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Chris Jefferies: From pillar of the community to suspect in Joanna Yeates murder inquiry

By Cahal Milmo and Mark Hughes

As a pillar of society in this well-heeled Bristol district, former public school English master Chris Jefferies had regularly made his views clear on issues from preventing crime to the preservation of historic buildings.

So when the 65-year-old landlord emerged 48 hours ago from his flat in the Victorian mansion block from which murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates had disappeared, he spoke with his customary authority when questioned about his contribution to the hunt for her killer.

Asked whether he had told police that he had seen his 25-year-old tenant leaving her home in the company of two other people on the night of her disappearance on 17 December, he insisted reports were "distorted".

Turning emphatically to a television crew, he said: "I definitely cannot say that I saw Joanna Yeates that evening. No." Last night, the retired English teacher was being asked to justify that assertion by police after he was arrested shortly after 7am on suspicion of strangling the young woman who had lived in the basement flat below his home.

Among the allegations that detectives will be putting to Mr Jefferies is a claim that he would have known that Ms Yeates would have been alone in her flat on the weekend of her disappearance after he helped her boyfriend, Greg Reardon, to start his car on 17 December when it had a flat battery.

Peter Stanley, a neighbour who also helped start the car before Mr Reardon drove off to visit family in Sheffield, said: "I have spoken to the police about what happened and I would rather not say any more at this stage."

Another neighbour, who asked not to be identified, said: "Chris knew that Greg was going to be away for the weekend, because he helped him start his car. On the Friday that Joanne went missing, Greg's car would not start so he asked Chris for some help. He went next door and asked for some jump leads. They managed to get the car started and off he went."

The arrest of Mr Jefferies, the vice-chairman of his local Neighbourhood Watch team, was greeted with astonishment by friends and former colleagues as forensic investigators clad in white suits began carrying away bags of potential evidence down the staircase leading to Mr Jefferies' front door. His car was also towed away along Canynge Road, the sedate Clifton street where the schoolmaster had lived for at least two decades, devoting himself to causes which included prolific leafleting for the local Liberal Democratic party.

Councillor Trevor Blythe, 63, who was supported by Mr Jefferies in a 2009 council election, said: "The whole thing is tragic. We have to wait for the outcome of what the police find on Chris Jefferies. I only know him in as much as he is a Liberal Democrat member and a member of our ward committee. He is a very private person. We are all very shocked and flabbergasted about his arrest."

Avon and Somerset Police last night renewed their appeal for anyone who had been on Canynge Road at about 9pm on 17 December to come forward, while emphasising that no one had been charged in relation to the killing of Ms Yeates. The clothed body of the Bristol University graduate, who had moved into the flat with Mr Reardon two months ago, was found on Christmas Day partially covered in snow on a road beside a quarry about three miles from Clifton. After a fortnight in which he had been not come to public attention during the murder inquiry, Mr Jefferies, who lives a short distance from Clifton College, the £25,000-a-year independent school where he taught for about 30 years, found himself at the centre of media interest on Thursday when it was claimed he had seen Ms Yeates on the night she disappeared.

Neighbours of the lifelong bachelor said he had told them that he saw three people, including Ms Yeates, leaving her flat at about 9pm on 17 December and that he passed this information to police. Detectives said they were treating the sighting as "one line of inquiry".

But when approached by reporters, Mr Jefferies insisted that the idea he had definitely seen the landscape architect at that time was a "distortion" of what he had told police. He said: "Everything I am aware of, I have told the police and I really don't want to talk about it."

An only child who was the son of an engineer employed by the family-owned packaging company, Mr Jefferies spent his teenage years in the Cheshire market town of Sandbach, attending the local grammar school before moving to the Bristol area in the late 1960s.

Described variously as "inspirational" and "eccentric", he became head of English at Clifton College, the alma mater of figures including John Cleese and Sir Michael Howard.

Sporting a crop of blue hair at one point, his students remembered him for his love of the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti and idiosyncratic pronunciation of place names. One male student, who was taught GCSE English by Mr Jefferies in the 1990s, said: "He was a stickler for discipline and was very traditional. He would over-emphasise words and kept repeating them in an odd way. He would say things 10-15 times over."

Neighbours last night voiced quiet shock at the arrest of the man whose fear of crime was such that he would approach residents to warn them to keep their mobile phones out of sight in their cars. Ray Lowman, who lives opposite Mr Jefferies' home, said: "I'm amazed. He is basically a pillar of society. One of the well-known familiar locals. His appearance is unusual. I wouldn't say he was weird but unusual, and the hair is affectation. A very intelligent man; very sharp."

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