MILITARY cops have today made an arrest in connection with the disappearance of missing toddler Katrice Lee who vanished almost 40 years ago.
Innocent Katrice was feared snatched from a barracks shop on her second birthday in Paderborn, Germany where her soldier dad was stationed in 1981.
After decades without hope of a breakthrough – the Army confirmed today an arrest had been made.
Forensics teams swooped on an address in Moredon, Swindon, on Monday.
Eye witnesses says along with an arrest an item was recovered from the back garden by police wearing white forensics suits.
Confirming the shock development an Army spokesperson said: “We can confirm that an arrest was made on 23 September by the Royal Military Police in connection with the disappearance of Katrice Lee in 1981.
“As this is an ongoing investigation we cannot comment further at this stage.”
Officials confirmed the Lee family have been informed of the arrest.
Little Katrice was shopping with her mum Sharon and aunt Wendy for treats for a birthday tea party the afternoon when she vanished.
VANISHED IN 1981
Forensics teams swooped on an address in Moredon, Swindon, on Monday[/caption]
The heart rending mystery – which bore chilling similarities to BBC drama The Missing – has remained unsolved ever since.
In April last year The Sun revealed a major dig was to be carried out near to where the toddler was believed to have been snatched.
Over 100 soldiers guided by police and experts carried out a £100k five week long “forensic excavation” of banks of the River Alme, Paderborner Str, Paderborn.
A witness spotted a green car feared to be owned by tiny Katrice’s abductor near that spot the day after she disappeared.
But the dig was fruitless and the mystery endured.
Katrice’s anguished family, including Sharon dad Richard and big sister Natasha have never stopped hoping for answers that will end their heart ache.
In April, Sharon told The Sun: “Nearly 37 years ago as a family we became members of an exclusive club that we didn’t ask for membership of.
“We became parents of a missing daughter. I would dearly love to be able to revoke that membership.
“And although I would like a fairy tale ending to our story, I fully appreciate that might not be.
“But at the end of the day we will have closure, and any emotions that come from that closure we will learn to live with and deal with as we have for the past nearly 37 years.”
This week’s sudden arrest is the first major breakthrough in a case which has confounded cops for decades.
But cops have never stopped trying to solve the cold case codenamed Operation BUTE – which is run by a 28-strong RMP task force.
Innocent Katrice was shopping on November, 28, 1981, with mum Sharon and aunt Wendy at the Schloss Neuhaus NAAFI supermarket on the day she vanished.
Her dad Staff Sergeant Richard Lee, of the King’s Royal Hussars, now divorced from Sharon, was posted at the sprawling base in West Germany along with thousands of other soldiers at the height of the Cold War.
The small shop – about the same size as a local COOP – was rammed to capacity that Saturday as it was the last payday before Christmas.
While mum Sharon was paying for party treats she realised she had forgotten crisps, so asked Katrice’s aunt to watch the youngster while she went to get some.
When she got back Sharon’s “lovely little child” was gone.
Retelling that fateful day her life changed, Sharon revealed last April said: “If you wanted your English goodies that was the time to get them.
“Katrice being a normal two-year-old wouldn’t sit in the trolley, so I carried her all the way around the NAAFI in my arms doing my shopping.
“When we got to the checkout I suddenly realised I’d forgotten crisps. We were having a small tea party that afternoon for her birthday.
“I put her down at the check out and I said to my sister just keep an eye on her while I go back to the crisps stand.
“It wasn’t far away, it took me about 40 seconds, a minute at the most.
“When I got back to the checkout I said to my sister, ‘where is Katrice?’
“She said, ‘I thought she was with you, she ran off and followed you?’
“I retraced my foot steps,I went back down the aisle I’d been down and she wasn’t there.
“Panic started to set in – I couldn’t see her anywhere – there was so many people. I was calling her name.”
A female copper was in the store at the time – Sharon went straight to her and explained the situation.
They both started hunting desperately as anxiety built up.
Sharon added: “We did a complete search of the NAAFI and we couldn’t find her.
“Katrice couldn’t be found –she wasn’t there.
“She was gone in a matter of seconds.
“It’s living a nightmare that you never wake up from.”
The case fell to RMP and German police who wrongly assumed Katrice – who was wearing red wellie boots, a turquoise duffle coat and tartan dress – had wandered off and tragically drowned in the nearby River Lippe, which was heavily flooded at the time.
Despite hunts, divers scouring the river bed and a round of dredging the search proved fruitless and the case went cold.
Sharon since became convinced her darling daughter was snatched.
In February 2000 following an internal review, the RMP reopened the investigation.
It led to the arrest and questioning of a former soldier – who was released without charge.
But just three years later – and still with no answers – the case was suspended again.
Then in 2012 the RMP decided to reinvestigate the case afresh to ascertain if new DNA techniques could help solve the case.
Desperate RMP cops – now fearing Katrice did not drown but was snatched – even went to the FBI in America for tips on the massive investigation.
In February 2017, the case was featured on BBC’s Crimewatch, which focussed on the owner of a green saloon car.
Using specialist “age progression” techniques an e-fit was released of a man who was seen at the NAAFI holding a child similar to Katrice getting into the car.
The car was seen again on the River Alme Bridge, Paderborner, Str, the next day, sources said.
Cops have never ruled out the possibility Katrice could still be alive, insisting the search is just one line of enquiry.
She had an eye condition in her left eye that would take two medical operations to correct, she would now be in her 30s.