THE husband of a woman who vanished four years ago has appeared in court charged with her murder.

Police spent the weekend conducting finger-tip searches and digging up the garden of van driver Stuart Johnstone, 45, in Valley Road, Fawkham, in a bid to find a trace of his wife Angela. Neighbours were shocked when more than 20 officers descended on the sleepy village last Friday (June 9) at 6.30am with a mechanical digger.

Richard Crouch, of Valley Road, who has lived in the village for more than 50 years, said: “When she disappeared everyone assumed she had just left to make a new life for herself. This is the sort of thing you see in the national newspapers but you don't expect it to happen on your doorstep.

“Angela was a keen horse-woman and I would often see her out riding. I occasionally bumped into them in the pub but they kept themselves very much to themselves.”

DCI Martin Henneker says the couple's marriage had broken down and Mrs Johnstone, who was 35 when she went missing in March, 1997, had relationships with other men.

Their two children, a son, aged 10 at the time, and daughter, then eight, were taken into care two years ago.

DCI Henneker said: “We would like to speak to any friends or associates so we can piece together what happened.”

Samples have been taken from the scene but North Kent Police could not confirm whether they were human remains.

Mrs Johnstone, who sometimes went by her maiden name, Hawkins, as well as the names Smith and Defoy, was 5ft 9in tall, slim with dyed red hair cut in a bob.

Anyone with information should call police on 01474 565007.

Stuart Johnstone was charged with murder on Sunday evening. Standing before Dartford Magistrates on Monday, Johnstone spoke only to confirm his name and address. He was remanded in custody to appear for trial at Crown Court.