Ben Needham’s family wept silent tears when police told them they believed he’d died on the day he disappeared - because they thought the officers were there to tell them they’d found him, his heartbroken sister has revealed.
Speaking to The Star at her home in Sheffield, Leighanna Needham said she, mum Kerry and her grandmother Christine had a private meeting with officers from Operation Ben two months before they travelled to Kos to dig for his remains.
Leighanna, aged 22, said: “When the superintendent turned up at the door with the other officers we were all taken aback and we knew it was something serious.
“We thought they were going to tell us they’d found him.
“We were all sat in a line, me, my mum and my nan, holding on to each other. He explained their theory and said a witness had told them Ben died in an accident the day he went missing.
“The tears just silently fell from all three of us and I felt our hands tighten around each other. It was just a blur after they said that.”
But Leighanna has said her family will fight ‘until their final breaths’ to find out what happened to him.
Leighanna vowed their quest would continue after a police dig for his remains failed to uncover compelling evidence of his death.
Officers from South Yorkshire Police recently spent three weeks digging up land in Kos close a farm house where Ben disappeared 25 years ago after a witness contacted them in June to tell them his friend could have accidentally crushed Ben while he was clearing a building plot.
Ben was playing outside the farm house, which was being renovated by his grandparents Eddie and Christine Needham, when he disappeared in 1991.
Police excavated the area around the farmhouse and the site where the digger driver dumped the rubble. A yellow toy car, believed to have been in Ben’s possession that day, was found at the second site - where the digger driver had dumped material from the farm house.
After the dig, DI John Cousins, who lead the investigation, said it was his professional opinion that Ben had died on the day he went missing.
But because officers found no trace of his body his family say they are unable to accept he is dead.
Leighanna said: “The police told us to prepare for the worst. Well, this is the worst case scenario - we are no closer to finding the answers than we were six years ago when South Yorkshire Police took on the case.
“We thought that they were going to find his remains or something that could prove he had died that day. Waiting for news every day was very traumatic and we still don’t know exactly what happened to him.
“We don’t know if we are ever going to find Ben or find out whether he did die on that day. In my mind and in my heart I can’t say for definite that my brother is dead because there is not enough proof for me.
“We will continue fighting for the truth until our last, dying breath.”
Leighanna has since travelled to Greece to see Kerry and hold a meeting with the police to decide what they should do next.
She said: “The police found a toy car which has been shown to my grandparents and my nan bought him the car. She is 90 per cent sure that it is his.
“It was bought on Kos and Ben had his toy cars with him when he disappeared. It is being forensically tested and that should prove or disprove whether or not it was Ben’s.”
Officers believe discovery of the car, which was found at the second site, proves Ben was there.
But Leighanna said: “It doesn’t prove anything. He could have dropped it where he was playing in the mud outside.
“He could have left it in the mud when they have been moving the rubble, it could have got lost in all of that - until we know for sure, it’s a mystery.”
She added: “The police’s theory is based on probable doubt. It is their job to find a conclusion to their investigation and their theory is based on probability.
“They can’t say for definite that Ben died on that day but they say in all probability he did.
“My mum has taken it on board and she knows potentially we are never going to be able to find out the truth.
“She is prepared to fight for the truth whether that means Ben is alive or not - that’s our justice and that’s justice for Ben.
“We won’t be able to accept he died that day until there is definitive evidence. We know there is a chance we won’t get that but that doesn’t mean that we are going to give up.”
Leighanna praised officers from South Yorkshire Police who took over the case six years ago and said they had done an ‘amazing’ job.
She said: “DI John Cousins has lived, breathed, eaten and slept Ben’s case for the last six years.
“He knows it inside out and has studied every last detail. For 20 years we believed Ben had been abducted by a certain gypsy family, they disproved that theory in a few days.
“Operation Ben will continue but not as it is today.
“DI Cousins and Superintendent Matt Fenwick will retain ownership of the case and will look into it if there are any credible leads.”
She added: “The police are heartbroken too that they didn’t find the answer.
“They so desperately wanted to give us some closure.
“As heartbreaking and traumatic as that would have been, we would have been able to grieve and get some sort of relief.”
Leighanna, who is now a mother herself, said being Ben’s sister had defined her all her life and people treated her differently when they found out who she was.
She said: “I have lived in Ben’s shadow all my life but I have my own life as well.
“The thing that keeps us going is that as a family we are incredibly close.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our fair share of fallouts but that’s been just out of sheer desperation. We have a very strong bond and if one of us is down the others pick that person up.”
But she said the latest developments had come as a huge blow, adding: “This has been going on for 25 years.
“My grandparents are exhausted and they carry the burden of guilt they feel that Ben vanished under their care. My grandad apologises to my mum every day.”
Speaking about Kerry, Leighanna, a branch coordinator, said: “She is putting on a brave face but she is still processing things in her head.
“She has had 25 years of it. She brought me up on her own and she has campaigned for Ben. I admire her so much, she is an incredible woman.”
She also thanked the people of Sheffield for their support over the last 25 years.
“Wow,” she said.
“People have been incredible.
“For 25 years the amount of support that we have had has been absolutely overwhelming.
“Ben was a Sheffield boy and the people of Sheffield they want an answer to this and they want to know the truth about what happened to him, too.
“It warms our hearts to know that.”
n The Needhams are supporting South Yorkshire Police media relations officer Hannah Bryan who is running the Boston Marathon to raise funds for the Kos Hellenic Rescue Team - a team of volunteers who put in over 1,000 hours’ work on the recent dig. Visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/hannah-bryan to sponsor Hannah.