Lilie James family handout
Lilie James, 21, was described by her family as vibrant, outgoing, and very much loved. Image by HANDOUT/NSW POLICE
  • crime, law and justice

Body found in manhunt over ‘heartbreaking’ school death

October 27, 2023

The family of a young water polo coach who was found dead with horrific head injuries at an elite Sydney private school say they are devastated and heartbroken by their loss.

The statement from loved ones of 21-year-old Lilie James came as police worked on Friday to retrieve a body that could belong to her colleague Paul Thijssen, who has been missing since her brutal killing.

Ms James’ family described her as “vibrant, outgoing, and very much loved by her family and friends”.

“We are devastated and heartbroken by the loss of our beautiful Lilie James,” they said.

Shortly after midday on Friday, police recovered a body from near the base of cliffs at Vaucluse, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where items linked to the suspected murder were found the previous morning.

Ms James was found dead inside the gymnasium toilets at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in the city centre just before midnight on Wednesday.

Investigators have been hunting for Thijssen, a 24-year-old sports coach at the elite private school, since Ms James was discovered with serious head injuries after concerns were raised for her welfare.

The pair had reportedly been in a relationship for a few weeks in the lead-up to the death.

Police said the body, located below the clifftop Diamond Bay Reserve, belonged to a man but he was yet to be formally identified.

Police at Diamond Bay Reserve in Sydney's east.
 Items linked to the killing of Lilie James were found at Diamond Bay Reserve. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

Surf lifesavers on jet skis were earlier seen trawling the nearby shoreline while police rescue personnel abseiled down the sheer cliffs to reach the rocks below.

Detectives previously said they were looking at the possibility Thijssen had taken his own life after Ms James’ death and they were not looking for any other suspects in relation to the killing.

Police have been talking to witnesses and also combing CCTV from the school to piece together the events that led up to the killing.

Superintendent Martin Fileman previously said officers were presented with a “confronting” scene when they arrived at the school due to the severity of Ms James’ injuries.

St Andrew's Cathedral School Sydney
 St Andrew’s Cathedral School has been closed to students until next week. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

Premier Chris Minns on Thursday described the young woman’s killing as a “horrible crime”.

“It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen in my public life and I can only imagine what the family is going through right now,” he said.

An evening prayer service for staff, students and families was held at the school that night as floral tributes to the young staff member were left outside the building.

The school has been closed to students until next week and counsellors made available to pupils and parents.

Thijssen graduated from St Andrew’s in 2017 and worked there as an assistant sports coach, according to his Linkedin profile.

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