Sarah Benford murder: Kettering excavations begin in search for teenager missing since 2000

Sarah Benford, who went missing in April 2000
Sarah Benford has not been seen alive for 21 years Credit: PA/Handout

Police will today begin excavating an area of open ground after receiving "significant" new information about the disappearance of a teenager who was last seen 21 years ago.

Sarah Benford has not been seen alive since she went missing from a Northampton care home on April 6, 2000, aged 14.

Northamptonshire Police opened a murder investigation, but despite a four-year inquiry including several arrests as well as searches in Kettering, London and Wales, nobody has ever been charged.

Today police will begin excavating a section of land in the Valley Walk area of Kettering, in an operation that is expected to last two weeks.

A 70-metre by 70-metre area has been sealed off, while police search teams and forensic archaeologists use ground penetration radar equipment deployed to assess any movement on the section of land under investigation.

Sarah Benford was last seen at her Welford House care home in April 2000 Credit: Family handout

Det Supt Joe Banfield, who is leading the operation for Northamptonshire Police, 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.

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

Police will guard the site around the clock, they say Credit: ITV News Anglia

He also made a fresh appeal for anyone with information to contact police.

"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," he said.

The site will be screened off from the public while the search is carried out, and extra police patrols will be operating in the area.

Officers searching near Valley Walk, Kettering, as they investigate Sarah Benford's disappearance Credit: ITV News Anglia

At the scene - Matthew Hudson, ITV News Anglia

Officers from Northamptonshire Police have been at the site near Valley Walk in Kettering since Monday morning - acting, they say, on "credible local intelligence" about Sarah Benford's disappearance.

They had already done some sub-surface mapping of the area - using ground-penetrating radar - to look for anomalies under the soil. The result of that work has given officers the confidence to take this major next step in their search.

More than a dozen officers are at the scene at the start of what’s expected to be a two-week operation. Today they began the work of fencing off the area and will soon begin heavy-duty excavation with diggers.

The site itself will be secured, with officers guarding it round the clock to protect any evidence that may be uncovered.

It’s an open area of parkland through which the River Ise runs, popular with locals for dog walking and exercise - and which now finds itself at the centre of a 21-year-old missing person investigation.

June Black and Vicky Benford, Sarah's grandmother and mother, issued regular appeals in the years after her disappearance Credit: ITV News Anglia

'Hopes soar... then just collapse'

Sarah had been living at Welford House care home in Northampton when she went missing, 21 years ago.

Her disappearance sparked a huge search, and the one-year anniversary was marked with a campaign which put her photograph on milk bottles in an attempt to jog people's memories.

In December 2001, 20 months after her disappearance, her mother Vicky and grandmother June Black made an appeal.

At the time, Ms Benford said: "I don't want to celebrate Christmas. I just want Sarah to come home, or phone me, or make contact with someone so I know that she's all right."

During that appeal, police said more than 100 sightings in the UK and abroad had been reported, but had come to nothing.

"Hopes soar, then just collapse again when we realise there's nothing at the end of it. Every night when I go to bed I think 'maybe tomorrow' but tomorrow just never comes at the moment," said Ms Benford at the time.

A further appeal was launched for what would have been Sarah's 17th birthday, in March 2003, with Northamptonshire Police reviewing all the case information and setting up an incident room staffed by 25 officers.