Opera singer and Heathfield teenager died accidentally, inquest rules

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Shortly after splitting up from her long term boyfriend, a Heathfield teenager died in a head-on collision on a dark country road.

Thursday’s Eastbourne inquest heard how sales assistant Jessica Christie-Sturges, 19, from Wayside Walk, had been driving her blue Ford Ka westwards along the B2102 at about 9pm on October 30 last year.

Police evidence showed she had drifted into the opposite lane and hit a blue Fiat Multipla driven eastwards by opera singer Robert Poulton, 55, from Lime Way, Heathfield.

She was killed instantly. Mr Poulton survived the impact but died later at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton. Both had suffered multiple injuries.

Giving evidence, Jessica’s former boyfriend, Alex Bland from Warren Lane, Cross-in-Hand, said he met Jessica at school when he was 13 and the pair became friends. He said: “It was good, ups and downs like all relationships. We split up for short periods but got back together.” He described Jessica as “a loving girl, lovely to be around.”

He said they had decided to stop seeing each other. On the evening of October 30 last year Jessica came to Alex’s home to talk and collect belongings left at his home. She got into her car and drove off.

He said: “I then got a text saying she was at the back door wanting to see me again. She was a lot more upset this time. She was sobbing, almost begging to keep the relationship going, but was a lot calmer towards the end of our conversation and we agreed to end the relationship. We talked, exchanged kisses and hugs, then she left. I offered to drive her home as it seemed the right thing to do, but she refused.”

He tried to send her a text message which was not received. He later attended the scene with Jessica’s family. He told the coroner that no-one knew where Jessica had been going when the accident happened.

James Wareham, from Broad Oak, told the inquest he had picked up his father and was heading east along the B2102 towards Heathfield when he saw a wheel in the middle of the road and a car in the ditch.

The pair stopped, put hazards on and went back. While James rang emergency services his father, Jason, went to the car and tried to help the driver, Mr Poulton, who was trapped.

He said Mr Poulton was alive, breathing and speaking. “He had tried to get out of the car but couldn’t. He was in the ditch and the only way he could get out was through the window. James kept talking to him, trying to keep him conscious.”

He went to the other car where he found a woman slumped across the front seat. “In my mind, I thought she wasn’t with us any more.” Both father and son described the road as dark, ‘like a tunnel.’

It was 20 minutes from the first emergency call before the ambulance arrived. After firecrews cut Mr Poulton free he was treated by paramedics and transferred to hospital. Miss Christie-Sturges was dead at the scene.

PC Paul Banks, from the Shoreham forensic investigation unit, told the inquest evidence indicated both vehicles had been travelling at about 58mph - below the 60mph limit.

He said gouges and scratches showed Jessica’s car had drifted into the opposite lane and the crash was the result of the driver’s failure to correct the drift. He did not believe she had swerved to avoid livestock as there was no sudden application of steering. He could find no evidence she had been wearing a seat belt. Telecoms records showed no evidence of calls or texts received or sent. Alcohol and drug tests on both victims were negative.

Deputy coroner Christopher Wilkinson recorded both had died accidentally as the result of a road traffic accident. He said: “We cannot find answers to all questions but I hope both families, having been through the investigation, find some consolation.”