Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

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

Bendall, 33, is serving a whole life sentence for murdering his 35-year-old girlfriend Terri Harris, her children, John Paul Bennett, 13, and Lacey Bennett, 11, and Lacey’s friend, 11-year-old Connie Gent, in September 2021.

They were attacked with a claw hammer in Killamarsh, Derbyshire, and Bendall also admitted to raping Lacey.

Inquests at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court concluded they were unlawfully killed, and senior coroner Peter Nieto said that while Bendall bore “primary responsibility” for the “brutal and savage” murders, there were “several very stark acts or omissions” by both the Probation Service and individuals that “accumulatively” contributed to the deaths.

He added: “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.”

Image:
Lacey Bennett

Image:
John Paul Bennett

The Probation Service accepted 51 separate failings at the inquests, which examined how Bendall, who had a history of serious and violent offences dating back to 2004, was classed as posing a low risk of serious harm to partners and children.

Bendall’s history and 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”, Mr Nieto said.

“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.”

Image:
Connie Gent

Image:
Terri Harris

A damning report published in January said the Probation Service’s handling of him was of an “unacceptable standard” at every stage and “critical opportunities” to correct errors were missed before he murdered his victims.

He had been on probation serving a suspended prison sentence for arson.

Bendall gave Ms Harris’s address for his curfew order and was living with her and her children despite previous convictions for violent crime and allegations of domestic abuse made by a former partner.

The inquests heard from members of staff at the Probation Service based in Swindon and Chesterfield, which both dealt with Bendall in relation to previous offences, who said they struggled with high workloads and stress.

The chief probation officer for England and Wales Kim Thornden-Edwards said the service was facing “significant” challenges when it was dealing with Bendall but that major changes continue to be made to prevent a similar “tragic” incident from happening again.

Mr Neito said 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.

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.

While Mr Nieto acknowledged the impact of changes to the Probation Service in the months before the murders and of COVID, 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.”

Following the coroner’s conclusion, 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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