The dad of Katrice Lee who vanished on her second birthday over 36 years ago has thanked the people of Hartlepool for their overwhelming support surrounding his painful trip back to Germany.
Richie Lee, 68, “walked back into the nightmare” when he returned to Paderborn just over a week ago as Royal Military Police began a five-week excavation of a river bank in a search for her body.
Katrice vanished on November 28, 1981, from a NAAFI shopping complex while she was with her mother Sharon.
Richie, who was stationed there at the time with the British Army, says he has been blown away by the level of support and messages of kindness from people in the town – and all over the world – saying: “I realised I was not on my own and that the townspeople are behind me.”
Richie chose his local newspaper to say thank you to the many people who have urged him not to give up on his search for Katrice.
It took him almost an hour and a half to walk down York Road when he went to get some Euros before leaving for Germany due to being stopped so many times by well-wishers.
And on returning home from Newcastle, strangers came up to him on the train and shook his hand and hugged him.
Richie said: “I had always felt other than my extended family I was on my own.
“But coming back from that traumatic week I found there are thousands of people in Hartlepool, who I couldn’t even put a face to, supporting me.
“You could see the depth of feeling and courage it took them to come up to me to say ‘we’re 100% behind you’ and ‘don’t give up’. That absolutely blew me away.”
Richie also told of his plans to keep pressure on investigators if, as he fully expects, the dig in Germany does not find anything.
Richie wants investigators to speak to missing people bureaux in Europe as Katrice’s family have always believed she was taken as a surrogate child.
He said: “If this search is negative, which I believe 1,000% it will be, what other option is there for what happened to Katrice except she was snatched as a surrogate child.
“Where my next campaign would take me to is to contact all the missing person bureaux in Europe as well as the United Kingdon because it’s now been proven there were children stolen and sold to the Eastern Bloc and repatriation is still taking place today.”
Richie said he would also urge investigators to follow up lines of inquiry around Katrice’s ‘lazy eye’.
The condition in her left eye would have needed two operations to correct, one as a small child and another as a teenager.
Richie said returning to Germany for the first time since 2012 was a painful experience saying: “It was just walking back into a nightmare.”
He was joined by Hartlepool MP Mike Hill who Richie said provided invaluable support.
News of the excavation garnered huge media attention and made headlines as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
But Richie reiterated his stance that all missing people cases are equally important.
He also thanked the local media, including the Mail, who have reported on the case for many years.
Richie said: “Because of good press coverage from the Hartlepool Mail, the local radio and TV, it’s thankfully for you people I am where I am today.”
He added: “I’m determined not to let this momentum dwindle.”
Anyone with information can contact the investigating team Operation BUTE in the following ways:
• UK Helpline telephone: 0800 616888
• Facebook: Operation BUTE
• Twitter: @operationbute
• Email: SIBRMP-OpBUTE-Mailbox@mod.gov.uk