Every day since missing mother-of-five Sarah Wellgreen vanished nearly two months ago, the life of her devastated partner has followed the same soul-destroying ritual.
The minute recruitment consultant Neil James, 45, wakes, he reaches for his mobile phone to check for news updates and messages in the hope that she has been found.
Poring over happy photos of their two years together, he ruminates obsessively over where she is and what could have happened to her.
Neil James (right), 43, and Sarah Wellgreen (left), 46, met in late 2016 through a dating website after she had separated from Ben Lacomba, father of her three youngest children
Neil James is urging delivery drivers, cabbies and cyclists to jog their memories to when she disappeared eight weeks ago. The couple are pictured together on holiday
Next, he scans their social media and text messages — for the umpteenth time — searching for clues to unlock the mystery.
Rail-thin and gaunt, his tormented mind can think of nothing but the perplexing disappearance of the bubbly 46-year-old beautician, whose face now smiles from hundreds of missing persons posters.
Sarah was last seen on the evening of October 9 in the leafy Kent village of New Ash Green, where she lived with her three youngest children and former partner, 38-year-old taxi driver Ben Lacomba. It was a messy, tangled, situation, but Neil says that he and Sarah — who’d separated from Mr Lacomba before they met — were hoping to marry once she’d finalised the split with her ex.
Neil remembers his last phone call to Sarah at 9.24pm from his flat — a 90-minute drive away in Farnham, Surrey — the night she was last seen.
Ms Wellgreen lived with her former partner, 38-year-old taxi driver Ben Lacomba (pictured) in the leafy Kent village of New Ash Green
Sarah was already in bed, he says, and made no mention of going out again. She was excited about a new, well-paid job she’d just secured and her plans for the future.
The following morning, Neil sent a text: ‘Morning, honey, how are you?’ When it failed to deliver, he put it down to a flat mobile battery. But as later calls to her mobile went unanswered, he grew increasingly frantic. Panicked, he called Sarah’s sons from a previous marriage, Lewis, 22, and Jack, 21, to ask if they’d heard from her. They couldn’t reach their mum either. And no one has heard from her since.
Sarah was reported missing on October 11, with police now treating the case as a ‘potential murder’ and describing her disappearance as completely out of character.
‘I don’t think I will ever see Sarah alive again,’ says Neil. ‘Not after all these weeks.’ Existing on adrenaline and cigarettes, Neil says he is desperate for some kind of resolution.
A divorced father of two children — a son, nine, and a girl aged three — Neil says his daughter was staying with him on the night of his last conversation with Sarah, and keeps asking about her.
Neil is speaking now, in the hope of jogging the memory in the mind of someone — anyone — who might unwittingly hold the clue to her disappearance.
‘Sarah would never have left her children. She adored them. Something terrible must have happened to her, and not knowing is torture,’ he says, describing the past few weeks in limbo as ‘heartbreaking’.
‘My children loved her. They called her “Mummy Sarah” and keep asking where she is, but I don’t know what to tell them.’
A devoted mum, Ms Wellgreen missed her son’s 13th birthday — two days after her disappearance — something her family say would be unthinkable. She is pictured here with former partner Mr Lacomba circa 2012
In the bathroom of Neil’s three-bedroom flat, Sarah’s toothbrush still stands next to his. In the wardrobe hangs her work uniform — a burgundy tunic and black trousers. Sarah’s beloved Persian cat, Leo, is curled up on the sofa.
Neil doesn’t want to believe she’ll never come back, but every fibre of his body is telling him otherwise. But he can’t cry or grieve for her until he knows for certain.
Since Sarah went missing, hundreds of volunteers have scoured woods near her home and around Kent. Divers have searched the Thames and River Darent, near Dartford.
Detectives have studied more than 2,000 hours of CCTV footage and searched her home, but are still no closer to finding her.
She vanished without trace, leaving behind her 4WD Hyundai Santa Fe SUV and bank cards, which remain unused to this day. Her black iPhone cannot be located; it is either switched off or the battery is dead.
The CCTV outside Sarah’s home was switched off on the night she went missing, so her last movements remain unknown.
A devoted mum, she missed her son’s 13th birthday — two days after her disappearance — something her family say would be unthinkable.
On October 16, a man in his 30s — reportedly Ben Lacomba — was arrested and, after three days in custody, released on bail until November 16, pending further investigation. His bail was later extended until the new year.
On November 4, grainy CCTV footage emerged of a hooded motorist acting suspiciously in Greenhithe, Kent, five days after Sarah’s disappearance. The images show a man spending eight minutes in an area near the Thames, leaving a Vauxhall Zafira parked in a side street while he walks towards the riverbank.
This grainy CCTV images of a hooded man and a car parked near a river may provide vital clues in the ‘potential murder’ of missing mother Sarah Wellgreen
The footage triggered a police search of mudflats which, as far as we know, yielded nothing. The man has never been identified.
Kent police, meanwhile, renewed their appeal for people who may have been within a five-mile radius of the Bazes Shaw area of New Ash Green the night Sarah disappeared, or the following morning, to come forward.
Neil James has issued his own Facebook appeal urging anyone with CCTV or dashcam footage to contact the police, even with the tiniest of details they may think insignificant.
As he now tells his story for the first time in depth, the complexities of the riddle faced by detectives could not be more apparent. From the outset, the investigation has centred on Sarah’s complicated personal life. Her disappearance is set against a backdrop of past fractured relationships and searches for love through internet dating.
Neil and twice-divorced Sarah met in late 2016 through a dating website after she had separated from Mr Lacomba, father of her three youngest children, a son aged 12 and six-year-old twins, a boy and girl.
Sarah had moved from the £330,000 four-bedroom family home in Kent, to Portsmouth — more than 100 miles away — where she owned a property and worked part-time at a beauty salon. Her mother, stepfather, and two adult sons from a previous marriage, to whom she was close, also lived in the city.
‘Sarah was warm, loving and very attractive,’ recalls Neil, who spent weeks talking to her by phone before they met. ‘She was pretty, voluptuous, smiley and always fun.
‘I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. We were looking for something serious. Yes, it was complicated, but we understood each other,’ says Neil, who invited Sarah to his flat for a meal on their first date.
‘It was shortly before Christmas and my son was staying with me, so it wasn’t easy to go out or arrange dates,’ says Neil, whose flat was a 40-minute drive from Portsmouth.
‘Sarah walked in and immediately started to help my son decorate the tree. She just had this special bond with children. I was completely bowled over by her, head over heels.’
Neil James (pictured with Ms Wellgreen) has issued his own Facebook appeal urging anyone with CCTV or dashcam footage to contact the police
In the post on Facebook Neil James urged people to jog their memories to when she disappeared on October 9
Kent Police Tactical Operations Search and Marine Unit searching a lake on Tuesday near to where she vanished
Police released images showing specialist police officers and firefighters searching a water-filled drainage and ditch
When the boiler at Sarah’s Portsmouth home broke, Neil invited her and her three children to stay for Christmas until it could be fixed. ‘We all got on so well. Sarah and her kids never really left,’ says Neil, whose two children regularly stayed, too.
‘Her daughter shared bunk beds with mine in one room, and her sons and mine shared another room. Sarah enrolled her children in the local school,’ says Neil, who introduced her to his work colleagues and met her family in Portsmouth.
‘Sarah told me she wanted to get married again before she was 50, and we talked about having a register office wedding in Guildford, followed by a big party in Majorca.’
But there were stresses, too. Neil says Sarah’s children were close to their father and missed their old friends back in Kent.
Although spacious, Neil’s flat must have felt rather cramped with five young children, who were now part of an instant blended family, and no garden to play in. The speed with which Sarah and her children moved in with Neil — barely two months after they had met — also heightened disputes with her ex-partner over their children.
The strain and disruption of the to-ing and fro-ing between Kent, Farnham and Portsmouth eventually took its toll.
After almost 18 months together, Sarah suddenly left Neil in May 2018, apparently without warning.
‘One morning I had a call at work from the children’s school asking where they were. I phoned Sarah and she told me she’d gone. She said she couldn’t cope with the situation any more,’ says Neil.
‘I was heartbroken, but Sarah felt she had to put the children first. She was very stressed over the situation with her ex, and worried that she could lose her kids, and they meant everything to her.’
Sarah’s fiancé Neil James (pictured), 45, of Farnham, Surrey, said he spoke to her the night before she went missing on October 9
As a result, Sarah decided to move back into the family home with ex-partner Ben Lacomba. It was, Neil understands, a temp-orary co-parenting arrangement, rather than a reconciliation. Neil says Sarah told him she and her ex-partner, who had also met someone new after splitting from Sarah, had separate bedrooms and shared the school runs. Mr Lacomba also regularly worked nights as a taxi driver.
Every weekend, Sarah continued to drive to work in Portsmouth, but had ruled out moving back there with her children. She told Neil the schools were better in Kent and it would be less disruptive for them living with their dad.
As far as Neil was aware, this new arrangement — though not ideal — was reasonably amicable.
Could Sarah have just walked out? Had she — unbeknown to Neil — met someone new? Could she have crossed paths with a murderous stranger, or felt suidical?
When she first went missing, friends and relatives suggested she’d been dating other men following her break from Neil and reportedly pondered whether she’d gone off with a new lover — possibly to a flat she owned in Spain.
Her uncle, Ronald Wellgreen, 61, said that the last time he’d seen Sarah in the summer, she’d spoken about a new romance.
Sarah Wellgreen, a 46-year-old beautician, was last seen on Tuesday, October 9
HE SAYS: ‘She told me she had a new boyfriend. I saw a photo on Facebook of her with a man who looked to be in his 20s and as if he might be Turkish, though the photo was taken in the UK — that was the last picture I saw of Sarah.’
Martin Prus, 43, manager of the Puresun Health and Beauty Centre in Portsmouth, where Sarah worked part-time, also spoke of a man in his 30s, who looked Italian or Spanish, who picked her up from work one day in August. ‘I’m not sure if they were officially a couple or if they had just started dating, but there definitely seemed to be something between them,’ he said.
It was also reported that Sarah, who friends said was her normal, cheerful self just before she vanished, had visited several private clients shortly before her disappearance to give beauty treatments or sports massage.
But Neil, who says he and Sarah reconciled in July, dismisses as nonsense the rumours of her seeing other men. He further rubbishes any suggestion that she wanted to end her life or start a completely new one without her children.
The Mediterranean-looking gent, he claims, was the boyfriend of one of her friends who was helping Sarah with DIY at her Portsmouth home, which she was renting out.
‘During our split, Sarah told me she’d been on a couple of dates, but said one of them was only after her money and she didn’t click with the other,’ says Neil. ‘We got back together because I still loved her and she realised she still loved me. She had a number of regular private clients, who were mostly women, and I’ve spoken to all of them.’
Neil last saw Sarah two weekends before she went missing, when she stopped at his flat overnight, en route to Portsmouth.
She was meant to stay the weekend of October 6, but an altercation with a colleague at the salon had upset her, so she stayed there instead to talk to her manager.
‘She would never have gone off with someone else, leaving her children,’ says Neil. ‘To my mind, she was the perfect parent. Her kids always came first.
‘She was really happy about her new job and she’d just secured a mortgage, so that she and the kids could stay in their home and her ex-partner could live nearby.’
Police search woodland and surrounding areas of Bazes Shaw, New Ash Green after Ms Wellgreen went missing around two months ago
Hundreds of volunteers and police officers have scoured woodland close to Ms Wellgreen’s home in New Ash Green
Neil says he and Sarah were talking again of marriage and she was wearing her mother’s old engagement ring, until they could afford a proper replacement.
They hadn’t set a wedding date, and Sarah vanished before they could even work out where they might live as a married couple — or how their respective children would fit into the new set-up.
‘We’d both had our fair share of relationship car crashes in the past, but were really looking forward to the future,’ says Neil. ‘Sarah was the best thing that ever happened to me, and now this?
‘I can’t bear the thought I might not see her alive again, but what’s worse is that her five children — and mine — don’t know where she is or what’s happened to her.’