Manhunt for missing staff member after female sports coach found dead on school grounds

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

New South Wales police want to speak to Netherlands-born hockey coach Paul Thijssen, 24, after the body of Lilie James, 21, was found on the grounds of a prestigious private school in Sydney’s CBD in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Ms James was found after emergency crews were called to St Andrew’s Cathedral School on Kent Street, at about midnight on Thursday, after a family member called the police because she had not returned home.

The body of the school’s water polo coach – a former champion swimmer – was found in the bathroom of the school’s gym. Police said she had suffered serious head injuries.

Missing man is former school student

A manhunt is underway for Mr Thijssen, who graduated from the Anglican school in 2017 and since worked there as a cricket and hockey coach.

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At a media conference on Thursday, Superintendent Martin Fileman said the officers who found Ms James’ body were faced with a “quite confronting scene”. It was revealed that police were also called to Diamond Bay Reserve in the affluent suburb of Vaucluse, about 10 kilometres from the scene, where property “associated with the homicide” was found.

Forensic police towed away a silver Lexus sedan. Police have conducted a line search, and both the Air Wing and Marine Command are patrolling the coastline off South Head.

A crime scene has also been established at The Gap, a popular tourist destination with views of Sydney Harbour, with speculation mounting that the missing man may have jumped from the cliff.

It is reported Ms James had dated Mr Thijssen for a few weeks until Ms James ended the relationship.

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Neither party were known to police and did not have known previous domestic violence-related issues or Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs).

Detectives speaking to “witnesses”

Other staff members were understood to be present at the time her body was found, but police would not explain why they were there after-hours.

A school spokesperson released a statement saying Year 12 students sitting HSC and IB exams would be allowed to attend the school, as it works with police in the investigation.

“No students were involved and there is no ongoing threat.”

“An area of the school, not accessible to students, is a crime zone, and we await the approval of Police before bringing everyone back on site,” the school statement continued.

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“We ask the media does not seek to interrupt their concentration or state of mind as they sit exams that are significant for their graduation. Police have asked that we do not make any further public commentary so all media inquiries must be directed to Police.”

Supt Fileman echoed the remarks and advised media and the public to be mindful as students would likely be confronted by what has happened.

A letter from St Andrew’s Head, Dr Julie McGonigle, was emailed to parents to say the school was working with police but was unable to divulge any information at this stage.

“I realise you will have a lot of questions, but we do not have the authority to release further details – this information will come through police at the appropriate time in their investigation,” she said.

Strike Force Trineura has been set up to investigate the homicide.

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Anyone with information has been urged to contact Day St Police Station on (02) 9265 6499 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]