TODDLING around in her red wellies on her second birthday, Katrice Lee was excited to be picking out sweets.
On reaching the crowded checkout at the mini supermarket, close to a British army base in Germany, her mum Sharon suddenly realised she had forgotten to pick up some crisps.
Richard Lee continues to hold onto the hope that his daughter Katrice could be alive[/caption]
In a scene familiar to many parents, she dashed off, leaving her sister Wendy in charge of the tot by the conveyor belt.
But when she got back just 40 seconds later, Katrice was gone.
Thirty-seven years on her fate remains a mystery — echoing BBC drama The Missing’s second series, in which a young girl vanishes from a base for British forces in Germany.
But this week came “bombshell” news that an unnamed former serviceman had been arrested in connection with her disappearance.
A terraced house in Swindon is being searched by officers, and neighbours reported that an item had been recovered from beneath the back garden patio.
‘I HAVEN’T GIVEN UP’
Yesterday Katrice’s dad, former Staff Sergeant Richard Lee, 69, said: “When I look back to 1981 I never gave up then and I haven’t given up now. I have never believed Katrice is dead.
“If I didn’t believe she was alive and somewhere out in the world living and breathing, I would not have been able to continue so long in this desperate search for her.
“Sometimes it’s like living with a torture, your mind turns over and over looking for explanations.”
Speaking from his home in Hartlepool, Co Durham, he continued: “I think she was abducted and that she has been brought up as someone else’s daughter. I feel that very strongly and have never given up hope that she’ll be found.
“I still believe she is alive and living somewhere. I could even be a grandfather
Richard, Katrice’s dad
“I still believe she is alive and living somewhere. I could even be a grandfather. I’ve not given up hope. I won’t until there is some closure.
“This arrest was completely out of the blue. I’m glad it has happened but I’m very cautious.
“I don’t want to get carried away into thinking this is finally going to resolve things. It’s been too long to think this is the end.”
A member of The King’s Royal Hussars, Richard had been stationed on an Army base near the German town of Paderborn.
Katrice was born in the British Military Hospital in Rinteln, just north of Paderborn, and was very much part of the expat community in Germany.
On November 28, 1981, Richard, Sharon, now 65, her sister Wendy and Katrice went to the Naafi, an Armed Forces-run shop just outside the base.
Unable to find a parking space, he waited in the car while Sharon and Wendy did the shopping with Katrice.
Katrice’s father says it is easy for the new arrest to raise his hopes[/caption]
Specialist teams search the garden of a house in Swindon in connection with Katrice’s disappearance[/caption]
An e-fit released in 2017 of a potential suspect[/caption]
Initially they expected the little girl to turn up, but as the minutes and hours ticked by, the parents were gripped by fear.
Katrice’s only sibling Natasha, who was seven at the time and had been left at home, recalled her parents arriving back and her dad telling her they couldn’t find Katrice.
Natasha, now 44, said: “We went out in the car and I remember looking at my mum and she was just screaming and screaming and I realised then something was seriously wrong.
“I was just sat in the back of the car thinking, ‘Oh my God’, as my mum let out this blood-curdling scream. I’d never heard it before and never heard it since.”
For almost the first two decades after Katrice went missing the Royal Military Police dismissed the case as a tragic accident, believing she had drowned in a nearby river.
But due to the ceaseless campaigning of her now divorced parents, that very same police force is still chasing all possible leads.
We went out in the car and I remember looking at my mum and she was just screaming
Natasha, Katrice’s sister
Richard said: “I have had to be very tenacious and I really believe that if I had rolled over and given up then everyone else would as well.”
The parents’ determination to find their long-lost child mirrors that of the families of Madeleine McCann, who disappeared from a holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, and Ben Needham, who vanished in 1991 on the Greek island of Kos.
The Royal Military Police (RMP) and the German police both believed Katrice had died after wandering into the nearby fast flowing River Lippe looking for ducks.
Their failure to even consider the possibility of a crime meant precious opportunities to find a potential kidnapper were lost.
No picture of Katrice was sent to border police, making it easy to get her out of the country unnoticed, and it was six weeks before any of the shop staff were interviewed. Many nationalities — German, French, Belgian, Polish and British — had been in the shop, so the child’s disappearance should have been treated as an international investigation.
Katrice’s brown eyes did not align properly, so her face would have been distinctive at passport control.
Days of searching the river failed to turn up a body.
Katrice’s parents were convinced the drowning theory was wrong because no one saw their daughter head there and she would have had to negotiate several obstacles.
Richard insisted: “There was never any evidence Katrice had gone into the river, but the entire search concentrated on that. She could have been taken anywhere in that time.”
The tormented father wondered whether someone from the base had snatched his daughter in revenge for something he had done. Over the decades many theories have emerged about what became of the girl in little red wellies, a turquoise duffel coat and a tartan dress.
But Richard’s main belief has always been that a childless person took Katrice so they could have a family of their own.
Katrice’s mother Sharon was with her in the supermarket the day she disappeared[/caption]
Site of the store from where Katrice vanished[/caption]
Ministry of Defence photo of how Katrice might look in her thirties[/caption]
For 19 years the case was ignored, until in 2000 it was reopened and images showing what Katrice might look like as an adult were issued.
A year later, a £10,000 reward was offered in return for information that would lead to her whereabouts.
Both approaches resulted in new witnesses coming forward and one woman claimed her ex-boyfriend, who had been in the same regiment, had confessed to killing a child. But when officers interviewed him in Northumbria, he denied any involvement.
Police concluded he was a fantasist and that avenue closed.
In 2012 an English woman came forward claiming to be Katrice as she never felt “right in her own family”.
But it was established she could not be the missing girl.
Growing anger about the incompetent handling of the initial investigation led to the RMP stepping up their efforts two years ago.
Under the codename Operation BUTE, a dedicated team of officers began reviewing all the evidence.
They issued a photofit of a man seen carrying a child into a green vehicle at the time Katrice went missing and set up social media pages appealing for help.
It looked like there might be a breakthrough last April, when more than 100 soldiers carried out a five-week “forensic excavation” along the banks of the River Alme, which is a tributary of the Lippe.
Bone fragments were uncovered, but to the parents’ relief, tests showed they were not human.
Now the police are digging for fresh evidence in Wiltshire.
Some people have a gravestone to grieve at but I can’t do that, so I have to carry on hoping she is out there somewhere
Richard, Katrice’s dad
Yesterday officers in boiler suits came and went from the house in Swindon and a forensic tent could be seen in the back garden.
The Ministry of Defence yesterday confirmed: “A former serviceman was arrested by the Royal Military Police on Monday in connection with the disappearance of Katrice Lee.
“He has now been released without charge.
“The search of an address in Swindon continues and the Royal Military Police are keeping the Lee family informed of developments.”
Despite the agony of losing his daughter at such a tender age, Richard still finds solace in the two wonderful years they shared.
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He said: “I am lucky. I have two years of memories with that lovely little girl and I hang on to them.
“I have kept them close and never let them go and that’s given me the strength to keep this going.”
He added: “Some people have a gravestone to grieve at but I can’t do that, so I have to carry on hoping she is out there somewhere.”
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