If the claim that Ben Needham was killed on the day he disappeared is proved right, it will be a desperately sad end to a courageous search for the truth, writes Grant Woodward.
ONE of the most affecting television dramas of recent years was BBC1’s The Missing. A series which tapped into every parent’s worst nightmare, it followed the agonising search for a little boy who had seemingly vanished into thin air during a family holiday.
There were red herrings and blind alleys galore as guilt-wracked father Tony, played by James Nesbitt, obsessively fought to get to the bottom of son Oliver’s disappearance, before eventually being swallowed whole by heart-crushing false hope.
The twists and turns in the case made for gripping television. But imagine if that had been your life for a quarter of a century, a life spent in the tortuous limbo of not knowing whether your child was alive or dead.
For Kerry Needham this has been her awful fate. Every aspect of her existence has revolved around the search for her son Ben, who disappeared without trace on a blistering hot day in Greece 25 years ago. A day when Kerry’s life was sent spinning off on a tragic tangent.
At the time she was just 19. A single mum living in a Sheffield council house. In the book she wrote about Ben’s disappearance she admited she at first found oblivion in drink and nightclubs to ease her pain – so much so that her daughter Leighanna was sent to live with her grandparents.
But no one can doubt the determination and steely courage she has shown for so many years now – years that she has spent hoping for a miracle. That she and Ben would one day be reunited. That her ceaseless searching would yield a fairytale ending to this story of such sadness.
Now it seems the fairytale will remain nothing more than that – the regular trips back to Greece, the media appearances to keep Ben’s story in the limelight, have all been in vain. Police have told her that new information suggests that Ben died the very day he went missing, crushed beneath the wheels of a digger on a building site just 100 yards from the farmhouse where the 21-month-old was playing on the island of Kos.
This fresh lead – the one that might finally solve the riddle of Ben’s disappearance – has come from a friend of a man called Konstantinos Barkas, better known as Dino.
Barkas, who died of stomach cancer last year, was behind the controls of the digger in question. Quizzed by police at the time, he told them he would “chop his arms off” if he had killed Ben. But these new claims cast doubt on his words, with the witness saying Barkas confided in him that he may have had an accident involving the toddler.
It is all so very different from the situation in May this year, when British police had returned to Greece to try to breathe new life into the search, to finally solve the riddle of what happened.
Exhausted but cautiously optimistic, Kerry told me then of the dozen or more lines of inquiry that the presence of the South Yorkshire detectives had generated. Memories were being stirred, fragments of potential clues were revealing themselves. She hoped this might be the breakthrough she had waited so long for. Dared to dream that she could soon be reunited with her beloved Ben.
Because Kerry remained convinced that her son had been snatched all those years earlier, then sold for illegal adoption. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed European he would have fetched a premium, she reasoned. The idea that he had been loved and cared for all this time offered a morsel of comfort she could cling on to.
Kerry wouldn’t allow herself to think anything different. But then what parent would? She certainly couldn’t bring herself to contemplate the alternative – that the last 25 years of her life had been spent on a search that wouldn’t deliver her darling boy back into her arms.
He would be a stranger after all these years, of course, one who probably wouldn’t even remember her, but still her flesh and blood all the same.
“It’s taken us to the ends of despair,” Kerry said of the purgatory of not knowing what had happened to Ben. “My dad drinking himself nearly to death, my parents splitting up. It takes you to the point where you can’t get out of bed and face the world. It’s taken the whole of our lives.
“People ask me where I find the strength to keep going. It comes from the love I have for Ben and also the fight to find him, for him to know the truth. Some days I don’t want to, but I know I have to. If I don’t then we’re never going to find the truth, are we?”
Four years ago, British police excavated sites in Kos as part of their search for Ben but found no trace of him, strengthening Kerry’s conviction he was out there somewhere, growing up without knowing who he really was.
“If he had fallen down a hole he would have been found,” she said. “There were no accidents, he wasn’t buried by any of the machinery. The ground didn’t open up and swallow him, he wasn’t abducted by aliens. Someone physically removed him from that area.
“I’ve always felt it as his mother,” she said. “I’ve always believed he’s alive, somewhere.”
The witness who has now come forward is understood to have directed police to two areas of land not searched by British officers in 2012. Kerry is bracing herself for the very worst as police prepare to investigate the locations.
“They are no longer looking for a missing person,” Kerry told a national newspaper after the news emerged. “How do I cope with that? My mother’s instinct has always told me he was alive. What if I’ve been wrong all this time?
“They’ve got two areas of land to search. One’s in the vicinity of the farmhouse he went missing from and the other one is in a different location. I don’t know the exact location of where they will be searching but they will be bringing in specialist people again from the UK to make a search and look for his remains.”
South Yorkshire Police have confirmed officers will be travelling back to Kos in the coming weeks “to follow up new lines of inquiry” which emerged following those appeals through the Greek media back in May.
Kerry has told of feeling waves of nausea since being informed of the new twist in the case. The dramatic development has understandably stirred a maelstrom of competing emotions.
“In one respect I hope to God they don’t find anything and I’ll still have that hope that Ben is out there,” she said. “But then can I live with that for the rest of my life?
“This rollercoaster of emotions, the ups and downs, the devastation of thinking we’ve found him and then after DNA tests, it’s not him. I just don’t know what the better outcome is.”
The 2012 dig was partly funded by the Home Office. Shamefully, it marked the first time the British Government had committed money to the search for Ben. It was followed by a further £1m to pay for a dedicated team of detectives and this year’s trip to Kos. Comparisons to the response when Madeleine McCann vanished in Portugal in 2007 are stark.
So far the Home Office has racked up a total of £12m on that case, while £2m in public donations poured in within a matter of months. Where the McCanns could afford to pay for publicists and private detectives, Kerry’s family have just had each other and a lot of faith and determination.
Though it wouldn’t be anything like the outcome she and everyone has hoped for, if Ben’s remains are found then it will have been down to a mother’s unswerving courage.
A refusal to accept that the riddle of what happened to her little boy all those years ago was forever destined to remain unsolved. For that, Kerry Needham deserves our eternal respect.
The 25-year search for Ben
July 1991 – Ben Needham, a 21-month-old from Sheffield, disappears from a farmhouse on the Greek island of Kos while being looked after by his grandparents.
1996 – A Greek prisoner names a gypsy family who he says are holding Ben. South Yorkshire detectives finally rule out any link in 2015.
2012 – South Yorkshire Police travel to Kos to dig up mounds around the property where Ben went missing. Nothing is found.
May 2016 – Detectives return to Kos for two weeks to appeal once again for anyone with information, or Ben himself, to come forward.
September 2016 – A witness claims Ben was killed by a digger on the day he went missing, sparking a planned search of two sites.