A series of ‘very stark’ failures by the Probation Service contributed to the brutal murders of a mother and three children, a coroner ruled.
Damian Bendall, 33, murdered his pregnant partner Terri Harris, 35, her children – Lacey, 11, and John Paul, 13, and Lacey’s friend, Connie, 11, in the horrific killing two years ago.
However, it has been found today that more than 50 failings by the service meant their deaths could have possibly been avoided.
At the time of the murders, Bendall was under curfew at Ms Harris’ home in Killamarsh, Derbyshire, but no safeguarding checks were carried out with Ms Harris or her children prior to it commencing or during it.
The inquests also heard that there were multiple missed opportunities in Bendall’s supervision by a number of overworked, stressed, and inexperienced probation staff.
He could, instead, have been sent to prison when he was sentenced for arson just months before the murders.
Peter Nieto, the senior coroner for Derby and Derbyshire, 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.
The family of Terri, Lacey and John Paul said they believe if probation services had raised issues sooner they could have avoided the tragedy.
They said: ‘We’re adamant that decisive action now needs to be taken to address the issues identified during the course of the inquest.’
The inquests into the four deaths 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.
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.
The report from a probation officer was described as ‘wholly inadequate and misleading’ by the coroner, 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.’
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’.
Speaking outside the court on Monday, Oliver Carter, representing Jason Bennett – father of John Paul and Lacey – and Connie’s mother, Kerry Shelton, said the children were ‘kind and caring’ and had been selling sweets to raise money for charity on the day they were killed.
He said: ‘During the course of the inquest a litany of failings by the Probation Service as to how Damien Bendall was able to commit the terrible crimes he did have been laid bare.
‘The hardest thing for them (Jason and Kerry) 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.
‘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.’
Also reading a statement outside court, Farva Butt, representing Ms Harris’ parents, Angela Smith and Lawrence Harris, 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.
‘Bendall is a violent and dangerous high-risk offender with a history of domestic abuse and risk to children.
‘Despite knowing this, the Probation Service told the courts that it was safe for him to be curfewed to our Terri’s house.
‘No-one from the Probation Service spoke to Terri to warn her about the dangers he posed to her and the children. If she had known about how dangerous he was she would never have had any involvement with him.
‘We are pleased that the coroner will make some recommendations to prevent future deaths.
‘We hope that no other family has to live through the trauma that we have to every day.’