A teenage girl made a desperate 999 call as she was being driven away in a van by a man who went on to rape and murder her, a court heard yesterday.
Hannah Foster called the emergency services from her mobile phone in the hope that they would overhear the conversation she was having with the man and come to her aid. But the 17-year-old's call was automatically disconnected when the operator could not hear what she was saying. She was raped and strangled and her body dumped on a verge, where it was found two days later.
Warning the jury that the evidence would prove "distressing", Nicholas Haggan QC opened the case for the prosecution against Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, a 40-year-old sandwich delivery driver accused of her murder.
The jury of eight men and four women heard how Hannah – an intelligent girl who planned to go to medical school – disappeared while walking home from a bus stop after a night out with friends on 14 March, 2003.
Hannah's parents, Hilary and Trevor, and her sister Sarah, 20, listened from the public gallery as Mr Haggan described how the youngster had waved goodbye to her friend Helen Wilkinson at a bus stop on Portswood Road, Southampton, at 11pm. Just feet away, Mr Kohli nodded intently as the interpreter translated the barrister's words into Punjabi.
Minutes after she was last seen by her friend, Hannah called 999 on her mobile phone. While she was unable to speak to the operator, the barrister explained, it was obvious from a recording that she was in a moving vehicle with a man talking to her in a heavily-accented voice.
"Hannah probably hoped that the operator would listen to the conversation [and] would be able to work [out] that she was being held against her will and ... contact the police.
"Unfortunately, Hannah would not have known that there is a system in place to prevent accidentally dialled emergency calls from blocking up the system. Hannah's call was disconnected after only a very short period of time."
The barrister told Winchester Crown Court that the man on the tape was Mr Kohli, who was extradited from his native India last year having travelled there four days after Hannah was killed. He denies charges of murder, rape, kidnap and false imprisonment.
The poor-quality recording had been enhanced to reveal the voice of the operator, a man and the young victim. Hannah's mother and sister wept in court as the prosecutor explained that the student gave her sister's name Sarah on the recording, though Mr and Mrs Foster had confirmed it was their dead daughter's voice.
"The operator is talking but despite that you will be able to hear that Hannah is very frightened," Mr Haggan said. "At some stage... the man tells Hannah, 'Hold your head down please.'"
The young woman's mother first discovered she had not made it home after getting up for work the following morning at 5.30am. Having received no response to a text message, she began calling her an hour later.
That same morning, her alleged killer was speaking to friend Balwinder Chahal. Mr Kohli explained he was desperate to get to India because his mother was ill and asked for money for the flight and a lift to the airport. When Mr Chahal asked about a red mark under his eye, he told him that he had been in a fight but did not want to report the matter to the police. Mr Chahal said he could not help him with the money.
Two days later, a 14-year-old boy was travelling along Allington Lane, near Southampton, when he spotted a body from the window of his mother's car. Hannah's fully clothed but "dishevelled" body was found lying among brambles 15ft from the roadside.
Mr Haggan told the jury that Hannah's tights and underwear were inside out and she had a number of scratches on her legs.
"It was obvious the motive of Hannah's abduction was sexual and she had been raped and murdered," the prosecutor told the court, explaining that her handbag and phone were found at a recycling centre in Portsmouth on 17 March, 24 hours before Mr Kohli flew to India.
After the case featured on the BBC's Crimewatch later that month, James Dennis, Mr Kohli's supervisor at Hazelwood Foods, called the police.
Mr Kohli's sandwich delivery van was seized, and semen stains as well as Hannah's blood were found inside. Using CCTV footage police found that the van had been on the M27 and M275 motorways between Southampton and Portsmouth – as well as a petrol station three miles from where the body was found – in the early hours of 15 March. Phone mast logs showed that the teenager's mobile had been on the M275 at the same time.
On 3 April, 2003, after DNA taken from Mr Kohli's wife and sons – whom he had left in Britain – was linked to samples found on the teenager, an arrest warrant was issued. Indian police detained him on 15 July, 2004 and he was extradited to Britain on 28 July, 2007. Upon his return, a DNA sample was found to be a one in a billion match to genetic material found at the scene.
"The case against this defendant was now clear and utterly compelling," Mr Haggan told the jury. "It was he who abducted, raped and murdered Hannah. He snatched her from the street, he drove off with her in his van, he found somewhere quiet, he raped her, he then strangled her and he dumped her body."
The court heard that Mr Kohli turned up to work the following day as if nothing had happened, but he panicked when he saw Hannah's handbag in the van and got rid of it in Portsmouth. He then made plans to flee to India, borrowing money from his father-in-law despite being due to receive more than £36,000 from the sale of his house just three days after he left Britain.
"Perhaps he thought he [had] got away with it," Mr Haggan said. "But here we are... more than five years later... and he [Kohli] is in the dock on trial. We say he abducted Hannah, he raped her and he murdered her."