About 85 miles northwest of London sits the town of Kettering in the county of Northamptonshire, where Sarah Benford resided on Havelock Street with her mother, Vicki Benford, stepfather Gavin, brother Josh, and sister Anya.
Sarah’s life was rough from the start. Social services made their first home visit when she was two. While in reception (pre-K in the U.S.), she began skipping school, and at around age eight, she started running away from home.
As she entered her teen years, Sarah started using drugs and hanging out with drug addicts and petty criminals. She also huffed aerosols and began self-harming.
Benford agreed to put her daughter into the care of Northamptonshire County Council’s children’s services to get Sarah away from that crowd. By age 14, Sarah had been in three children’s homes and had run away on several occasions.
Sarah eventually moved into Welford House in Northampton, less than 20 miles from Kettering. Welford House is a residential home for children with behavioral and emotional problems.
On March 31, 2000, Sarah, 14, ran away from the children’s home, but officials found her on April 2. Staff records showed she admitted to having sex with men. The age of consent in England is 16. As far as I can tell, the staff never reported it to the police. Police and social services have said that Sarah had sex with men for money, yet nobody did anything to help her.
Sarah ran off again the following day, April 3, and staff reported her missing.
Three days later, on April 6, 2000, Sarah visited her mother at Benford’s workplace, an amusement arcade in Kettering town center. They argued, and Sarah left. That was the last time Benford saw her daughter.
Later that day, Sarah called her mother from a residence on Hamden Crescent. Sarah said she did not want to return to Welford House and that she had started using heroin. Benford could tell that her daughter was high. She called the police and begged them to pick Sarah up and take her back to the care home, but they refused to respond.
Northamptonshire Telegraph reported that “officers told care home staff they ‘could not and would not’ collect her and would not ‘take her to Kettering Police Station to babysit her.'”
Sarah disappeared after the phone call with her mother.
When Sarah fled Welford House, she left her diaries and rucksack behind and only took the clothes she wore when she visited her mom. BBC reported she did take a green and navy rucksack, so I don’t know which is correct.
Benford later said that Welford House let Sarah come and go as she pleased instead of enforcing a strict environment for her safety.
Undoubtedly, the police and social services failed Sarah and ignored signs that she was a victim of sexual exploitation.
As time passed, authorities realized that foul play might be involved in Sarah’s disappearance. Northamptonshire Police finally started an investigation which took them to Wales in July 2000. There, they searched a suspect’s house on Oakwood Estate in Maesteg.
The suspect had moved from Kettering to Maesteg after Sarah’s disappearance, and his daughter and Sarah were friends. Police had searched his former Kettering home before the one in Maesteg.
However, police found no evidence tying him to Sarah’s disappearance and ruled him out as a suspect.
Four months after Sarah went missing, workers at Service Six in Wellingborough told police that a pimp and a known prostitute brought Sarah in for a pregnancy test in August 2000.
Police arrested a 29-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman, both from Kettering, on suspicion of supplying Sarah with drugs. It is unclear who the couple was, whether they were the pimp and prostitute or what happened to them after their arrest.
Authorities put Sarah’s photograph on 10 lorries, and the National Missing Children organization used her face to relaunch its website in March 2002.
In 2003, a young girl resembling Sarah was captured on CCTV footage in Kettering. However, the police said the girl was not her.
Sarah’s family has accused the police of not taking her disappearance seriously in the beginning because she was a problematic child. Vicki Benford and her family went to the media to raise awareness and force the police to do more.
Around Sarah’s 17th birthday, her family made a public appeal for her to make contact; she never did. They also appealed for information regarding her disappearance, but no one came forward.
In 2003, Derbyshire Police performed a case review and looked at the weaknesses within Northamptonshire Police’s investigation. However, the police never made the results public.
A year later, a case review into the county council children’s services department found it to be “significantly understaffed,” Wales Online reported.
The investigation into the missing teenager became known as “Operation Yacht.” Northamptonshire Police launched a murder inquiry in September 2003, more than three years after Sarah’s disappearance. According to Wales Online, “Officers admitted they had little evidence to suggest Sarah was still alive more than two or three months after she vanished.” This makes no sense because of the sighting of Sarah at Service Six, four months after she went missing.
Detectives made eight arrests in Sarah’s disappearance but never charged anyone with the crime.
Nearly 20 years after Sarah vanished, Northamptonshire Police received a vital tip about the possible location of Sarah’s body. They spent two weeks in November 2021 excavating land in the Valley Walk area of Kettering near River Ise using archaeological experts, cadaver dogs, flyovers, and site surveys. The location is about a mile from the Benford residence on Havelock Street.
Detective Superintendent Joe Banfield was “positive we will find her.” However, they found nothing. Police said recently they continue following up on leads in Sarah’s disappearance.
Sarah is one of many children who have disappeared from children’s homes in the United Kingdom.
According to a Dec. 10, 2008 story in The Independent, “A survey of 172 local authorities in England and Wales who care for 28,000 children found between 376 and 389 young people were missing and councils did not know where they were. The true figure is probably higher because six authorities said they did not keep records of missing children.”
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
I feel sorry for this kid. She never stood a chance; I think certain people could have done more to help put her on the right path. Sarah’s delinquent behavior likely resulted from something traumatic, such as abuse. She had been getting into trouble her entire short life, yet, people seemed to ignore all the signs.
Who or what caused Sarah to flee Welford House? I feel that something happened there because she fled twice over a period of a few days and did not want to return. I could find nothing — good or bad — on Welford House.
The last time Sarah fled Welford House was April 3, 2000. She saw her mother on April 6. What did they argue about? Where did she stay for THREE days? Who helped her? How did she get from Northampton to Kettering?
Sarah did not take any belongings with her, which doesn’t make sense when she did not want to return. This could suggest that she left in a hurry for whatever reason. Maybe someone or something frightened or hurt her.
Why didn’t staff at Welford House take the fact that Sarah admitted to sleeping with MEN seriously? She was 14 and unable to give consent. I want to know what exactly went on there because something sure as hell did.
Why did the police rule out Sarah’s friend’s father as a suspect? Obviously, they had good reason to dig in Kettering and Maesteg. Was he sexually involved with Sarah?
Sarah hung out with the wrong crowd. Any one of these people could have forced her into sex trafficking. If she owed a drug debt, dealers would make her earn money back or kill her.
We have the sighting of Sarah with a pimp and known prostitute. And if you come after me for using “prostitute” instead of “sex worker,” just know that I am done sugarcoating the oldest profession, so you would be wasting your time. I do not know if the police confirmed this sighting, but it makes sense. They brought her to Service Six for a pregnancy test. What happened to her afterward?
There is a history of physical and sexual abuse within children’s homes in the UK. So, I would not be surprised if this had occurred at Welford House.
Police definitely believe that Sarah’s body is in Kettering somewhere. I read that they also searched an area in 2016, too, but found nothing. I doubt Sarah is alive somewhere, but I can understand if she ran away and did not want to be found.
Sarah’s family still resides in Kettering.