FOR 15 long years it has remained a mystery.

Exactly what happened in the final hours of the life of suspected murder victim Kevin John Palmer – and where his body was later dumped – has troubled his family and detectives alike.

But the bid to finally discover what happened to the 37-year-old timeshare salesman took a new twist after police yesterday descended on the grounds of a former Hampshire pub in a new search for his remains.

The Daily Echo understands the excavation of the garden area at the back of what used to be the Gordon Arms pub in Fareham has been in the planning for a number of months.

Daily Echo:

Detectives working on a cold-case review are thought to be responding to “intelligence” that was received as part of the initial murder investigation that was launched in 2003 – four years after Mr Palmer disappeared.

As part of their enquiries, they are believed to have first visited the site late last year when specialist geological equipment was used to explore what lies beneath.

A number of abnormalities are thought to have been found, triggering the decision to dig up part of the land at the back of the former pub, which closed down two years ago and is now said to be earmarked for homes.

Daily Echo:

Forensic officers and police sniffer dogs spent most of yesterday at the scene in Gordon Road, after police arrived to cordon off the area at about 7.30am, while community support officers went door to door delivering leaflets urging anyone with information to come forward.

It was on the evening of the TV appeal for Comic Relief on March 12, 1999 that Mr Palmer was last seen alive, having arrived in the UK that afternoon from Malaga where he was living with his wife and child.

Nicknamed Jon Bon Jovi because he had hair similar to the rock star, Mr Palmer was accompanied by his friend Juan Campano Arribas and was met by John Howett on arrival at Gatwick Airport.

The trio spent the evening in the Sir Joseph Paxton pub in Hunts Pond Road, Locks Heath, and the Abshot Country Club in Titchfield Common before they caught a taxi that drove them towards Bishop’s Waltham during the early hours.

Daily Echo:

But the journey was interrupted when the car pulled over in Botley Road, Curdridge, all three got out and punches were thrown.

Only two men are said to have got back in – Howett and Mr Arribas – and they continued their journey to Hoe Road in Bishop’s Waltham where convicted drug smuggler Howett lived at that time.

Mr Palmer was left lying on the ground in Bridge Farm Industrial Estate, an inquest into his death later heard, until Howett and Arribas, with the help of friend Robin Briggs, went back to collect him. But it wasn’t until October 2003, four years after Mr Palmer vanished, that Hampshire police revealed they thought he had been murdered.

A major investigation got under way that saw Howett’s then-home sealed off as police spent a week searching for clues – in particular a missing suitcase, driving licence and a chunky gold necklace. At the time, senior detectives told how they believed Mr Palmer had been taken there, dead or alive.

Howett, then aged 52, was arrested and quizzed on suspicion of the killing.

He was released without charge in November the following year – but continued to serve a 12-year prison term in Parkhurst, Isle of Wight, after being convicted of drug smuggling.

An inquest was held into Mr Palmer’s death, despite his body never being recovered, in which coroner Grahame Short recorded an open verdict because he said there was not enough evidence to suggest unlawful killing. However he went on to say he was convinced that witnesses had not told the truth to police in their statements because they didn’t want to take the blame for the death of the dad-of-one.

The new search of the pub land, which was continuing today, has coincided with a fresh appeal from major crime detectives.

Detective Superintendent Paul Barton, below, said further details about the information that has prompted the new line of enquiry was “sensitive and confidential” but enough to justify the search for human remains at the scene.

Daily Echo:

He said: “The information is tangible enough to be examined in more detail at the scene – but it is in no way certain that any evidence will be found. Therefore, it's important for everyone involved with or affected by this case to be cautious with their expectations.”

Det Supt Barton told how Mr Palmer’s family – including his wife and child as well as his elderly mother living in Darlington – had been informed of the latest developments.

Renewing a plea for information he added: “I am really keen to trace the taxi driver from that night. I am also appealing for anyone who knew Kevin Palmer in 1999 to come forward and speak with the police.

Daily Echo:

“Even after 15 years, the smallest piece of detail from a member of the public could prove to be an essential element in establishing a significant lead.”

Witnesses or anyone with information are asked to contact the Hampshire Major Investigation Team (HMIT) at Southampton Central police station by phoning 101 and quoting Operation Arkholme.