Military police have released an ex-serviceman arrested in connection with the disappearance a toddler in Germany almost four decades ago.
Katrice Lee vanished without a trace in 1981 while shopping with her mother Sharon for treats on her second birthday in Paderborn, west Germany, where her father Richard was serving in the British Army.
There was a dramatic development in the case this week when military police announced they had arrested a man and were searching the garden of a property in Swindon – 500 miles away from where Katrice went missing.
But the Army announced today that the former serviceman has now been released without charge.
A spokesman said: ‘A former serviceman was arrested by the Royal Military Police on Monday September 23 in connection with the disappearance of Katrice Lee.
‘He has now been released without charge. The search of an address in Swindon continues and the Royal Military Police are keeping the Lee family informed of developments.’
Katrice Lee, (pictured) disappeared from a supermarket near a British military base in Paderborn, Germany on her second birthday while shopping for treats with her mother
Katrice’s father, Richard, says he has never given up hope of finding out what happened to her
Police were seen using specialist ground radar scanners behind the house in Swindon today
A man was arrested in the case earlier this week but has now been released without charge
Katrice disappeared from a supermarket near the British base in Paderborn on November 28 in 1981, her second birthday.
Her family have clung to the hope that she is still alive and, following the update in the case, her father said he hopes it could end their ‘years of hell’ since she vanished.
At his home in Hartlepool, County Durham, Mr Lee, now 69, said today he wasn’t surprised that the man had been released without charge.
He told MailOnline: ‘I have learnt over the years never to get my hopes up. It never gets easier though, when developments like this occur you can’t help but hope it will lead to some answers.
‘We must make no assumptions about the person who was arrested, everyone is innocent until proven guilty and we must all abide by that.
‘I have heard from the RMP yet but I’m anticipating a call soon. I’ll wait and hope to hear that there has been some progress in this case but I can’t help but feel they are still trying to rectify mistakes made back in 1981.’
Officers carrying specialist equipment have been digging day and night for any sign of
Speaking earlier today, he said he had never given up hope the case might eventually be solved.
He said: ‘I have never believed that Katrice is dead. If I didn’t believe that she was alive and somewhere out in the world living and breathing I would not have been able to continue so long in this desperate search for her.
‘I have had to be very tenacious and I really believe that if I had rolled over and given up then everyone else would as well.
‘There are thousands of missing kids out there and we owe to all of them to keep believing, to never give up in our search for answers.’
A forensic team from the Royal Military Police are still searching a property in a row of terraced houses in Swindon and dug up the garden.
Neighbours in the Moredon area of the Wiltshire town have claimed a black package ‘around a foot long’ was found under its patio with officers using specialist equipment to ‘dig through the night’.
Katrice’s parents, who are separated, live in the Hartlepool area in County Durham and are waiting anxiously for news.
Neighbours believe a team digging up the patio have found a ‘foot-long black package’ and taken it away for examination
Royal Military Police are leading the investigation in Swindon – more than 500miles from where the toddler vanished in Paderborn, Germany
Katrice Lee’s parents Richard and Sharon, who have separated, were hoping the arrest could give them answers about their missing daughter
Mother Sharon told Mail Online: ‘It came as a shock to get a phone call telling me there had been a development.
‘As time has gone by this has not got any easier. There is absolutely nothing I can say about the investigation.
‘But I got a call on Monday night out of the blue to tell me about an arrest. the name of the man means nothing to me.
‘My reaction when I got that call was this time I hope I may have an answer after all this time.
‘It may not be the answer I want to hear but it will finally bring me closure.
‘I have been going to work as usual as an administrator because I find it easier to be around friends and work colleagues for support so that is what I have done today.
‘Things have been quite on the investigation for some time so it is good that people are reading about Katrice again Nd the story is out there. It mAkes a reduction to my ordeal more likely.
‘I will never give up hope until there is none.’
A picture of the couple, who are now separated, from the time of Katrice’s disappearance
One neighbour who had been watching the dig told The Sun: ‘Forensic teams in white suits started in the middle of the garden and then began taking up the patio slabs. Around 2pm they found a small black package.
‘It looked like some kind of bag. They stopped for an hour and then continued to dig using tools until late into the night.’
Katrice disappeared from a barracks Naafi supermarket when her father was stationed nearby with the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars.
The store was very busy on the last payday before Christmas and Katrice’s mother, Sharon Lee, had carried her around the shop.
Mrs Lee put her down at the checkout to fetch a forgotten item and asked Katrice’s aunt, Wendy, to watch her.
When Mrs Lee returned less than a minute later the little girl had gone. The aunt thought she had followed her mother back into the shopping aisles.
Probes by both military and German police were criticised by the family for a presumption that Katrice had drowned in a nearby river and for failing to interview witnesses promptly.
German police refused to make an appeal in the press and it was six weeks before the case was reported locally.
Katrice’s mother, pictured at the time, said the toddler was ‘gone in a matter of seconds’
Mr Lee believes the original investigation started on the wrong foot, concentrating on the River Alme nearby.
He said: ‘There was never any evidence that Katrice had gone into the river, none at all but the entire search for her concentrated on that whilst she could have been taken anywhere in that time.
‘There are 29 grids – physical barriers that catch debris – in that stretch of river that was being searched. If she had gone into the water she’d have been quickly found but they never have.
‘I think she was abducted and that she has been brought up as someone else’s daughter. I feel that very strongly and have never given up hope that she’ll be found.
‘Sometimes it’s like living with a torture, your mind turns over and over looking for explanations.
‘I’ve suspected that it was someone on the base, maybe someone in my unit with a vendetta against me, you never stop turning over the possibilities.
‘But it’s the very fact that I can’t let it rest, won’t accept she will never be found that has kept this investigation alive and led to this most recent development.’
Soldiers from the Royal Military Police carry out a forensic investigation in Paderborn, Germany
Richard Lee, left, father of Katrice Lee, listens to a press conference given at the start of the five-week operation in 2018
Mr Lee still clings to the precious memories he had with his daughter.
He said: ‘I am lucky. I have two years of memories with that lovely little girl and I hang on to them. They say that your memories make you but I don’t really believe that.
‘I think it is what I have done with those memories that has made me. I have kept them close and never let them go and that’s given me the strength to keep this going.’
Katrice’s mother Sharon, who has split from Richard, said the toddler was ‘gone in a matter of seconds’. She added: ‘It’s living a nightmare that you never wake up from.
‘Nearly 37 years ago we became members of an exclusive club we didn’t ask for membership of — we became parents of a missing daughter. I would dearly love to be able to revoke that membership.’
When a computer-generated image of what Katrice would look like 19 years later was produced in 2000, people who had not been interviewed came forward, including a young man who had been at the till that day.
A woman also told the police her ex-boyfriend, serving in the same regiment, had confessed to murdering a child.
The man denied this and the girlfriend died soon afterwards.
In 2008, BBC’s Missing Live showed a digital image of Katrice at 29 and her sister Natasha appealed for more information. BBC Crimewatch featured the disappearance in February 2017.
Katrice (left) was out shopping with her mother Sharon at the Naafi store, near to where her father Richard, a soldier, was stationed. Last year the MOD released an impression of what Katrice Lee could look like at the age of 38 (right)
Katrice’s father hopes the update in the investigation will finally give his family answers. After she went missing, police released an e-fit (right) of a man who was seen climbing into a green saloon with a child matching Katrice’s description
A photofit was published of a man seen holding a child like Katrice near the Naafi on the day in question. He had been seen getting into a green saloon car and a car of the same description was later seen on a bridge nearby.
In 2018, military police launched a new probe, considering the theory that Katrice had been abducted, then raised in Europe by another family unaware of her identity.
A five-week dig on the banks of the River Alme in Paderborn was also carried out but no trace of Katrice was found.
The toddler spoke only English when she disappeared and, at 39 now, would be unlikely to remember her early years. She was born with a misaligned left eye, which would have required two operations to correct and had a pink birthmark to the right of the base of her spine.
Katrice’s mother, 66, and father are now divorced but the family continue to campaign for Katrice to be found.
An Army spokesman said: ‘We can confirm that an arrest was made on 23 September by the Royal Military Police in connection with the disappearance of Katrice Lee in 1981.
‘As this is an ongoing investigation we cannot comment further at this stage.’