Professor Lorna Dawson was used to helping the police. Indeed, as head of soil forensics at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, she was the natural choice to examine items sifted from over 800 tons of Greek soil. Among the recovered objects was a tiny car made of yellow plastic. It seemed innocent enough, but what this simple child’s toy revealed would break a mother’s heart.
Back in 1991 the Needham family were enjoying life on the Greek island of Kos. Emigrants from Sheffield, England, Chris and Eddie Needham lived with their two sons, Stephen and Danny. Their 19-year-old daughter Kerry, meanwhile, had a flat of her own, which she shared with her 21-month-old son, Ben. However, no-one could have predicted how suddenly their lives would change.
On July 24 Ben was being looked after by his grandparents. Kerry had a job at a local hotel, so Ben was busy playing in and around an old farmhouse. The house was located outside the village of Iraklis, and Ben’s grandfather had been employed to renovate it. However, as lunch came to a close at 2:30 p.m., Chris realized that her grandson had fallen silent. She checked empty rooms, nearby fields and dusty tracks, but he was nowhere to be seen. Ben was gone.
Initially, the family hoped that Stephen had taken Ben for a ride on his motorcycle, but when the teenager returned the child wasn’t with him. Ben had asked to join him, but he’d said no. It was the last conversation anyone in the family had with Ben. Moreover, with fears as to the toddler’s safety mounting, they contacted the Greek police.
The investigation underwent twists and turns, stumbling due to what the Needhams saw as the incompetence of the Greek police. Moreover, there was still no sign of Ben. Left to fend for themselves with only a local shopkeeper as a translator, in September the Needhams were finally forced by illness to return to the U.K.
Nevertheless, their search didn’t stop. Indeed, for decades the Needhams themselves have investigated eye-witness reports of blonde children around Greece, only to be met with disappointment after disappointment. A private investigator, Ian Crosby, volunteered to help in 2003, but he too was unable to discover the whereabouts of the little boy.
However, Kerry herself never gave up hope that her baby boy might be alive and well, all grown up. Indeed, the Help Find Ben website includes computer generated images of what Ben might look like today. In addition, it still bears the mom’s emotional appeal that, “anyone who is around 25 years old and possibly living with a family who you look nothing like, I beg you to get in contact.”
Indeed, several men have come forward over the past two-and-a-half decades, questioning if they themselves might be Ben. The closest call came in March 2015, when Kerry returned to Greece to meet a man with no baby photos or knowledge of his birthplace. Unfortunately, DNA tests showed no family link.
The leads were numerous and often contradictory. A group of builders, for example, claimed to have seen a white car near where Ben disappeared, but it was never properly identified. Kos police claimed it belonged to Mrs. Agrelli, the Needham’s translator. Agrelli, however, said she’d sold her car months before and reportedly threatened to sue.
A local gypsy family was also under investigation at one point, and sightings of blonde children in Greek gipsy camps fueled speculation about child-snatchers who might have sold Ben on for adoption. In 2013 Kerry told The Mirror that she had, “always believed Ben’s abduction was gipsy-related.” However, each report ended in disappointment. That same year she told The Observer, “Every time it wasn’t Ben it was like losing him again.”
One of the most bizarre, yet compelling, leads came in 1996 from a prisoner named Andonis Bedzios. He claimed he had seen Ben held captive by a family of gypsies, the Kerimis, who cared for his disabled son. However, he was eventually dismissed by the Greek police as “not trustworthy.” Indeed, Bedzios changed his story several times to include claims of “hush money” and other threats.
A year later, Bedzios once again claimed that he had knowledge that could help with the search for Ben. He phoned the British Consul at that time, Gordon Bernard. His cryptic instructions subsequently led Bernard on a kind of treasure hunt across the Greek city of Larissa, ending at a car where Bedzios assured him Ben would be found. It was empty.
Five years after Ben’s disappearance, Kerry told The Guardian that she “had no emotions left.” Separated from Ben’s father, Simon, she lost herself for months in drink, drugs and nightclubs, leaving her estranged parents to look after her young daughter Leighanna, who by this time was the same age as Ben at the time of his disappearance. Recovery was slow, but she eventually emerged stronger and intent on reclaiming her life.
However, the family’s struggle was made no easier by the lackluster official support. Indeed, back in 1991 it had taken two days for Kos police to inform local airports of Ben’s apparent abduction. Moreover, once the Needhams returned home they found themselves waiting months for Greek police officers to reply to their queries.
Furthermore, the British authorities weren’t much help, either. In fact, it took more than two decades for the first British police officer to set foot on Kos in search of Ben. A later team, sent in May 2016, immediately embarked on an eight-hour drinking session that was splashed across newspapers and saw the detective superintendent in charge sent home early.
Moreover, the British Embassy refused to offer any support, instead insisting that the impoverished and heart-broken family would have to undergo means-testing before they were repatriated. As a result, the Needhams were forced to sell young Danny’s toys just to afford the journey home.
However, fresh hope arrived in 2011, when Prime Minister David Cameron pledged his support to the campaign. With the disappearance receiving increased attention on social media, including a retweet from Tom Cruise, the Home Office finally granted South Yorkshire Police significant funding for the investigation into Kerry’s lost child.
Unfortunately, the results were far from comforting. A friend of deceased digger driver Konstantinos “Dino” Barkas came forward, claiming that Dino may have accidentally crushed the infant Ben all those years ago. Acting on this new information, the police conducted digs in two sites on Kos. Any potential clues that they unearthed were subsequently sent for analysis.
The forensic tests were conducted by Professor Lorna Dawson in Scotland at the James Hutton Institute. Dawson subsequently stated that when examining a toy car and an old sandal, she had found a distinctive “chemical finger print” indicating “blood decomposition.” As a result, she was certain that someone had bled on these objects, which were buried around the time of Ben’s disappearance. So, perhaps the police should be looking for a body, not a young man.
“All I’ve ever wished for is an ending”, said Kerry, who admitted breaking down in tears when she heard the news. “And if that was the case, at least that is an ending.” Nonetheless, for her at least, the search will not be over until a body is found. She added, “I want to tear up this whole island to find my son.”