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Police search for vanished farmer’s wife in 1982 was delayed, murder jury told

David Venables, 89, arrives at Worcester Crown Court (Jacob King/PA)
David Venables, 89, arrives at Worcester Crown Court (Jacob King/PA)

The 1982 police searches for a vanished “prim and proper” farmer’s wife whose husband is accused of murdering and dumping her in a septic tank were delayed for 24 hours, a court has heard.

Retired “gentleman farmer” David Venables, 89, is said by prosecutors to have “got away with murder” for nearly 40 years by allegedly disposing of his wife Brenda Venables, shortly after rekindling a “long-standing affair”.

The remains of Mrs Venables, 48, were found in the underground cesspit at the former marital home, Quaking House Farm, in Kempsey, Worcestershire, in 2019.

Venables later suggested to officers that Fred West may have had something to do with the disappearance.

The septic tank
The septic tank at Quaking House Farm where Mrs Venables’ remains were found (Richard Vernalls/PA)

Worcester Crown Court has previously heard Venables, then 49, rekindled a “long-standing” affair he was having with his mother’s former carer just months before his wife disappeared.

At Venables’ trial on Friday, a retired West Mercia Police superintendent revealed searches for missing Mrs Venables were held up after a constable advised Venables to “report it later, if she had (still) not returned”.

Venables had gone to the police house in Kempsey village some time on the morning of May 4, 1982, and, following the officer’s advice, did not try again to report his wife missing until 7.30pm that same day, when it was logged.

By then it was “too late” to mount a full search in daylight for Mrs Venables, according to then superintendent James Ashley.

Partial local searches of the farmhouse did start that evening, with dog handlers scouring the house grounds and nearby woods before failing light stopped them.

Mr Ashley, who retired in 1993, said in a statement read to court that “it appears that I was unhappy with the officer’s actions” after the constable had advised Venables to wait to make the formal missing report.

The retired senior officer put his displeasure down to the fact the constable had noted that he “considered Brenda Venables might have considered suicide”.

“I cannot recall how that hypothesis came to be considered,” added Mr Ashley.
In a critical report, written on May 5, 1982, to the local inspector, he said: “He (Venables) eventually reported it again at 7.30pm – too late to engage a search – but one now engaged.

“I wish to know who spoke to David Venables and why the missing persons report was not accepted at that time.”

In a report two days later, he said: “I have spoken to the constable and advised him of my views.”

Explaining the effect of the delay to court, Mr Ashley, in his statement, said with the report not formally filed until 7.30pm, the superintendent’s shift had by then ended.

He only found out about missing Mrs Venables when he clocked in the following morning, and “commenced enquiries myself” adding “I must assume this was because of how the matter was initially dealt with”.

Mr Ashley said he was never aware of a septic tank or whether it was searched.

Searches continued on and off, over land, with a police launch used on nearby waterways and, by air, using a hired Bell 47 helicopter.

In 1983, Detective Chief Inspector Roger Morris – now retired – who had had no previous involvement with the case, carried out a case review and asked Venables into his office.

“He presented himself as a typical gentleman farmer, he said words to the effect of ‘I’ll do whatever I can to help’,” said Mr Morris, in a statement.

“He was calm, even when I asked him if he was involved in his wife’s death.”

Venables, of Elgar Drive, Kempsey, denies murdering his wife between May 2 and May 5 1982, and the trial, scheduled to last six weeks, continues.