Ben Needham: Family's 30th anniversary hope as new witnesses emerge

  • Watch Michael Billington's report.

As the family of Ben Needham today marks the 30th anniversary of his disappearance from the island of Kos, new information continues to emerge after "Calendar" revealed witnesses had seen a boy matching his description on another island.

The 21-month-old vanished while playing outside a remote farmhouse which was being renovated by his grandad Eddie.

Eddie, along with his family, had moved to the island in early 1991 for a new life in the Dodecanese.

Yesterday "Calendar" reported that three people had seen a young child at a campsite in Corfu - six hundred miles from Kos .

The witnesses say they saw a young lost child who had been brought into a campsite in Corfu in the early 1990s, who was not part of any family staying at the campsite and when asked if he wanted a drink he replied "yes" and "no" in English.

One of the witnesses, who does not want to be identified, described the child as blonde, between one and two years old, and was wearing a nappy.

Another witness, who also wishes to remain anonymous, remembered the child being given a drink at the bar, and that no family there claimed him.

Dalida Messian was working on reception at the campsite during the summer in the early 1990s - she is convinced a boy she saw walk into the campsite was Ben Needham. 

Greek police instigated an investigation after information was passed from  the Facebook page "Help Find Ben Needham". 

South Yorkshire Police, who undertook two excavations of the farmhouse land in 2012 and 2016, maintain that in their professional opinion Ben died on the day he went missing in an accident with a digger.

Ben's family do not believe this theory, without evidence to support it.Today Ben's Facebook Page continued to receive messages, including one person who had been on holiday in Corfu near the campsite in the 1990s , saying they'd spotted a young blonde boy who was "ushered" behind a woman and then taken indoors when spotted. 

South Yorkshire Police released a Tweet on Saturday 24 July 2021  to mark the anniversary saying their thoughts were with Ben's family.

South Yorkshire Police secured Home office funding for the excavations in Kos, and the "Operation Ben" team spent months discounting old theories about Ben's disappearance in an attempt to get to the truth.

The latest sightings, on Corfu, could be the breakthrough the family is looking for, if the person who brought the boy into the campsite can be found, so that he can be traced and eliminated from the inquiry - or otherwise. While the family is well aware of the despair that another dead end brings, they will never give up hope that Ben could still be alive .

Ben's mum Kerry is pleased Greek authorities are investigating what became of the child, but has to temper her feelings as previous dead ends on leads are emotionally devastating.

  • Kerry Needham speaking to ITV Calendar.

For all the family, including Ben's sister Leighanna and grandfather Eddie, the 30-year search has taken its toll, and in many ways shaped their lives from the day Ben went missing. 

  • Leighanna Needham and Eddie Needham speaking to ITV Calendar.

The Hellenic Ministry of Citizen Protection said they "have received information from the British authorities which we are currently investigating. We will send the results back to our colleagues in Britain when the investigations are completed."South Yorkshire Police said:

“We continue to hold the view that Ben died as a result of a tragic accident on the day of his disappearance, however should any new viable line of inquiry come to light, we would seek to work with the Greek authorities to support them in their investigations. 

 “Any new pursuance of a line of inquiry is most likely to focus on discounting it rather than proving it true. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to evidence the circumstances around Ben’s disappearance but our professional opinion remains that Ben died on the day of his disappearance as a result of a tragic accident involving heavy machinery.”

The Ben Needham mystery: 30 years of heartache

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. The most high-profile investigations only started around 20 years after Ben went missing, following a Home Office grant to South Yorkshire Police.

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.

Ben disappeared on the Greek Island of Kos.

After pressure from the family, the police and Kerry’s constituency MP at the time 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, worked on the case at any one time, with total funding of about £1 million.

Watch: Kerry Needham left numb by new evidence in search for Ben

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” 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.

The Operation Ben team 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.

Watch: Kerry Needham: I don't want to believe my son is dead

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.

And then in September 2016, the second and last excavation of the farmhouse from where Ben went missing – along with another site nearby where it’s believed a local digger driver used to dump debris. After three weeks nothing was found, except a toy car which it’s thought Ben was playing with on the day he disappeared. South Yorkshire Police concluded Ben died on the day he went missing, in an accident with a large mechanical digger. The family of the driver, Konstantinos Barkas, who since died, vehemently deny his involvement.

Credit: Mark Witty

Little has happened into the investigation in the last six years, until the latest information from witnesses who saw a boy matching Ben’s description on Corfu. The ground work for this latest investigation was made possible by the dogged determination of the admin team which runs Ben’s Facebook Page. Greek authorities say they will pass on any findings to South Yorkshire Police. Whatever the outcome, Ben’s family will never stop searching for the truth.