Neighbours shocked as police comb Kettering land in search for Sarah Benford

A cordon has been set up around a piece of land popular with dog walkers

Monday, 15th November 2021, 5:06 pm
Updated Monday, 15th November 2021, 5:08 pm
Police at the scene.

Those living near the scene of a forensic search for Sarah Benford's body have spoken of their shock after detectives revealed they believe the missing teenager is buried there.

A piece of land near Valley Walk in Kettering, which is popular with dog walkers, was taped off this morning (Monday) as part of a two-week operation after a 'credible' tip-off.

Police have meticulously planned how they are going to dig the site up after they were told by a community source earlier this year that Sarah, who went missing aged 14 in 2000, was buried there.

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The piece of land under investigation.

The piece of land, which is surrounded by trees and vegetation, is next to playing fields and almost opposite Kettering Science Academy.

It can be seen from busy Deeble Road with a path running next to it, linking the edges of the Grange estate and the Ise Lodge estate, over the River Ise.

The open space is used by hundreds of dog walkers each day, including Charene Riley who was shocked to see the area cordoned off when she arrived just before 2pm.

She was a few years younger than Sarah and remembered her going missing. She said: "There's never been anything like this going on here. It's just crazy, absolutely crazy."

Sarah Benford

Louis Charles was walking with his dog near the River Ise earlier today and said the area was usually pretty quiet.

He said: "I was shocked when I saw it. There's not usually much going on here."

One woman who lived in nearby East Walk, who did not want to be named, said: "It's very sad but nothing surprises me any more.

"I hope they find her for the parents' sake and hope they find who did it."

Det Supt Joe Banfield

Another woman, who also did not want to be named, said she hadn't seen anything like it in her 30 years of living in nearby Valley Walk.

And dog walker Sarah Hughes said: "I come here every day and it's normally so quiet. You don't expect to see this.

"I really hope they find her."

Detective Superintendent Joe Banfield, who is leading the operation, would not be drawn on their community source but said they expect to find Sarah's body.

Police at the scene.

He told this newspaper: "If we did not think this information was credible we would not be here today."

The investigation into Sarah's disappearance, the force's biggest ever cold case, began after she went missing from a care home aged 14 on April 6, 2000.

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

Today Det Supt Banfield said they did not have any current suspects.

A team of more than 70 police and forensics officers will now go through the 70m by 70m area of open space with fencing being put up around the perimeter this afternoon.

A number of tents have been erected inside the cordon, with small red, white and yellow flags being placed on the ground. A welfare pod has also been set up just over the bridge over the River Ise.

Scene guards will surround the site around the clock with officers marking out 'anomalies' in the ground before using ground penetration radar equipment to assess any movement.

Det Supt Banfield said they would be taking each anomaly one by one - with specialist operators working on them before forensics teams use trowels and hand tools to dig.

If Sarah's body is found, they will be conducting a forensic post-mortem examination to look for clues over who killed her. Det Supt Banfield said, realistically, he does not think she could still be alive.

He said: "We are hoping there will be some forensic evidence but it's really difficult to say until we know how she was buried or what she has been buried in.

"We're keeping an open mind."

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.

By the time she turned 14 she'd been in three different children's homes, used drugs and regularly went missing, 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.

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,.

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 police 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, eight arrests and several searches over 20 years - including just up the River Ise at Warkton - the investigation has so far drawn a blank.

Det Supt Banfield said: "I am clear that somebody local knows how she died and somebody local knows who killed her.

"I would urged these people to come forward 20 years on and tell us what they know."

Northamptonshire Police has set up an incident number for anyone with information relating to Sarah’s disappearance, who should call 101. The incident number is 359 of 10/11/2021.