As the 25th anniversary of Ben Needham’s disappearance approaches on Sunday , South Yorkshire Police say they remain “committed to finding answers for Ben’s family”.
The 21-month-old vanished on the afternoon of Wednesday July 24th 1991 from outside a farmhouse in the tiny village of Irakles, on the island of Kos.
He’d been taken there by his grandmother Christine to see her husband Eddie , who was working on renovating the building along with some local workmen.
Christine decided on the morning to take Ben in his push chair to the farmhouse – a distance of 1.7 km, or just over a mile. It was the first time that Ben visited the farmhouse.
In an interview to be broadcast on Calendar on Monday, Christine told us:
“It was nothing out of the ordinary – just a walk..a stroll, about 20 minutes Pleasant – poppies in the fields, nice things.”
“I got Ben dressed and washed, he sat the in the push chair banging two toy cars together, and we just walked until we got to the farm house. I didn’t tell anyone we were going there – there was no-one to tell – everyone was out. I didn’t plan to go.”
Ben disappeared without trace in the afternoon – and despite hundreds of “sightings” he has never been traced.
Christine added : “He just wasn’t there. Nothing. Not a trace, nothing at all. No footprints ,no shoes had fallen off, nothing at all”
In May this year officers were back on Kos in force to launch a media appeal for locals to come forward with any information . It was the latest effort to crack the case which has become one of the longest running missing persons cases of its type in the world.
Leaflets were printed in English and Greek, publicising a confidential phone line.
In June, after the team returned, Det Insp Jon Cousins revealed “ very significant “ information had come out of the media appeal , but would not go into specific details.
Eddie and Christine Needham, along with Kerry spent more than two decades following up leads on their own before a Home Office grant allowed the formation of the “Operation Ben” team in April 2015.
Up to ten officers have worked on the case at any one time. Earlier this year the one-year grant was extended to October 2016, taking the total funding to about £1 million.
Since its formation the team has travelled to mainland Greece and Kos on numerous occasions, interviewing a number of people whose names had been associated with the case since 1991.
Officers initially targeted a prominent Roma gypsy family who the Needhams were convinced had knowledge of the case, but investigations revealed they had nothing to do with Ben’s disappearance. A “blonde” child videoed in their camp in 1994 by a private detective was later revealed to be a son of the head of the gypsy family.
Detectives also questioned a prisoner in jail, who in November 1996 called a live Greek TV show claiming he knew where Ben was. His testimony was also untrue – police discovered the call was part of a personal vendetta against another Roma family.
Calendar followed Kerry and Eddie Needham in August 2011 to the North West border of Greece ( Ioannina) to find and film a travelling Roma gypsy man called Savas, who had been named on Ben’s official Facebook Page as someone who could be the missing toddler.
The woman who gave the information had known Savas from being a child, and noted that he was blonde as a youngster and did not appear to know the Greek language as well as his siblings.
Despite a facial similarity to one of Kerry’s brothers, a DNA sample brought back to the UK by the Calendar team proved negative.
It was a legal breakthrough in 2011 which allowed officers to be able to test any samples against Ben’s actual DNA.
Police applied for permission to take samples from Ben’s heel prick blood test, taken when he was born at Pilgrim Hospital, Boston. The case had to be taken through legal channels as Ben is over 18, and without HIS consent the DNA information could not be passed on.
The land around the farmhouse was excavated in October 2012 by a team including South Yorkshire Police cadaver dogs, Greek Search and Rescue, and operators of a ground-penetrating radar machine, but no human remains were found after a two-week search
In March 2015 Kerry and Christine Needham travelled to Thessalonika to meet a 26-year-old Roma man who believed HE could be Ben. He told Kerry and Christine that as a youngster he was asked to lie underneath covers while the family travelled between locations in Greece, because of his light skin colour and blonde hair. He also said he could find no birth certificate for himself, or pictures of himself as a baby, and his mother could not remember at which hospital he was born.
Despite this “evidence” pointing towards a positive identification, DNA results confirmed the man was NOT Ben.
On Monday July 25 Calendar will broadcast an interview with Ben’s grandmother Christine, as she recalls the day Ben vanished. Presenter Duncan Wood, on Kos in May for ITV with producer Mark Witty and cameraman Simon White, will take viewers on a journey from when Ben left home, to the horrible realisation a few hours later, that he was gone