Sleepover killer Damien Bendall was monitored by an inexperienced, unqualified probation officer trained online before he murdered his pregnant partner and three children, a damning inspection report has revealed.
It found probation officers missed multiple chances to prevent the 33-year-old from killing his partner Terri Harris and three children – one of whom was sleeping over at their house in Killamarsh, Derbyshire, last September three months after he received a suspended sentence for arson.
Bendall had been wrongly classed as “medium risk” and freed on a suspended sentence. Probation officers failed to take account of vital information about his violent criminal past, a previous allegation of domestic abuse by an ex-partner and a police alert over his alleged sexual exploitation of a 16-year-old girl.
Instead of being sent to jail by the judge, he was allowed to live with Ms Harris and her young children on an “entirely inappropriate” curfew, supervised by a probation officer who had just six months’ experience of working in the criminal justice system.
Much of the probation officer’s training had been online with “significant periods” of absence. She had been allocated to Bendall, even though she was Asian and he had a history of “racially aggravated violence”. He has claimed past membership of a white supremacist organisation and some of his previous victims were Asian.
The inexperience was compounded by her supervisor being so overstretched that she had asked for a change of role, because it was impossible for her to manage 30 junior staff when the recommended limit was just 10.
Justin Russell, chief inspector of probation, said it was the “most concerning” case in his four years in post.
“The Probation Service’s assessment and management of Bendall at every stage, from initial court report to his supervision in the community, was of an unacceptable standard and fell far below what was required,” he said.
The revelations raise fresh questions about the adequacy of Britain’s Probation Service, after a report by Mr Russell in September found that around 500 serious offences a year were being committed by offenders under supervision – including 100 killings.
The agency has also been beset by high-profile scandals, including that of Joseph McCann, who went on a rampage of sexual violence across the country while under supervision, and Usman Khan, a terrorist who murdered two people in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, while being monitored.
Mr Russell said: “The point is that the Probation Service’s assessment and management of risk is not currently fit for purpose. It has to be an urgent priority to improve that position.”
He made 17 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
He said that had probation officers advising the judge at Bendall’s trial for arson not left out “vital information” about his risk to the public, he could have been jailed rather than being freed on a suspended sentence to murder three months later.
Not only should his violent past including robbery, use of weapons and grievous bodily harm have flagged concern, but two pieces of critical intelligence were overlooked – despite being recorded on his probation and police records.
One in May 2016 involved an ex-partner who made two requests for him not to contact her due to his past violence – one to HMP Exeter in May 2016 and one to Bendall’s previous probation practitioner two months later, said the report.
In March 2020, Wiltshire Police’s child sexual exploitation unit wanted to give Bendall a child abduction warning notice (Cawn) in March 2020 for his involvement with a vulnerable 16-year-old girl in foster care.
Mr Russell’s report said the information of Wiltshire Police’s contact with probation was “readily available”, but found “probation practitioners and managers all failed to read this contact”.
“It was an opportunity to work with the police to understand these concerns and review the management of the risk of harm posed,” said the investigation report.
“Had Bendall’s risk of serious harm to the public and children been correctly assessed as high, and had his risk of serious harm to partners been correctly assessed as medium, the court may not have curfewed him to an address with Ms Harris and her children.”
Mr Russell said the Probation Service took the “egregious” decision to let Bendall live with Ms Harris “without speaking to her, visiting the property, conducting domestic inquiries or taking into account past domestic abuse claims”.
The report found Bendall exploited his probation officer’s inexperience to attend only seven appointments in three months – three by phone. He avoided doing any of the 175 hours of unpaid work the court had ordered him and skipped compulsory alcohol treatment.
By the time of the murder, he was regularly smoking cannabis and drinking, both previously linked to his violence.
On discovering this, another probation officer demanded he attend a face-to-face meeting. It was scheduled for a Monday but that weekend, fuelled by cocaine, he used a hammer to bludgeon to death Ms Harris, her children John Bennett, 13, Lacey Bennett, 11, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, also 11, who was sleeping over.