The sister of missing Brit toddler Katrice Lee has revealed how their distraught mum let out a “bloodcurdling scream” after the youngster vanished from a German supermarket 38 years ago.
Big sister Natasha, then just seven, says mum Sharon made a terrifying sound “never heard before” after she turned her back for 30 seconds and found two-year-old Katrice had disappeared.
Natasha also describes how her family have been desperate to find out whether Katrice is “dead or alive” since that horrific day – and admits she’s even felt “resentful” of her little sister.
Katrice’s case came back to light this week after military police arrested a former serviceman in Swindon, Wiltshire, over her disappearance then released him without charge.
On the day she vanished, the toddler had been shopping for birthday treats with her mum at a supermarket on an Army base in Paderborn, where their family was living.
But after Sharon lost sight of her daughter for half a minute, little Katrice disappeared without a trace – in a case that has chilling similarities to hit TV drama The Missing.
Speaking to Sun Online in May, Natasha admitted feeling “resentful” of Katrice at times since she vanished – including in the run-up to her own wedding day.
Instead of being focused on Natasha’s big day, her tormented family had their attention on police who were searching a river for Katrice’s body.
Natasha admitted: “Last year, I said I was doing nothing for Katrice and it would be all about me and my wedding. But then they dropped this bombshell they were searching the river for a body.
“It’s terrible to say but I did feel quite resentful.
“It was all going to be about me but was about Katrice again.”
Mum Sharon said the toddler was gone in a matter of seconds[/caption]
House search 38 years after disappearance
Earlier this week, hopes of a breakthrough in Katrice’s disappearance surfaced.
Military police detained a former serviceman in Swindon, while witnesses said officers were digging up the patio at a row of terraced houses in the town.
But the Ministry of Defence today confirmed that the suspect has been released without charge. The force added that “the search of an address in Swindon continues”.
Though they have experienced both hope and utter despair trying to learn Katrice’s fate, the toddler’s family have never stopped seeking answers that will end their heartache.
For Natasha, the terror caused by Katrice’s disappearance has crept into every aspect of her life.
She was “so proud” to be a big sister to the youngster, who with her adorable ringlets and cheeky smile charmed everyone even though she could sometimes be a “little nightmare”.
But instead of celebrating birthdays and family milestones with her beloved sister, Natasha has been forced to live a sheltered life as an only child.
Missing from her sister’s big day
This was no more apparent than last November when Natasha got married – with Katrice missing from her sister’s side as maid of honour.
Instead, boldly standing out against Natasha’s stunning white wedding dress was a single red button from one of Katrice’s cardigans – the only item belonging to her sister she has left.
Every parent’s worst nightmare
Natasha describes Katrice’s disappearance as “every parent’s worst nightmare”.
It was November 28, 1981 – Katrice’s second birthday – and the toddler was taken to the NAAFI store by Sharon, her aunt Wendy and her dad Richard.
As Richard parked the car, Sharon and Wendy headed inside – the “cheeky” toddler refusing to go in a trolley and instead wanting to be carried.
But when they got to the checkout, Sharon suddenly remembered she needed crisps and ran off down an aisle.
She was unaware her youngest daughter had followed her and in the “matter of seconds” Katrice was alone, she vanished without a trace.
Mum’s “bloodcurdling” scream
Natasha, now aged 44 and living in Gosport, Hampshire, said: “My dad came home and told me they couldn’t find Katrice but I couldn’t comprehend it at the time.
“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 bloodcurdling scream. I’d never heard it before and never heard it since.”
We also spoke with other families who have experienced grief, fear, desperation and hope after their own loved ones vanished.
Katrice’s story bears a cruel symmetry with TV series The Missing, which centres around the disappearance of a young girl from a British Army garrison in Germany.
But the youngster – or someone claiming to be her – returns ten years later giving the family closure.
Natasha said: “I didn’t watch it because it was too close to home and I struggle with anything like that because it’s all so real.
“That show had a Hollywood ending but 38 years later, we are still waiting for ours. ”
Chilling echoes of TV's The Missing
THE disappearance of toddler Katrice Lee in 1981 has similarities to the story told in series two of the BBC drama The Missing.
Shown in late 2016, the eight-part series stars David Morrissey and Keeley Hawes as a couple whose daughter Alice vanishes from an British Army garrison in Eckhausen in Germany in 2003.
They work with French detective Julien Baptiste — played by Tchéky Karyo — to find the kidnapper after Alice reappears in 2014.
‘Critical 24 hours wasted by police’
Natasha and Katrice were both born in Germany as Richard – a Staff Sergeant of the King’s Royal Hussars – was posted there during the height of the Cold War.
The pained family have since claimed the Royal Military Police wasted the “critical” first 24 hours of Katrice’s disappearance.
Officers believed the tot had wandered off in her tiny red wellies, turquoise duffel coat and tartan dress and fallen in the nearby Lippe river – but a hunt proved fruitless.
Working under this assumption, they failed to inform border guards and statements from shopworkers and potential witnesses weren’t taken for six weeks.
It took 18 months for the disappearance to reach the British papers and information about an unusual eye condition Katrice had that could have identified her was not made public at the time.
As Natasha bluntly told us in May, her family were left in this position “because of the police”.
The case was reopened in 2000 and led to the arrest of a former soldier but he was released without charge and it was closed again after three years.
Last year, the Army dredged the river in Germany after a witness came forward saying he had seen a man at the NAAFI holding a child similar to Katrice.
He was spotted on a bridge over the water a day after she vanished.
Army’s grisly discovery
But the search only unearthed bone fragments that later turned out not to be human.
For her family, the grisly discovery was bittersweet as they faced more years of torture not knowing whether she is alive or dead.
Natasha said: “Part of me wanted her to be there because then we’ll have an answer.
“But if she had been there, she may have been raped and murdered and dumped. She would have been petrified.”
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Today, following the new arrest, Katrice’s family have been forced to revisit painful memories of the toddler’s disappearance – but they still hope for a happy ending.
“The perfect end for us would be that she lived a happy life and the worst case is that she’s dead – although at least then we would have a grave to grieve over,” said Natasha.
“It’s a horrible Catch 22 to be in. We just want to know if she is dead or alive.”
The Royal Military Police investigation into Katrice’s disappearance is ongoing.
If you are away from home or thinking of leaving, or if you have information about a missing person or a missing loved one, call the charity’s free and confidential 24/7 helpline on 116 000 or email [email protected]