Ben Needham: The 25-year mystery of what happened to the missing toddler

Ben disappeared on July 24 1991 from a remote farmhouse in the village of Irakles, which was being renovated by his granddad Eddie and local builders.

Ben had been pushed there in his buggy by his grandmother Christine from a caravan in which the family was living about a mile away.

Sometime in the afternoon Ben vanished – and there has been no trace of him since. Ben’s mother Kerry and other members of her family have been told by police that an accident may have occurred with a digger, which was being driven up and down the narrow lane to the farmhouse.

Kerry Needham has been told Ben may have been killed in digger accident Credit: PA

In October 2012 a team including Greek Mountain Rescue volunteers, cadaver dogs and their handlers , an anthropologist and operators of ground-penetrating radar, searched land around the farmhouse, but nothing was found.

Eddie and Christine Needham, along with Kerry spent more than two decades following up leads on their own before the Home Office grant allowed the formation of the “Operation Ben” team.

Ben disappeared on the Greek Island of Kos

After pressure from the family, the police and with the help of Kerry’s MP, Labour’s Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) a request for funding was made by the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner. This was granted and the Operation Ben team was formed in in April 2015.

Up to ten officers, including two who speak Greek, have worked on the case at any one time. Earlier this year the one-year grant was extended to October 2016, with total funding of about £1 million.

Before the formation of the team, South Yorkshire Police had to go through legal hoops to get Ben’s DNA, from a heel prick blood test at birth , so that if anyone came forward it could be matched. The sample had been stored since Ben’s birth in October 1989 at Boston’s Pilgrim Hospital, Lincolnshire.

The appeal had to be taken through legal channels as Ben is over 18, and without HIS consent the sample could not be processed. A judge at the High Court allowed the release of Ben’s DNA in December 2011.

Between 2011 and 2015 Calendar raised the profile of Ben’s case in Greece, initially by asking the influential journalist Angeliki Nikolouli to feature the story on the Greek “Missing” TV programme [**“Light at the end of the Tunnel”**](http://Ben Needham: Police continue to follow up leads from live Greek TV programme). Since then Mrs Nikolouli has highlighted Ben’s disappearance on numerous occasions, often prompting phone calls and information which have been passed to South Yorkshire Police.

Kerry has appeared on Greek television in appeals to help find Ben

Since its formation the Operation Ben team has travelled to mainland Greece and Kos a number of times, interviewing 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.

Operation Ben returned to Kos to investigate this year Credit: ITV News

Officers 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.

Over the years Calendar has been at the forefront of the media push to find clues to Ben’s whereabouts – and have been asked by the family to join them on searches after information came to light.

Ben was just 21 months old when he disappeared

In December 1995, four years after Ben went missing, Calendar presenter and reporter Geoff Druett staged a “reconstruction” at the farmhouse with Ben’s sister Leighanna, who at that time was the same age as Ben when he disappeared. The footage showed Leighanna wandering around the area and then, with all eyes on her, walking down the lane from the farmhouse. Even at the age of 21 months, she had disappeared completely from view in just a couple of minutes.

Ben's sister Leighanna helped stage a reconstruction of how he may of gone missing in 1997 Credit: ITV News

In 1997 the family was made aware of a possible “handover” of Ben after information came to light in the Greek city of Larissa. The British Consul Gordon Bernard was despatched from Athens to oversee it, but after taking instructions to a meeting place, the trail went cold.

In August 2011 Kerry and her father Eddie Needham travelled to the North West border of Greece (Ioannina) to find a travelling Roma gypsy man called Savas. He had been highlighted to the Help Find Ben Facebook Page by a “worried” old friend who thought Savas could be Ben.

Despite a similarity to one of Kerry’s brothers, a DNA sample given voluntarily and brought back to the UK by the Calendar team proved negative.

In March 2015, just before the Home Office funding kicked in, Kerry, Christine and Leighanna Needham met a 26-year-old Roma man who believed HE could be Ben.

He told them 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, after an agonising wait DNA results confirmed the man was NOT Ben.

Now the family awaits the latest search for Ben, which could put an end to a mystery which has haunted them for more than a quarter of a century.