'She isn't here': police end Kettering forensic search for Sarah Benford's body
Police have failed to find the missing teenager's remains after a two-week operation
Hopes that Sarah Benford's body would finally be found have been dashed after police ended a major forensic search in Kettering.
Today (Tuesday), after two weeks of digging, detectives announced they had not found her remains or anything that could trace her killer at a piece of land near Valley Walk.
It's been more than 20 years since Sarah went missing aged 14 and since then police have looked into more than 5,000 lines of enquiry and made eight arrests without ever finding her body or charging a suspect.
Detective Superintendent Joe Banfield - who previously told this newspaper he was expecting to find her body this month - said he was 'really disappointed' that their latest operation had failed.
But he admitted: "That's nothing compared to what her family and friends must be feeling."
A 70m by 70m piece of open space, near a popular walking path by the River Ise, has been sealed off and guarded by police since a major operation began on November 15.
Earlier this year officers received intelligence from a member of the public that Sarah, who was last seen on April 6, 2000, in Kettering, was buried there.
Det Supt Banfield, who is leading the operation, would not be drawn on the nature of the source or whether they had been brought to the site to help officers during the dig. He had previously said he was satisfied they were not a suspect.
When asked how sure they could be that the information wasn't a hoax he couldn't give a definitive answer but he said they had assessed the source as credible.
He said: "Sarah's family's hopes have been raised, and I know that, and I feel really bad that we have not been able to deliver her back to them.
"But we couldn't ignore this information, we couldn't do nothing and it was better to take that information, do what we've done and be able to say to them she isn't here."
The forensic dig was meticulously planned using flyovers, site surveys and archaeological experts with a series of anomalies - areas of land different to those around it which suggest past movement - dug up.
Specialist search dogs, trained to sniff out the scent of human remains, were also brought in three days into the operation.
Once the dozen anomalies were dug up police looked at areas flagged up by local members of the community before expanding those areas around the anomalies.
Concentrating mainly on a targeted 20m by 20m area, Det Supt Banfield said they had done a lot more digging than they expected.
He said they have been given a "high level of assurance" by experts that the areas they've excavated don't contain Sarah's remains.
But he said it would be "futile" to carry on digging there because it wouldn't be as a result of information received.
He said: "We have got to respond to information.
"We can't just willy-nilly dig anywhere...any further work around here just isn't going to be a suitable use of our resources."
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.
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.
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.
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.
The investigation was upgraded to a murder inquiry in 2003 when police said they no longer believed Sarah was alive.
But despite numerous searches, arrests and statements they have been unable to bring closure for Sarah's devastated family - and earlier in the latest operation Det Supt Banfield said they have no current suspects.
He 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."