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‘Maria’ case brings hope, heartache to mom of boy believed kidnapped by Romas in ‘91

  • needham1.JPG

    The adorable boy was not quite two when he disappeared.

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    Kerry Needham knows that if Ben is still alive, he almost certainly has no idea of his real identity. (Photos courtesy of Needham family)

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    Ben Needham would be 24 on Oct. 29. Above are two artist's conceptions of what he might look like.

Word of a blonde girl named Maria turning up in a Greek Roma camp has consumed Kerry Needham with both hope and heartache.

The British woman has suspected for more than two decades that Romas, also known as Gypsies, abducted her 21-month-old boy, Ben Needham, from the Greek island of Kos on July 24, 1991.

The 41-year-old mother has never again seen Ben, who would now be 24, and concedes he wouldn't know his true identity. But hundreds of tips over the years have described sightings of the boy at Greek Roma camps, similar to the one where Maria was found. Even though DNA shows Maria’s mother is a Bulgarian Roma woman who sold her, Kerry Needham says it shows the shadowy community’s willingness to traffic children.

"This proves the theory I've had all along -- that Gyspies illegally take children, for whatever reason."

- Kerry Needham, suspects son was abducted by Gypsies

"This proves the theory I've had all along -- that Gypsies illegally take children, for whatever reason," Needham told FoxNews.com. "And it gives me hope." 

It was a hot July afternoon when Ben was playing outside the farmhouse his grandfather was renovating in the picturesque town of Psalidi on the island of Kos. The boy's grandparents had recently moved from England to Greece, and Kerry, a single mom, had moved there temporarily with her toddler son. Ben, described as a mischievous boy who loved to laugh and dance, was digging with his grandfather's tools in the sandy dirt outside the doorway of the house and pouring water on himself to keep cool under the hot sun. Kerry Needham's parents were watching the child, while she worked as a waitress at a nearby hotel. Needham's mother saw Ben near the doorway, as she prepared lunch for the family. Less than five minutes later, he could not be heard, so the woman stepped outside to check on him.

"She went outside and he just wasn’t there," Kerry Needham said. "My parents searched the property, shouting his name. The area where he went missing is open farmland where you could see for miles. They looked everywhere."

The Needhams quickly reported Ben's disappearance to Greek authorities, who Kerry said did very little to find the boy.

"Even now, after all these years, I still cant believe how they were. There was no panic. There was no urgency. They didn’t even go knocking on doors," she said. "I just believe that they didn’t know what to do."

The case received major publicity in the U.K., and tips of possible sightings of the boy began pouring in. Builders in the area of Psalidi reported seeing a white car with two men and a woman driving near the farmhouse at the time of the disappearance.

"From very early on, we were given information regarding Gypsies," Needham said. "We asked police to check this information and they said "No, Gypsies do not steal children. They have enough of their own. Why would they want to steal children?'"

Needham said it's possible her son was taken with the intention of selling him to a wealthy Greek couple unable to have children. But given the high-profile nature of the case, Needham said that plot was likely nixed and that her son was probably kept with the Romas. 

"They couldn't sell him because of the publicity around it. People would recognize him," she said. "I still believe that Ben is still living with Gypsies and that he doesn't know anything about himself. They don’t watch television and they don’t read newspapers. They're illiterate."

The discovery of a child, known as "Maria," in a Greek Roma camp has Needham and other families hopeful police worldwide will probe such camps for trafficked children. The Greek Roma couple with whom Maria was found with first claimed to be her biological parents but DNA testing proved they were not. The girl's mother was tracked down in Bulgaria, where she told authorities she did not sell her child, but willingly gave her up because she couldn't afford to keep her -- a claim authorities have called into question. 

"I know he's alive," Needham said of her son, who loved to eat eggs and cucumbers and play with toy cars. "If I could speak to him now, I would say, 'I have loved you since the day you were born. I have never given up looking for you and I never will."

"'I want you to know who you really are,'" she said.

If you have information regarding this case, contact Cristina.Corbin@foxnews.com