Huge Kettering forensic dig as police search for Sarah Benford's body

The major operation begins today

Monday, 15th November 2021, 9:30 am

A piece of land in Kettering will be dug up as murder detectives search for the body of teenager Sarah Benford, more than 21 years after she went missing.

The major operation - which starts today (Monday) - will see the 70m by 70m piece of open space in the Valley Walk area excavated over the next two weeks.

It comes after Northamptonshire Police received 'significant intelligence' in their biggest ever cold case, which began after Sarah went missing from a care home aged 14 on April 6, 2000.

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Police at the scene this morning. Pictured right, Sarah Benford.

Despite a number of arrests and searches her body has never been found and nobody has ever been charged with her murder.

Specialist police search teams will now be assisted by forensic archaeologists, with ground penetration radar equipment deployed to assess any movement on the section of land under investigation.

Detective Superintendent Joe Banfield, who is leading the operation, said: "We have received significant intelligence which has pointed us to this site as a possible area of interest.

“Sarah went missing more than 21 years ago now, but we have never given up trying to find her body and, potentially, tracing her killer or killers.

Police at the scene this morning.

“We have informed Sarah’s family and they are supportive of the operation being carried out today."

The piece of land will be screened off from the public with dozens of police officers guarding the scene around the clock throughout the major operation.

Sarah had been under the care of Northamptonshire County Council’s children’s services at the time of her disappearance and had been staying at Welford House in Northampton.

She started skipping school in reception and was already absconding from home aged just eight. By the time she turned 14 she'd been in three different children's homes, used drugs and regularly went missing.

Sarah Benford was 14 when she went missing in 2000.

But she was repeatedly failed by the authorities who failed to see her as a victim of exploitation by drug dealers and sex offenders.

When she admitted meeting people for sex and that she was injecting herself with heroin neither staff at Welford House nor a doctor she saw raised eyebrows, despite her being just a child.

Sarah, who spent 41 of her 150 days in care missing, fled the home in 2000 on March 31 and was found on April 2.

Just a day later, on April 3, Sarah again walked out of the home again and staff reported her missing. On April 6 she visited her mum Vicki in an amusement arcade in Kettering town centre, where she worked. They argued and that was the final time Vicki saw her daughter,.

Her face was on milk cartons as part of a campaign to find her.

Later that day, while high on drugs, Sarah phoned her mum from a house in Hampden Crescent, Kettering. A frantic Vicki begged police to collect her and take her back to the care home.

But officers were not concerned about her runaway attempts. They refused to pick her up - not for the first time - despite Vicki's desperate pleas.

Documents later handed to this newspaper said police officers had told care home staff they 'could not and would not' collect her and would not 'take her to Kettering Police Station to babysit her'.

What followed was one of the force's biggest ever missing persons investigations. TV appeals were launched and Sarah's face was plastered on milk cartons and on the side of lorries.

There were some sightings in the days after her disappearance in Cherry Road and Highfield Road.

But despite more than 5,000 lines of enquiry, more than 600 statements, almost 1,000 reports and eight arrests over 20 years, Sarah was never found and nobody has ever been charged in connection with her disappearance.

Police discuss the operation this morning.

One of those arrested was Richard Jenkins, whose daughter had been friends with Sarah. He moved to Wales 18 months after Sarah disappeared and used to live in Highfield Road, one of the last places the missing teen was seen. Sarah had previously stayed over with his daughter on a couple of nights.

In June 2003 police searched his former home for clues before moving on to his new house in Maesteg where they dug up his garden. The following month he was arrested but was eliminated from the inquiry. He later told our reporters the investigation had ruined his life.

He said: "What am I supposed to have done - killed Sarah, buried her, then dug her up again two years later and moved her to South Wales?"

On September 23, 2003 - more than three years after Sarah went missing - police said they had no more hope that Sarah was alive and upgraded their inquiry to a murder investigation.

More searches were carried out, including at Weekley Woods, Wakerley Woods and Finedon Sidings, but nothing significant to the investigation was found.

Derbyshire Police were tasked with looking at the shortfalls in Northamptonshire Police's investigation. That report was never made public.

A serious case review concluded in 2004 found the county council’s children’s services department had been understaffed and that Sarah, who had been known to them since she was two, had not been assessed as she should have been.

In 2016, on what would have been Sarah's 30th birthday, officers revisited woodland at Warkton to try to find clues.

A string of lead detectives over the years have said that they are confident they know who killed Sarah, but that they needed help from the people of Kettering to find the evidence.

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of her disappearance, Northamptonshire Police issued a fresh media appeal for information. That appeal led more members of the public to come forward.

Officers now hope that the operation they launch today will finally find the evidence they have been looking for.

Det Supt Banfield added: "Clearly someone out there knows what happened to Sarah all those years ago and we would urge anyone with new information to contact us on 101 or, in confidence, via the Crimestoppers hotline on 0800 555111."

Police community support officers and neighbourhood teams will be carrying out visible patrols in the immediate area, providing reassurance to local residents and preserving the site throughout the time needed for the excavation.

Northamptonshire Police has set up an incident number for anyone with information relating to Sarah’s disappearance. The incident number is 359 of 10/11/2021.

Police searched a number of houses in Kettering 2003.
Sarah, pictured as a primary school pupil.
Eight arrests have been made but nobody has ever been charged
A police search in 2016.
Police at the scene this morning.