The detective, who is responsible for a huge operation over Sarah Benford’s murder, says he expects her body to be found during a forensic excavation in Kettering.
Officers have spent months carefully planning a two-week operation, which began today (Monday) after receiving ‘community intelligence’ earlier this year.
Detective Inspector Joe Banfield would not be pulled at the source, but said officers expect to find Sarah’s body.
He said: “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 cold case ever, began after she disappeared from a nursing home at the age of 14 on April 6, 2000.
Despite a series of arrests and searches, her body has never been found and no one has ever been charged with the murder of her.
Today, Det Supt Banfield told this newspaper that they had no current suspects.
A team of more than 70 police and forensic pathologists will now walk through the 70m by 70m large open area, popular with dog aerators, over the next two weeks using special equipment.
Today, a barricade surrounded the site with fences being set up around the perimeter this afternoon to shield the work from the public.
A number of tents have been erected inside the barrier, where small red, white and yellow flags have been put on the ground. Just across the bridge over the Ise River, a welfare pod has also been set up.
Stage guards will surround the site around the clock with officers marking ‘irregularities’ in the ground before using ground penetration radar equipment to assess any movement.
The Supt Banfield said they would take each anomaly one by one – with specialist operators working on them before forensic teams use trowels and hand tools to dig.
If Sarah’s body is found, they will perform a forensic autopsy to look for clues as to who killed her. What Supt Banfield said, realistically, he did not think she could still be alive.
He said: “We hope there will be some forensic evidence but it is really hard to say before we know how she was buried or what she has been buried in.
“We keep an open mind.”
The police have worked together with the Armed Forces’ Science and Technology Laboratory with on-site visits from forensic experts, studies and flyovers used to plan the operation.
They are in contact with Sarah’s mother, Vicki, and The Supt Banfield said he was determined to bring a closure for her.
He said: “It’s awful that we have not been able to give her the answers she really desperately wants.
“We owe it to Sarah, her family and her friends.”
Detective Julie Gallagher, who has been working on the cold case for the past seven years, was at the scene this afternoon when the forensic investigation began.
She has worked as the Benford family’s liaison officer, saying they ‘fully backed’ the day’s operation.
She said she ‘is always positive’ that they will be able to find Sarah’s body, adding: “We just really want to help the family take Sarah home.”
Sarah had been in the care of the Northamptonshire County Council’s child services at the time she disappeared and had been staying at Welford House in Northampton.
By the time she turned 14, she had been in three different orphanages, used drugs and regularly disappeared, but she was repeatedly let down by authorities who failed to see her as a victim of the exploitation of drug dealers and sex offenders.
When she admitted that she had met people for sex and that she was injecting heroin into herself, neither the staff at Welford House nor a doctor, so she raised eyebrows even though she was only a child.
On April 6, she visited her mother Vicki in an arcade in Kettering town center, where she worked. They quarreled, and that was the last time Vicki saw her daughter.
Later that day, while she was high on drugs, Sarah called her mother from a house in Hampden Crescent, Kettering. A hectic Vicki begged the police to pick her up and take her back to the nursing home.
But police officers were not worried about her running attempt. They refused to pick her up – not for the first time – despite Vicki’s desperate prayers.
Documents later handed to this newspaper said police officers had told staff at the nursing home that they ‘could not and would not’ pick her up and would not ‘take her to Kettering police station to look after her’.
What followed was one of the force’s largest investigations of missing persons ever. TV appeals were launched and Sarah’s face was plastered on milk cartons and on the side of trucks.
There were some sightings in the days after her disappearance in Cherry Road and Highfield Road. But despite more than 5,000 lines of investigation, more than 600 statements, nearly 1,000 reports, eight arrests and numerous searches over 20 years – including right up the Ise River at Warkton – the investigation has so far drawn a blank slate.
That Supt Banfield said: “I am aware that someone locally knows how she died and someone locally knows who killed her.
“I want to encourage these people to stand up 20 years later and tell us what they know.”
Northamptonshire Police have set up an incident number for anyone with information about Sarah’s disappearance who should call 101. The incident number is 359 of 10/11/2021.