Needham before he disappeared
TWENTY years after Ben Needham was snatched his mother opens her heart
HER voice faltering, Kerry Needham is still trying to get her head
around the unexpected events of last week.
That was when Tom Cruise joined in the battle that she has been
tirelessly waging for 20 years – the search to find her missing son
Ben, who vanished as a flaxen-haired toddler in 1991.
Ben’s is one of the longest-running missing person’s cases in British
history but his search has never received the same level of publicity
as that of Madeleine McCann and it is one that Kerry has often felt she
has had to fight alone, unaided by the authorities. There were times in
the early days when she was so distraught she sought to take her own
So when Cruise lent his celebrity weight to her campaign last week –
joining in a 24-hour Twitter marathon, “tweet 4 Ben”, set up by an
official appeal website – she was overcome with emotion.
I was shaking when I saw what was happening. There were so
many people wanting to help find Ben.
The Hollywood actor helped spread the word of Ben’s disappearance by
sending a tweet to his 2.4 million followers on the social networking
site. Other stars who joined in backing Kerry’s campaign included
fellow US actor Tom Arnold and British actress Kym Marsh.
“I was taken aback,” says Kerry from her home in Sheffield. “I was
shaking when I saw what was happening. There were so many people
wanting to help find Ben. Among them were these top names from Hollywood
to Coronation Street. I just couldn’t believe it.
“There was a message that Tom Cruise has re-tweeted. It was like a
different world. It was unreal. It shows that people, whoever they are,
Although it has been 20 years since Ben disappeared on the Greek island
of Kos, where Kerry and her parents were living, she has never given up
hope that her son will be found. She thinks Ben might have been abducted
and sold to a family who could not have children of their own.
“I never think that he might have been murdered,” says Kerry, 39. “It
crossed my mind years ago but the feelings that I have for him, every
single day when I wake up, drive me on. If I thought for one minute that
he wasn’t out there I’d give up. Something in my heart and mind keeps
telling me to carry on.”
She concedes, however, that Ben – who would now be 22 – would not
recognise her. “I’ve spoken to psychologists who say he will have some
childhood memories but he won’t know where they have come from. He would
probably have flashbacks but wouldn’t be able to relate them to
Ben disappeared as he was playing in the sunshine near the doorway of
his grandparents’ remote farmhouse on Kos.
Kerry, then a 19-year-old single mother, had left her son in the care of
his grandparents while she went to work at a hotel and they had only
taken their eyes off Ben for what seemed like the blink of an eye when
they could no longer see him. After frantic searches they informed the
police but none of the family has seen Ben since.
“I remember it vividly,” says Kerry. “My initial thought was, ‘Well, he
can’t be far away, he’s only 21 months old’ but my mum was absolutely
heartbroken. She was sobbing uncontrollably but I was just trying to
think of where he could have gone. Your first feelings are disbelief.
“We went back to the farmhouse and were shouting his name but there was
nowhere for him to hide – there were just vast open fields with a few
scattered farmhouses. Not for one minute did I think somebody could
have taken him. I just thought that someone could have found him
wandering and maybe taken him in until they could find us.
“It didn’t dawn on me then that someone might have abducted him but
slowly you realise it’s getting very serious. But you’re in a mess, a
daze. It feels like a nightmare – you’re not sleeping, you can’t think
It hardly helped that instead of shutting down airports and docks
immediately, the Greek police instead decided to question the Needham
family, viewing them as prime suspects. Kerry adds: “I was distraught
and thinking, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything? You’re pointing the finger
at me. Why aren’t you out there looking for him?’ It was so
EVENTUALLY the authorities eliminated the Needhams as suspects and
started searching in earnest but not without a delay that might have
given kidnappers a chance to get Ben off the island. “More should have
been done by the Greek police and also the British authorities,” says
Kerry, who felt exasperated. “I’ve written to every prime minister
we’ve had since but no one has seemed interested.”
After Kerry’s family moved back to the UK Kerry found it impossible to
cope and made several attempts to commit suicide – by slashing her
wrists and taking an overdose.
SDLqI was feeling very alone, even though I had my family around me. It
was sheer desperation. I just wanted the pain to end so badly.
“Now I’m a lot stronger but then I was a young girl and not very
confident. I’d been brought up in a little village near Skegness,
Lincolnshire, and didn’t have much self-esteem. Having a child at 17 was
hard enough and then this happened. I just wanted a way out.”
Kerry briefly reunited with Ben’s father Simon but they separated after
Kerry gave birth to their daughter Leighanna, now 17.
“It was a very difficult decision to have another child,” she says. “It
was my counsellor who said it might help. I was having nightmares and
hallucinations. I could hear Ben crying in the night and I’d get up and
go to the bedroom thinking he was in there. All my motherly instincts
were there but I had no child to see to.
“When Leighanna was born I remember thinking it was better that she was
a girl because she could be her own person. I sometimes think I’ve been
over-protective of her but I’ve tried not to wrap her in cotton wool.”
While Kerry has devoted herself to looking for Ben she has often felt
let down by the lack of support. Recently however she has received more
positive news. At the end of last year the Greek authorities re-opened
the case and South Yorkshire police have visited Kos to liaise with
them. Last week’s internet appeal backed by Tom Cruise has also brought
Ben’s plight to a wider audience.
Kerry says: “I would never have given up on Ben anyway but now things
are happening which give me even more hope. The most pain-free image I
have is of Ben living with a family who wanted a child so badly that
they had to resort to desperate measures. I hope he has been looked
after and loved. I can’t allow myself to think of any other situation
because if I thought for one minute that he was suffering that would
send me insane.”
For more information and ways to support Kerry visit
YEARS OF SIGHTINGS
OVER two decades there have been more than 300 sightings of boys thought
to be Ben. Most of them were reported shortly after he went missing but
others have been prompted by computer-generated images produced over the
years suggesting how Ben might have looked at the ages of 10, 13, 18 and
“It’s an ongoing process of getting your hopes up and then being
dashed,” says Kerry Needham, Ben’s mother. “There are not as many
alleged sightings now – maybe five or six a year whereas earlier there
were probably 30 or 40. We’ve investigated as many as we can – hundreds
“Sometimes, especially when Ben was younger, the public took pictures of
fair-haired children with very Greek-looking parents, which they thought
“Sometimes I’ve seen a photo and been on the next plane out there.
“It is emotionally exhausting. When it’s bad news it’s one of the most
heartbreaking feelings that you can have. You think, ‘This is it! This
is the one! It’s not going to go on much longer.’ When it turns out not
to be him it’s like losing him again. I relive the day he vanished all