Coroner says 'stark' probation failures contributed to Killamarsh murders

Damien Bendall - Killamarsh victims
Damien Bendall murdered Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent at the family home in Killamarsh.

A series of "very stark" failures by the Probation Service contributed to the murders of a mother and three children, a coroner has concluded.

Peter Nieto said Damien Bendall bore "primary responsibility" for the "brutal and savage" killings of Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent.

But the senior coroner for Derbyshire added that there were "several very stark acts or omissions" by both the Probation Service and individuals that "accumulatively" contributed to the deaths.

Ms Harris, 35, was pregnant when she was attacked by Bendall, 33, in Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh, Derbyshire, on 19 September 2021.

He also killed her children – 11-year-old Lacey and 13-year-old John Paul – and Lacey’s friend, 11-year-old Connie. Bendall was given a whole life sentence in December 2022.

The inquests into the four deaths, which concluded on Monday, heard multiple reports over two weeks of how Bendall was managed by overworked, stressed and inexperienced probation officers, as the service faced "significant" challenges.

Mr Nieto said: "In my judgment, there are several very stark omissions and also a very large number of individual acts or omissions that accumulatively contributed to the deaths."

Emergency services at the scene in Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh. Credit: PA Images

Recording his conclusion for all four inquests, he said: “My conclusion is unlawful killing, contributed to by acts or omissions by the designated state agency for offending management in the course of Damien Bendall’s offender supervision and management.”

The Probation Service accepted 51 separate failings at the inquests, held at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court, including a catalogue of missed opportunities and lack of scrutiny concerning Bendall’s supervision going back several years.

At the time of the murders, Bendall was serving a suspended sentence with a curfew and alcohol treatment requirement following an arson committed in 2020.

'Profoundly and seriously flawed'

He was deemed a low risk to partners and children and recommended for curfew at Ms Harris’s home in a pre-sentence report written by a probation officer.

Mr Nieto described the report as "wholly inadequate and misleading" and part of a "profoundly and seriously flawed" report process.

He added that Bendall’s history of serious and violent offences dating back to 2004 and of allegations of domestic abuse against a former partner and inappropriate contact with a young girl in care were missed, due to a “failure to demonstrate sufficient professional curiosity”.

"That was an important piece of information to be prominently recorded in the probation report.

"If it had been, it appears to me inconceivable that Damien Bendall would not have been considered to be high risk to children."

Further safeguarding checks were not completed, with no effort made to speak to Ms Harris and her children to assess whether a curfew at her property was suitable, something the Probation Service admitted was “unacceptable”.

As part of his “entirely inappropriate and dangerous” curfew, Bendall was made to wear an electronic tag, during the fitting of which he said: “If this relationship goes bad, I will murder my girlfriend and the children.”

But these comments were not fed back to the Probation Service, even though they “should very clearly have been”, Mr Nieto said.

Bendall’s case was managed by two probation officers with just months of experience between them and who "did not have the experience, qualifications or training to manage the case".

Inadequate guidance and supervision by managers allowed other intervention opportunities to be missed, including Bendall admitting he was using cannabis and strong alcohol and missing at least five meetings with a substance misuse worker, which the coroner said should have prompted a review of his risk level.

Systemic issues were raised around supervision, auditing, training staff and other issues, and Mr Nieto said it remained unclear to him how an offender’s high-risk status is “prominently displayed” on their record.

While Mr Nieto acknowledged the impact of changes to the Probation Service in the months before the murders and of Covid-19, he said: “They don’t explain the totality of the acts or omissions or failures of the Probation Service’s overview and supervision of Damien Bendall and the decisions made.”

'Their children would still be alive'

Following the coroner’s conclusion, the lawyer representing John-Paul and Lacey Bennett's father, Jason, and Connie Gent's mother, Kerry Shelton, said "systemic failings" had contributed to their deaths.

Oliver Carter, of Irwin Mitchell, said: "The hardest thing for them to accept is how failings by the authorities exposed their children to a serious risk of harm. Jason and Kerry believe that if appropriate measures had been taken their children would still be alive today.

"They’re adamant that decisive action now needs to be taken to address the issues identified during the course of the inquest. It is vital that the Probation Service takes proper action following the Report to Prevent Future Deaths which will be made by the coroner.

"Too often in the past we’ve seen reviews and investigations make recommendations which have taken years to implement. It’s crucial that the findings of the inquest aren’t pushed aside."

Lawyer David Sandiford, who represented the Probation Service throughout the inquests, said: "We extend afresh our deepest sympathies to the relatives of Terri Harris, Lacey Bennett, John Paul Bennett and Connie Gent, and indeed to all those who mourn them.

“Damien Bendall is rightly serving a whole life order.

“We recognise that the changes made with a view to ensuring that this doesn’t happen again can never undo the terrible loss or assuage the grief of those whose lives will never be the same again.”

Closing the inquest, Mr Nieto said he would write a Prevention of Future Deaths report, and extended his condolences to the victims’ families and friends after a “difficult two weeks”.

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