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.
Peter Nieto, the senior coroner for Derby and Derbyshire, said that while Bendall bore “primary responsibility” for the “brutal and savage” murders of Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent, there were “several very stark acts or omissions” by both the Probation Service and individuals that “accumulatively” contributed to the deaths.
Bendall, 33, murdered pregnant Ms Harris, 35, her children – 11-year-old Lacey and 13-year-old John Paul – and Lacey’s friend, 11-year-old Connie, in Chandos Crescent, Killamarsh, Derbyshire, on September 19 2021, and was given a whole life order 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, with the service facing “significant” challenges at the time.
Following the inquests, the head of the Probation Service said she was “deeply sorry” for its failings and said changes had been made, while the victims’ families said the organisation had failed to protect women and children and called for action to ensure such failings did not happen again.
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.”
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, in which it accepted 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.
He was deemed a low risk to partners and children and recommended for curfew at Ms Harris’s home in the pre-sentence report for the arson written by a probation officer, a report that Mr Nieto described as “wholly inadequate and misleading” and that was part of a “profoundly and seriously flawed” report process.
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”, 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.”
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.”
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.”
Kim Thornden-Edwards, chief probation officer, said: “These were unthinkable crimes and although there are no words that can undo this tragedy, I am deeply sorry for the unacceptable failings in Damien Bendall’s supervision and the devastating impact these have had on the families of Terri Harris, John Paul and Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent.
“We have already taken action to address the serious issues identified, including mandating domestic abuse checks, recruiting thousands more probation officers and improving information-sharing.
“We will further urgently review our next steps in light of the coroner’s findings to ensure we have taken every action to keep the public safe.”
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”.
Following the hearing, reading a statement outside court on behalf of Ms Harris’s parents, Angela Smith and Lawrence Harris, solicitor Farva Butt said: “The Probation Service failed to protect and keep our family safe. They are now gone. This must never happen again.
“His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation has been telling the Probation Service for many years that they were failing women and children at risk from violent men with a history of domestic abuse.
“The Probation Service has continuously failed to do enough to protect women and children like Terri and our grandchildren.
“We hope that no other family has to live through the trauma that we have to every day.”
Oliver Carter, reading a statement on behalf of Jason Bennett – the father of John Paul and Lacey – and Connie’s mother, Kerry Shelton, said: “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.
“The organisations that could have protected the families need to accept the inquest’s findings and take meaningful and lasting steps to reduce the risk of a similar incident happening again.”