Will the 21 year search for Sarah Benford come to an end this week?

Police dig Kettering land following 'credible' new information

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By Natalie Bloomer

Alongside a Kettering footpath favoured by dog walkers and next to a small bridge over the River Ise, Northamptonshire Police have begun an excavation in search of the body of missing teenager Sarah Benford.

A 70-metre by 70-metre cordon was set up and police tents were erected near to the Valley Walk area of the town, not far from the Grange estate. 

As toddlers and their parents played in the fallen autumn leaves of a nearby wooded area and walkers enjoyed the crisp November sunshine, police officers moved equipment onto the dig site and a metal fence was put in place around the parameter.

14 year-old Sarah went missing from Welford House children's home in Northampton on April 4 2000. The police later declared a murder inquiry but despite several arrests and various searches, there have been no charges and Sarah has never been found. 

Now police are hoping that new ‘community intelligence’ will lead them to Sarah’s body and help them understand what happened to her.

“We look at any information we get in the context of what we already know. The information we’ve received is credible enough for us to have spent time, effort and resources on understanding this land,” Dept Supt Joe Banfield, who is leading the operation, told NN Journal.

“At the moment this investigation is concentrating on trying to locate Sarah’s remains. I’m hopeful that if we do, the way in which we recover them will enable us to identify lines of inquiry that will help us understand how she died, who killed her and who buried her here.”

Prior to the land being cordoned off experts from the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (a government organisation specialising in science in the defence and security field) assessed the area using ground penetrating radar to check for anomalies. This involves looking for layers of earth that are not the same as others around it. 

Yesterday, within the larger cordon, smaller sections where anomalies were found were taped off. Over the next two weeks forensic digging will take place in these areas with both machinery and hand tools being used.

Because the land has not been developed on or significantly changed in the years since Sarah disappeared it is easier for the police to know they are in the spot identified by the information they’ve received. They have also used historical images and flyovers by various agencies to ensure it is the right area. 

“We know this bench was here 20 years ago, we know these trees were there, but trying to assess exactly what it was like at that time is difficult...We are happy that if she was buried here 20 years ago it would have caused the type of anomaly that ground penetrating radar will identify,” Dept Supt Banfield said.

Passersby said they were shocked to discover police were searching for Sarah.

“There’s a few of us dog walkers who sit on that bench right there and chat every morning,” one woman told NN Journal. “It’s shocking to think that the poor girl could be buried right there. I wasn’t living in Kettering at the time but I remember hearing about her.”

Another man remembered the case well and said he hoped the search would lead to some closure for Sarah’s family.

Dept Supt Banfield said he was keeping an open mind about the timeframe after Sarah went missing. Her mother saw her two days after she disappeared from the care home and there were various later reported sightings but he said the last credible one was on April 6 in School Lane Kettering. 

The police were previously criticised for not taking Sarah’s disappearance seriously enough in the initial days of the case and Northamptonshire County Council was slammed for how she was treated while she was in their care.

A review from the Northamptonshire Child Protection Committee said no in-depth assessment of Sarah’s needs was carried out.

“Sarah was a troubled and vulnerable child who became an adolescent with many emotional and behavioural problems. These problems had been building up for many years and by the age of 13 she was frequently running away, using drugs, drinking, involved in sexual activity and possibly prostitution.

"Unfortunately the label of troubled adolescent served to mask and minimise the risks (to her)".

The authority later apologised saying they would do everything possible to ‘learn lessons for the future.’

Yesterday Dept Supt Banfield said the force owed it to Sarah’s family to fully investigate every line of inquiry that comes forward but said there were no current active suspects.

“Regardless of the time it takes, the cost, or the experts required, we owe it to Sarah’s family, the community and her friends to follow up any new information.”

Sarah’s family were informed before the dig began and police say they will be kept up to date throughout. 

Anyone with new information should contact the police on 101 or in confidence, via the Crimestoppers hotline on 0800 555111.