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London police officer falsely arrested Sarah Everard before murdering her, prosecutor says

Prosecutor Tom Little presents the case, as Wayne Couzens sits in the dock, at the Old Bailey on Wednesday. (Elizabeth Cook/AP)

LONDON — Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens accused Sarah Everard of breaking coronavirus restrictions and used official documents to make a "false arrest," before kidnapping, raping and murdering her, a prosecutor told a London court on Wednesday.

Couzens, who has pleaded guilty to the charges, was at London’s Old Bailey for a two-day sentencing hearing, in a case that sparked a national outcry.

Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, disappeared on the night of March 3 after leaving a friend’s house in Battersea, south London. Her burned body was found a week later in a wooded area about 50 miles away, near land owned by Couzens. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be “compression of the neck.”

The court on Wednesday heard fresh details about how a serving police officer, a person tasked with protecting the public, abducted a young woman by abusing his power.

London police officer Wayne Couzens gets life sentence without parole for Sarah Everard murder

The prosecutor said Couzens used his police identification and knowledge about covid rules to deceive Everard. At the time, England was in its third national lockdown — schools and nonessential businesses were closed, and people were permitted to leave their homes only in limited circumstances. Police who found someone violating the rules were expected to engage with them and could issue fines.

“She was detained by fraud,” prosecutor Tom Little said, as Couzens sat in the dock with his head bowed. The police officer used “his warrant card and handcuffs, as well as his other police-issue equipment, to effect a false arrest.”

Couzens, 48, was fired from the police force’s elite Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection squad — which included work at the U.S. Embassy — after his guilty pleas, but there has been a heated public debate about how someone who had been granted high security clearances and entrusted with a gun could have committed such a crime.

On the day of the abduction, Couzens clocked a 12-hour overnight shift at the U.S. Embassy in south London. He told colleagues that he was thinking of leaving the force over a pay dispute and that he might take sick leave over stress. He had been accused of indecent exposure at a McDonald’s in the days before. A married father of two, he was also described to the court as having a debt of nearly $40,000.

His shift ended at 7 a.m., but that evening he returned to London, “hunting for a lone young female to kidnap and rape,” the prosecution said.

That woman ended up being Everard.

The prosecutor showed surveillance-camera footage of Couzens holding out his hand toward her and said an eyewitness saw the police officer, who had a rental car parked nearby, handcuffing her.

The abduction was quick. He detained her at 9:34 p.m., and three minutes later, he was driving her toward Dover.

“Having handcuffed her to the rear, she would not have been able to undo the seat belt that the defendant must have placed over her,” Little said. At some point, in the course of the long journey that did not involve stopping at any police station, “Sarah Everard must have realized her fate.”

Murder in Britain carries a mandatory life sentence, but that doesn’t mean life behind bars. Judge Adrian Fulford will decide the minimum time Couzens must serve before being eligible for parole. The judge could also sentence Couzens to a “whole life order,” making him ineligible for release.

Jeremy Everard, Sarah’s father, asked for his daughter’s killer to face him in court: “Mr. Couzens, please will you look at me?”

He also asked that a photo of his daughter, who he said “had a beautiful mind,” be shown on the screen in the courtroom as he addressed his statement to Couzens.

“No punishment that you receive will ever compare to the pain and torture that you have inflicted on us,” he said.

Her mother, Susan, also read a statement out in court: “She lost her life because Wayne Couzens wanted to satisfy his perverted desires. It is a ridiculous reason. It is nonsensical. How could he value a human life so cheaply?”

The court heard how Couzens attempted to cover his tracks by burning Everard’s body, clothing and possessions. “He then moved her body in green bags that he had purchased specifically for that task to a pond deeper into the woods, but which was only about 130 meters from his plot,” said Little, the prosecutor.

Little noted that “she was just walking home” became a hashtag that flooded social media after Everard’s death. He said it was impossible to summarize what happened to her in five words, but it might be “more appropriate to do so as: deception, kidnap, rape, strangulation, fire.”

In the wake of her killing, thousands of women have publicly shared their experiences of feeling unsafe as they went about their days. They swapped stories of how they modified their behavior when heading home at night: walking with keys facing out, changing into athletic shoes in case running became necessary; taking the long way back because it was well lit; crossing the road when heavy footsteps approached from behind.

Alongside a shared understanding came outrage that such detailed calculations were necessary.

Experts working in the area of violence against women said they had not seen such an outpouring in decades. Betsy Stanko, a criminologist and visiting professor at University College London, described the moment as “an explosion of anger” across the country that became “indicative of the whole way women felt devalued.”

Ahead of the hearing on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police tweeted: “We’re sickened, angered & devastated by his crimes. They betray everything we stand for.”

But upon hearing the account that emerged in court on Wednesday, many Brits wondered aloud how women could be expected to trust the police.

“The new Sarah Everard details are breathtaking. Why would any of us ever do anything a police officer asked us to again? I don’t see how trust can be won back,” tweeted author Ellie Levenson.

Journalist Faima Bakar called Couzens’s actions “a gross, gross misuse of police power.”

Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.

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