A TAXI driver who gave a lift to the missing man at the centre of a murder investigation on the night he disappeared might never be traced.

High staff turnover among drivers means any chance of the cabbie still working in the area is slim, according to taxi firms in the area.

Timeshare salesman Kevin John Palmer, who was known as John, disappeared four years ago.

He had spent the evening at the Sir Joseph Paxton pub in Locks Heath and the Abshot Hotel and Country Club on March 12, 1999.

Detectives believe the married father-of-one, who lived in Spain, caught a taxi with two other men and a woman to Bishop's Waltham at around 1am the following morning.

But after a dispute the men got out of the vehicle and had a fight in Botley Road near Burridge Social Club and The Horse and Jockey pub.

Only two men got back into the car.

Police say they have evidence that 27-year-old Mr Palmer was moved to the address at Hoe Road where they have been concentrating their investigation for the past ten days.

Now taxi firms across the borough are asking drivers to trawl through their records which normally stretch back seven years for tax purposes.

Tom Gane, chairman of the Fareham Taxi Association, said: "Over the past four years there have been a vast change of drivers with people often doing the job as a stop-gap between other jobs."

Carolyn Nolan, of cab firm A 2 B, said only five of the 40 drivers now employed were working at the time of Mr Palmer's disappearance.

They have been asked to check through their records along with other firms including Radio Taxis and Acacia.

Mrs Nolan said: "Unfortunately in April we got a new computer system which now means we cannot check individual trips centrally. It's up to the drivers."

The semi-detached house at Hoe Road belongs to convicted drugs smuggler John Howett who is currently serving a 12-year sentence in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.

Police have not extended their search to a field in Newtown that it is believed Mr Howett, 51, inherited from his father and intended to build a house on.

Detectives working on the investigation, code named Operation Arkholme, yesterday refused to say if they had had any response to their appeal for help in establishing Mr Palmer's last movements.

Neighbours in the quiet Hoe Road cul-de-sac have told how their puzzlement about the police search yesterday turned to shock.

A neighbour who did not wish to be identified said: "We are all totally shocked to say the least. I didn't really think it was going to be something as serious as this.

"There were a lot of rumours going round that they were looking for drugs, I even heard they were looking for a horse. But I never thought it would be a body."

Police have arrested a 51-year-old man on suspicion of murder. He has been bailed pending further inquiries.


Friday, March 12, 1999

Kevin John Palmer, 27, returned to the UK from Spain and travelled to Hamp-shire. The timeshare salesman visited the Sir Joseph Paxton pub in Hunts Pond Road, Locks Heath, and then went on to a disco at the Abshot Hotel and Country Club. He was with at least four other men, possibly more.

Saturday, March 13, 1999

Mr Palmer left the Abshot at around 1am in a taxi with two other men and a woman. The taxi drove along Botley Road through Burridge and Curdridge on the way to Bishop's Waltham. Somewhere along Botley Road there was a disagreement between the men and the taxi stopped. The men got out and a fight ensued. Two of them got back into the taxi which completed its journey to Hoe Road, Bishop's Waltham.

MARCH 1999

Mr Palmer reported missing to the Northumbria Police.

January 2002

John Howett, 51, from Hoe Road, Bishop's Waltham, was sentenced to 12 years in jail for his part in smuggling £16m of cannabis into Britain.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Howett's appeal against his conviction for conspiracy to smuggle was thrown out by the Appeal Court in London.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Police investigators descended on Mr Howett's house in Bishop's Waltham which his wife Tracy, who he married in jail last year, lives in. Officers began digging up the garden and searching inside the property as part of Operation Arkholme. Hi-tech equipment was used to scan the garden and items such as doors from inside the house were taken away as evidence. Officers are still scouring the property for clues.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Detective working on Operation Arkholme arrest and bail a 51-year-old man from Bishop's Waltham on suspicion of murder.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Det Insp Alison Scott, heading the murder investigation, appeals for the public's help to piece together Kevin Palmer's last movements.