Kerry Needham is perhaps closer to knowing the truth of what happened to her son than at any point since he went missing. But, she tells Grant Woodward, time could be running out.
AFTER a quarter of a century of red herrings, blind alleys and heart-crushing false hope, the latest return to Kos to solve the mystery of Ben Needham had been going well.
The presence on the island of detectives from South Yorkshire Police and fresh appeals from Ben’s mother, Kerry, seemed to be stirring memories, generating more than a dozen new lines of inquiry from the Greek public.
Armed with Home Office funding that had been denied them for more than two decades, Ben’s family felt an end to their waking nightmare might at last be in sight.
Then came tabloid claims that the detectives had spent their first night in Kos on an eight-hour drinking spree, triggering fears that the support – both financial and emotional – that the Needhams had fought tooth and nail to secure could now be eroded. Dread that it might derail a search for the truth that was finally on the right track.
“I just think it’s a very cruel and insensitive thing to do,” Kerry says, looking drawn and deflated at a secret location near to Kos, anxious to keep the focus on Ben rather than herself. “We have all worked so hard to get to this position and this could finish it.
“I know that without those detectives we won’t get the answers that we so desperately want. We as a family can’t do any more alone.”
She insists the police have their full support, that everyone is entitled to a drink after a hard day’s work if that’s what they want.
“Now that we’ve finally got the (Home Office) funding it’s all been put in jeopardy by a stupid, stupid report.”
What makes it worse is the tantalising sense that they may be closer to solving the riddle of Ben’s disappearance than they have ever been since that blazing hot afternoon in July 1991 when he seemingly vanished off the face of the earth.
The Home Office funding is crucial. So too is the fact that they are no longer looking for a little boy. Ben would be 26 now, old enough to be curious as to why he looks different to the rest of his family. Why there are no photos of him under the age of two.
Also in their favour is a statute of limitation in Greek law which means that whoever took him all those years ago can no longer face charges.
Kerry admits it’s unthinkable that whoever took Ben could escape prosecution, but is adamant that it can be turned into a positive.
From the day the 21-month-old, from Sheffield, went missing, any number of theories about what happened to him have been offered up.
He fell and injured himself. His uncle Stephen took him for a ride on his motorbike and there was an accident. He was killed by machinery nearby and buried under rubble.
One by one, however, those theories have fallen away. A turning point came three years ago, when police excavations at the site of the farmhouse the family were renovating when he disappeared failed to unearth anything.
It was the point at which attitudes toward the case started to change.
“If he had fallen down a hole he would have been found,” says Kerry. “There were no accidents, he wasn’t buried by any of the machinery. Stephen didn’t take him on his bike and bury him – it was 120 degrees and the ground is like concrete.
“Although it hurt at the time you could see people’s reasons for thinking these things. The dig turned people’s views around. The ground didn’t open up and swallow him, he wasn’t abducted by aliens. Someone physically removed him from that area.”
But how can she be so certain that Ben is still out there somewhere, living a life that isn’t really his?
“I’ve always felt it as his mother. I’ve always believed he’s alive, somewhere. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Getting to the bottom of the why and where.”
The 2012 excavation was partly funded by the Home Office. It marked the first time the British Government had committed money to the search. It has since been followed by a further £1m to pay for a dedicated team of detectives and this latest 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. Kerry and her family were reduced to rattling collection buckets outside pop concerts and selling bric-a-brac at car boot sales. They felt abandoned. Kerry made several attempts to take her own life.
Ben disappeared before the age of the internet, social media and 24-hour news. Even so, the contrast between the cases is staggering.
Was it because the McCanns were middle-class doctors and Kerry an unmarried mother from Sheffield? She would like to think that wasn’t the reason, but it has crossed her mind.
“As an ordinary mum I did take it to heart and feel that at times we perhaps weren’t important enough. We don’t take anything away from the McCann case, they need that help to find Madeleine. But we’ve always asked the Government, ‘What’s the difference?’ You can’t give to one without the other. Where was Ben’s help?”
Yet the apathy appears to have lifted, and in Greece too. “I was an unmarried mother – although I had a partner – and I was working. In Greek culture that’s not normal. People possibly took a disliking to me because of that.
“Over the years, I think I’ve proved myself to them. Proved that I am a fit mother,” she says. “A loving mother who has continued to fight for the return of her son.”
The toll of the last 25 years has threatened to tear this tormented family apart, to send each one of them mad. The Help Find Ben website charts in agonising detail the progress of their fruitless search, most of it done with scant help from the authorities.
“It’s taken us to the ends of despair,” Kerry sighs. “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?”
She remains convinced Ben was snatched by someone who sold him for illegal adoption. She won’t allow herself to think anything different. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed European he would have fetched a premium. The idea that he’s been loved and cared for over the last 25 years gives her comfort.
But there’s a sense too that time could be running out. As she awaits news from Kos, she knows there is no guarantee of further Home Office funding after October. With or without it, though, a mother’s love means Kerry won’t give up looking for her son.
“Never,” she tells me, in a quiet but firm voice. “Never.”
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.
• 2007. Madeleine McCann goes missing in Portugal, bringing Ben’s case back into the public eye in the year he would have turned 18.
• 2012. South Yorkshire Police travel to Kos to work with the Greek police in digging 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.