10.29.13 4:10 PM ET
Authorities Test Roma Man To See If He’s Missing Boy Ben Needham
Long before Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ holiday villa in Praia da Luz, Portugal or mysterious Maria popped up in a Roma camp in Greece earlier this month, Ben Needham went missing under mysterious circumstances from his grandparents’ home on the Greek island of Kos. Just 21 months old at the time, the cherubic toddler had been playing near a barn on the property when he was allegedly abducted in July of 1991. The grandparents and older brother periodically checked on him as he played, though no one really noticed he was missing for several hours. Sound familiar? Four years later, a fair-skinned blue-eyed boy about six years old that looked “just like Ben” was spotted by a British tourist in a Roma camp in Salonika on the Greek mainland. The tourist tousled the boy’s hair, pulling out a strand for DNA tests, which ultimately proved that the boy was not Ben.
Now, thanks to Madeleine, Maria and the not-so-subtle persecution of Roma communities across Europe, it would appear Ben may have been found again. Last week, someone handed Greek police a six-month old grainy video of a 22-year-old fair-skinned man attending an Orthodox Easter mass at the Aghia Triada church with his Roma girlfriend and her family and friends in Limassol, Cyprus. Inarguably, the man bears a striking resemblance to age advanced photos of Ben Needham commissioned by his family ahead of his 24th birthday on October 29. The person who gave the video to police said the Maria case had prompted him to turn the video in.
Cypriot police then launched a manhunt for the lookalike, who turned himself in after seeing a television report with his picture and the covert video of him. Apparently, the man says he was from Romania but grew up with adoptive parents. He gave a DNA sample willingly. Results are expected Wednesday, October 30.
If the results prove the man in question is really Ben Needham, his mother Kelly can finally learn what happened to her son 22 years ago. She will have also earned vindication after years of scrutiny. Not unlike the McCann’s, the parents of missing Ben were scorned for having left their child unattended, and they endured countless allegations that they had surely killed their child and covered up their crime by staging an abduction. But Ben’s case did not garner the same support from Scotland Yard as the McCann’s--partly, according to some reports because the Needhams were not of the same social class as the McCann’s. Ben was born to teenage parents who were not married. Ben’s mother, Kerry, worked as a barmaid and Ben’s father was “known to the police” according to press reports at the time. In April, bolstered by Scotland Yard’s reopening of the McCann case —something the police had refused to do in her own son’s circumstance—Kerry Needham penned an autobiography about her struggles as the mother of a missing child. There have been more than 300 Ben sightings since he disappeared, and each time the leads fall through. Each one, Kerry says, is like reliving the day he disappeared. “Every time it wasn't Ben it was like losing him again," she told Melanie McFadyean, who has chronicled the case for The Observer for years.
The use of DNA to confirm cases of missing children is one of the most powerful tools in any detective’s arsenal. And if Ben’s case turns out to solve a 20-year-old missing child case, then such rampant DNA testing will have proven its value. Had the Romanian man, whose name has not been made public, refused to give his DNA to test it against blood samples taken from Ben as an infant, it remains to be seen whether police could have forcibly taken it. He was not accused of any crime. In fact, he is suspected as being a victim. The law is vague, but at least the DNA results will be clear.