IT is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Katrice Lee went missing from a NAAFI supermarket in Schloss Neuhaus, near Paderborn, Germany, on her second birthday, November 18, 1981.
In a split second after turning her back to pick up some crisps for her daughter’s party, Katrice’s mother Sharon found Katrice had vanished – never to be seen again.
The supermarket was heaving as it was the day after the last payday before Christmas.
Yet astonishingly, not one person has ever been able to give answers as to what happened to the youngster.
In the blink of an eye, the cheeky-faced two-year-old had gone.
Children often go missing in crowded places like supermarkets, but are usually found within seconds.
But despite a frantic search, including by the Lee family and staff from the supermarket, there was no trace.
Area searches were conducted on the ground, by helicopter and by diving teams in the nearby River Lippe.
But despite all efforts, the search turned up nothing.
Her parents are convinced she had been taken.
But the authorities threw up a theory that she had drowned in the river.
Yet her parents have rubbished this, knowing she had a real fear of water and storm grates on the river never picked up any clothing. The river turned up no evidence to support the authorities’ accepted scenario and in the weeks, months and years that followed, no other searches were made.
Thirty-one years of heartache, anguish, fears and a broken marriage later, Hartlepool MP Iain Wright stood up in Parliament and demanded answers over what he sees as a “botched investigation”.
Some of the failings he claimed to have happened included:
l Initial uncertainty over whether the Royal Military Police or the German authorities should take the lead in the investigation;
l As a result, failure to notify border staff of Katrice’s disappearance immediately, despite the fact Paderborn is only two hours’ drive from the Netherlands and Belgium borders and northern ports of West Germany;
l No road blocks or checks put in place;
l Staff in the NAAFI supermarket not interviewed until six weeks after Katrice vanished;
l A Sergeant Major at the base, who had looked after Katrice’s sister Natasha the week after she went missing, has only in the past month been identified as a key witness and interviewed by the authorities.
The family also pointed out a squint that would require surgery, and that hospitals and doctors should be warned to look out for Katrice, but this was ignored.
Since then, Katrice’s family have tirelessly fought for answers, not only to what happened to the youngster but how the case could be so “inadequately and incompetently” handled.
Despite numerous meetings with Royal Military Police (RMP) liaison officers and the case being re-investigated in 2000 and again in January this year, the Lee family feel they are no further forward.
And her father, former Sergeant Major, Richard, 62, who lives off Stockton Road, in Hartlepool, said he had been asked for DNA again, despite already providing a sample on Katrice’s 21st birthday, in 2002.
He says if this DNA has been lost, this potentially could mean 10 years have gone by when Katrice could have been found and her DNA matched to the family.
They have devoted the past 31 years to demanding answers.
But they feel they have never been listened to.
During Thursday’s Commons’ debate, Mr Wright asked:
l For the Ministry of Defence to commission an independent investigation and inquiry into the RMP’s handling of the case;
l For a definite date as to when the re-investigation of the case will be complete;
l For permission for the family to have access to case files;
l For a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr Wright said: “My constituent has suffered the anguish of his daughter going missing every single day for 31 years.
“That anguish is deeper with the knowledge that the investigation was botched from the start, that the incompetence continued for many years and that we are no further forward in finding out what happened to little Katrice.
“Thirty-one years is far too long.”
Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport, Hampshire, where Katrice’s mother and sister now live, added that Mr Cameron had met with families of other missing children, these including the McCanns, yet he had declined a meeting earlier this year with the Lees.
“Surely it is not right to cherry-pick which desperate, grief-stricken family of a lost child is more worthy than others of face time with the Prime Minister,” she said.
Although he said he could not comment on certain areas of the case as it is still a live police investigation, Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans Mark Francois offered:
l Reassurance that the RMP were doing all they can to get to the bottom of the case, including using modern investigative techniques and attempts to trace and re-interview the nearly 2,000 people who visited the NAAFI supermarket on the day that Katrice disappeared;
l A planned appeal to go out on BBC’s Crimewatch later this month;
l A reassurance that “there will be no attempt to cover up past failings”;
l For a civilian police force to review the entire investigation;
l For himself to meet with the Lees and their MPs to discuss the matter further alongside the Provost Marshal, Brigadier Bill Warren and his investigative team at the RMP’s investigative branch in Bulford, Wiltshire before January;
l A meeting when the case is complete.
But Richard, a retired postman, dismissed the offers as “hogwash” and said the family were back to square one as they had already lost their trust in the RMP.
He called for a “transparent” investigation by an independent body and said after the hearing: “I feel so low, it’s unreal.
“A meeting with the RMP – to what end? They have already had the questions from us.”