Quinta-feira, 11 de Outubro de 2007


FIVE months after her baby vanished from a seemingly safe family holiday home, the media circus had long since rolled out of town.

Penniless and devastated, Ben Needham’s 19-year-old mother Kerry was home alone in her Sheffield council flat, while on Kos – the Greek isle where she last saw her 21-month-old son – efforts to find him had all but ground to a halt.

For Kerry, who has lived for 16 years in the desperate hope of finding her little boy, Madeleine McCann’s disappearance is an agonising reminder of her first weeks and months without him. But while the parallels between the cases are striking, to Kerry it’s the differences that torment her just as much.

There is no sign that police or public interest in the McCann case, which has dominated the headlines ever since that fateful night in May, will fade soon.

This week, in a bid to find her son, Kerry released a computer-generated image of what Ben might look like now that he is about to turn 18.

But she fears it might be too little too late and that the police and the public have forgotten this terrible story in a way the McCanns’ experience never will be.

Kerry believes she knows why. “I think because of their status they have friends in high places and I think that’s why they’ve had the help that they’ve had. Unfortunately we are just an ordinary working-class family and I don’t think people thought Ben was important enough… that’s how it comes across to us.”

The McCanns would almost certainly say that the hugely successful campaign to keep their daughter in the public consciousness was the result of nothing more than teamwork and lateral thinking.
But Kerry – now separated from Ben’s father Simon Ward and married to builder Craig Grist – suspects it has been far easier for the McCanns, as wealthy, middle-class doctors, to maintain a high profile and appeal to their many rich and powerful supporters.

Gordon Brown made an immediate pledge to help the Mc­Canns in any way he could. Prince Charles and Camilla sent a message of support. The Pope met and prayed for them while football stars David Beckham and Christiano Ron­aldo, as well as the McCanns,  made TV pleas for information.

Websites were launched, minutes’ silence fell and the world wore yellow ribbons to keep the search for Maddie alive. The coverage has been extraordinary.

But for Kerry, it has been difficult to watch. “Everybody has bent over backwards with Madeleine McCann, which I am glad of –  they deserve all that help – but so do we, even 16 years later we need that support.

Made­leine’s parents are middle-class people with important jobs and seemed to have had a publicity machine behind them straight away.

“When Ben vanished there was just me, my mum and my dad and we did the best we could to keep the case going but we got very little help from the police or the authorities. The McCanns have been treated differently to us because we are working class. My dad was a builder and that’s basically what it comes down to. And that’s just not fair.”

The Needhams were so poor that, six weeks after Ben went missing, they had to give up their search and sell everything they owned – including almost all of his toys – to pay for tickets home from Greece. All Kerry took with her were a few of Ben’s teddy bears and a set of farm animals.

These she placed in the Winnie the Pooh-themed bedroom which she created for him in the council flat she was given on her return.

“We couldn’t afford to fly so we left by ferry,” she says. “As the ferry pulled away from Kos I wanted to jump overboard and swim back. The hardest thing I did was to leave Kos without Ben.”

But for the McCanns, whose heartbreakingly perfect family portrait is now well known to us all, the after-effect of Madeleine’s disappearance has been quite different. For starters, they have Sir Richard Branson’s £100,000 promise to cover legal costs.

And while both Maddie and Ben’s cases generated huge media coverage at the outset, sadly, interest in the Needhams’ might not have waned so quickly had they not seemed like such a dysfunctional lot.

Ben’s grandparents Eddie and Christine Needham moved from Sheffield to Kos in 1991. Eddie, a burly labourer with homemade tattoos on his knuckles, planned to earn the family income by rebuilding tumbledown farmhouses. They took their sons  Stephen, then 17, and Danny, 12.

Before long they persuaded their daughter Kerry to join them with her boyfriend Ward and their son Ben. Christine, who became a grandmother at 38, said she would care for the baby.

The whole family decamped to the village of Kako Prinari, where Kerry found work in a hotel. But soon after Ben’s disappearance it transpired that this set-up was hardly the idyll they had hoped for.

Ward, 21, an un­employed painter and decorator who was “known to the police”, had fled Kos for Sheffield three days before his son went missing.

He admitted that he and Kerry had split after a row over her fidelity. He had found a note in her handbag from Manos Kamateros, Kerry’s hotel manager, which said: “I want to make love to you. Please!” So Ward went home in a rage after punching Kamateros.

It was hardly a tale to inspire public sympathy and although it was illogical to link the episode with Ben’s disappearance, it unfairly painted them as irresponsible parents and Kerry, like Kate, found herself under suspicion.

Ben went missing on July 24 while in the care of his grandmother.

She had taken him for lunch with his grandfather and uncles at the house they were renovating.

As the grown-ups ate, Ben entertained himself, running in and out of the house. Like the McCanns, the Needhams say they checked on him “every few minutes”. When his uncle Stephen hopped on his scooter and set off for a swim at the nearby beach, Ben, just a baby, toddled after him and asked for a ride.

Stephen said no and pointed Ben back to the house before driving away – but Ben didn’t walk those few yards back to safety and was never seen again.

Even when the family realised he was missing they assumed he had gone to the beach with Stephen and didn’t raise the alarm until five hours later. So, as with Madeleine, no one can pinpoint the exact time he disappeared and, if Ben was kidnapped, the perpetrators had a head-start on their getaway.

As in Madeleine’s case, local police were very slow to respond to the family’s call. Like Kate and Gerry, Kerry and her family conducted the first search of the surrounding area with little police assistance and no helicopter searches were ordered.

It took detectives two days to issue Ben’s photograph to officials at the airport and the harbour, giving kidnappers plenty of time to smuggle him out of the country.

The popular theory at the time was that a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed child would be a prize snatch for gypsy racketeers known to have abducted toddlers in Greece and sold them to wealthy childless couples.

Greek police questioned one woman about her movements when Ben was snatched but Kerry claims that “incompetent” officers bungled the inquiry and has demanded that Interpol review reported sightings of the woman’s car at the remote spot where Ben was last seen.

For Kerry – living without her son and without the knowledge that would allow her to grieve for him properly – it is marginally more bearable if she can believe he is happy and healthy somewhere in the world. If that is true, her baby will turn 18 on October 29.

Kerry has written to Gordon Brown, urging him to review Ben’s case. But unlike the McCanns, who for a time were in regular phone contact with the Prime Minister, she received just a letter in reply.

She says: “I firmly believe that Ben is still out there but if nobody is looking for him we will never find him. We have suffered for 16 years at the hands of the Kos police. They were indifferent to the case from the very start and they were not interested in finding my son.”

But the British were not a lot of help either. “I’m pleased for the McCann family that they had a lot of support, with British police going out there. We didn’t have that. And the British ambassador has helped them. We didn’t get anyone from the British Embassy.”

No one from the embassy in Athens visited the Needhams in Kos and their pleas for Scotland Yard’s assistance were refused because no official request had been made by the Greek police.

“If we had had the help and support that Madeleine’s parents have had we might have stayed in Greece longer,” she says.

Kerry returned to the loneliest life imaginable, forgotten by those who could have helped her to find her boy, dead or alive.

In quiet moments she thought she could hear Ben calling for her and only when she gave birth to his sister Leighanna five years later – after being briefly reunited with Ben’s father – did the overwhelming urge to end it all finally leave her.

Although she still suffers serious bouts of depression, she says she and her family have never – and will never – give up hope.

“The pain of losing him is very much still there but as a family we get that pain and turn it into strength for us to carry on.”


Daily Express

Thursday October 11,2007

publicado por arco íris às 23:44

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