Death of woman who was found floating in stream will remain mystery

Death of flute player, 78, who was found floating face down in stream with neck injury four weeks after she went missing will remain mystery as coroner records open verdict

  • Croatia-born Dr Maja O’Brien was reported missing on March 28, 2019
  • Pensioner was found dead in Hinksey stream in Oxford nearly one month later 
  • Dr O’Brien had a ‘worrying’ fracture to her left superior thyroid cartilage
  • Coroner recorded an open verdict as not enough evidence to rule as suicide

The death of 78-year-old flute player Dr Maja O’Brien (pictured) – whose body was found floating face-down in a stream four weeks after she went missing – will remain a mystery, an inquest has heard

The death of a 78-year-old flute player whose body was found floating face-down in a stream four weeks after she went missing will remain a mystery, an inquest has heard. 

Dr Maja O’Brien was reported missing when she didn’t show up to play in an orchestral concert on March 28, 2019. 

She was thought to have vanished with her flute which she was taking to a professional musician to have cleaned. 

Nearly one month later, the Croatian-born pensioner – who was a regular swimmer – was found dead lying face-down under a tree in Hinksey stream in Oxford by a search and rescue volunteer.

Today, coroner Darren Salter recorded an open verdict – saying there is not sufficient evidence to rule her death a suicide nor an accident.

Dr O’Brien had a ‘worrying’ fracture to her left superior thyroid cartilage – often associated with strangulation, Home Office pathologist Dr Olaf Biedrzycki discovered. 

Police launched an investigation and found that the pensioner had Google-searched ‘death by drowning’ in October 15, 2018. 

However, the police could not rule out the possibility that she was murdered or that she had a medical episode – leaving multiple theories about what could have happened to her.  

Detective Chief Inspector James Senior said the force’s theories were: Dr O’Brien had left home with the intention of harming herself; that she left home with an unknown intention but came to have a medical episode causing her to fall into the river; she was harmed by someone known to her or she was harmed by an unknown third party.

The night before she went missing from her home Dr O’Brien had gone to the Oxford Academy to practice with the Cowley Orchestra, the coroner heard.

At the end of the session, the pensioner told her fellow musicians she was not going to be available in the coming weeks as she was due to go on holiday to Croatia.

On April 22, 2019, search and rescue volunteer David Woodgate was scouring the River Thames on a boat when he discovered a pair of feet at 7.30am. 

Dr O’Brien was expected to play at an orchestral concert before jetting off on a trip to Croatia – but was reported missing when she didn’t show up on March 28, 2019. Pictured: Police during the search for her

Rescue teams were called and pulled Dr O’Brien’s decomposed body from the water.

Mr Salter said: ‘This is a case that has raised questions and there has been a thorough police investigation over a long period of time.

‘There are four hypotheses. There are the Google searches in 2018 but that was some time before her death and there could be an innocent explanation. 

‘There is not sufficient evidence of me to record a verdict of suicide.

‘There is no evidence that she was unhappy, perhaps to the contrary. The night before she went missing she was planning to visit Croatia.

‘It could have been an accident, there is evidence of recent falls and she was unstable to an extent. She was in the habit of walking by the river, falling after a medical episode or simply tripping is possible.’

The court heard how the Home Office pathologist’s examination had been hampered because the body had been in the water for a significant period of time.

The coroner said: ‘What worried the pathologist was the fracture of a left superior thyroid cartilage. It is quite a protected structure and it is an injury can be once somebody’s neck is forcefully compressed by another person.

Dr O’Brien had a ‘worrying’ fracture to her left superior thyroid cartilage – often associated with strangulation, Home Office pathologist Dr Olaf Biedrzycki discovered. Pictured: Police during the search for her

‘It is also something that can be caused accidentally. 

‘It is unusual but if someone fell, landing on that part of the neck and striking an edge accidentally – the pathologist has seen that before – which points towards a medical episode.

‘We cannot rule out any of these possibilities. It seems more likely to me that we are looking at a fall into the river because that would be more common than someone causing harm to Maja – but I cannot rule that out and the fracture of the cartilage remains a worry.’

Recording an open conclusion, Mr Salter said: ‘The evidence does not fully take us in one direction or the other. 

‘Maja O’Brien left her home address on March 28 2019. She was reported missing later that day and her body was discovered on April 22 2019. The cause of her death following a post mortem examination, was unascertained.’

Sitting in at the inquest on Oxford was Dr O’Brien’s adopted daughter, Petra. Her estranged husband Terence – a teacher – appeared over video link.

The inquest heard that Terence had known Dr O’Brien for 45 years, marrying in 1970 and divorcing 17 years later but they remained ‘good friends.’

Dr O’Brien moved to the UK and carved out a successful career teaching at the University of Oxford after having gained her PhD in Psychology from University College, London.

Outside of her professional life, she loved music. 

She sang Croatian and British folk songs with her husband and was involved in choirs for most of her life.

On retirement, Dr O’Brien took up the flute and passed every exam with distinction or merit. 

She was a member of Oxfordshire Adult Flute Group for several years and first led a group of fellow flautists to Croatia in 2013, which became an annual visit.

She loved the outdoors and swam at Hinksey Pool every morning in the summer and even took part in a sponsored bike ride across Vietnam for Oxfordshire Mind when she was in her 60s.

She was a member of a local walking group and also went on annual walking weekends with ex-colleagues in different parts of the UK. 

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