s body and also did a very good job of hiding her body in a shallow grave in the cemetery.
“Such a good job that the police and the public – who searched in vast numbers – were not able to find her body until 12 days after she had gone missing.”
Another walker, Zoe Braithwaite, said she entered The Coppice on the same afternoon and saw a lone male walking “very slowly” who looked out of place because “I normally didn’t see young people walking alone up there”.
She later saw the male and said “it looked as if he had pulled up and had been running”.
“At that point I was seriously concerned,” she told the jury.
“I walked as fast as I could down a swift descent hoping I could see some people or something heavy on the ground in case I needed to defend myself.”
However, she did not see his face and said he was aged between 20 and 25, was 6ft to 6ft 2in tall and wore a grey top with the hood up and grey tracksuit trousers.
Defending, Mark Fenhalls QC told jurors: “He has admitted from the outset that he buried her.
“I suggest all the DNA and scientific evidence gathered points to his guilt on that and none of it points to him being the killer.”
He said the evidence was inconsistent with an attack by a stranger, with no signs of a sexual assault, bruising, cuts, stab wounds, blows to the head or defensive injuries.
Fenhalls said that “at least opens the door to the possibility that she was not on her guard, she did not fight back and she was perhaps killed by someone she knew”, adding that nobody would invent the defendant’s explanation “unless it was true”.
“The much better thing would have been to say ‘I just found the body and thought the best thing to do was bury it’,” he said.
He said it would not make sense if the teenager buried Birbeck with plastic from his home and left gloves at the burial site if he was the killer, and said the eyewitness in the woods described a “completely different person”.
He said: “She may, we don’t know, have seen the man who killed Lindsay Birbeck.”
The Coppice has “infinite access all around”, Fenhalls said, and added that “the evidence takes you to a place where you cannot be sure that he (the youth) killed her”.
McLachlan told the jury: “It’s a complete nonsense that someone who had killed Mrs Birbeck then entrusted the help of a random passerby to get rid of a body.
“It is the only story that (the youth) can come up with to explain away his actions that day.”
Outside court, Birbeck’s daughter Sarah said: “As a family we are completely devastated that my mum has been taken from us so suddenly in such an appalling way.
“However, we do feel some sense of relief that the defendant has been found guilty of murdering my mum and that justice has now been served.
“My mum went for a walk on a sunny afternoon in August and never came home, it’s unthinkable that something as brutal as this could happen in our close community to someone that was loved so very dearly.
“Our lives have been utterly destroyed by the evil, cowardly behaviour of the defendant and the horrific manner in which she was murdered – it has left a huge void in our lives that will never be filled.”