Katrice disappeared from a military shopping centre in Paderborn, Germany, on November 28 1981 – her second birthday. Mother and daughter had gone to the NAAFI store to buy items for a party while her father, Richard Lee, a sergeant in the King’s Royal Hussars, waited in the car outside.
“My husband drove us. We couldn’t find a parking space, so he waited in the car while my sister Wendy, Katrice and I went inside. It was packed with people as it was the last Army pay day before Christmas. Katrice didn’t want to sit in the trolley – she demanded to be carried, and I held her while we did the shopping.”
Then she disappeared. “We had reached the checkout,” recalls Mrs Lee. “We had started putting our shopping on to the conveyor belt. As I was getting the items out I realised I had forgotten to get crisps for the party. I put Katrice down and said to my sister, 'Just watch her while I nip back and get them.’ ”
“The shop was jam-packed full. Wendy was putting stuff out on the conveyor belt. I didn’t want to push back through the crowds carrying Katrice, so I just asked Wendy to watch her for two minutes. It was as simple as that.
|Together: Katrice Lee with her older sister Natasha|
“I don’t blame Wendy,” she adds. “How could you blame her? Why would you think that your daughter was going to disappear that morning when you were just out on a family shop for her birthday? It should have been a joyous occasion.
“Wendy didn’t deliberately let her run off. It is just one of those things that children do. Even when they are standing with their parents, children still run off to look at something. When I left Katrice with Wendy she may have seen me run down the aisle and may have followed me. I don’t know. Who knows what’s in the mind of a two-year-old? Maybe she thought Mummy was having a game with her and she followed me. I don’t know. All I know is that after I put her down, I never saw her again. That was the last time I ever saw my daughter.”
When she came back, Katrice wasn’t there. “The panic hit me. I ran around, calling her name. She was gone. Vanished.”
The rest of the day was a blur. A military policewoman was at one of the other checkouts and radioed for assistance. Soon a full-scale search was under way.
“I remember very little else about that day. My life was changed forever; it was the beginning of a waking nightmare.”
From the start, the military were convinced that Katrice had simply wandered off. “They thought I hadn’t kept a proper eye on her. I remember soon after she disappeared, the Royal Military Police came to our married quarters. They were friendly but I’ve come to wish I’d said nothing. They asked me whether Katrice liked ducks and I quite innocently said, 'Yes, of course, don’t all children like ducks?’
“Looking back, that seems to have sealed my daughter’s fate. The Royal Military Police and the local German police decided that she had walked out of the shop and wandered to the nearby river and fallen in and drowned.”
Yet that explanation would have involved Katrice walking out of the shop on her own, down a ramp, across a busy car park, through a hedge, and along the river. “No one had seen her do this,” says Sharon. “But that is the only explanation they would allow. They searched the river, they couldn’t find her, but days and days were lost. They would not acknowledge that there could be any other explanation. Nothing we said would shake them from their conviction that she was a lost child.
“It was six weeks until they interviewed the cashiers in the shop. One of the cashiers came forward 20 years later and said she had never even been spoken to.”
The original investigation never considered the possibility that Katrice might have been abducted. The NAAFI was not inside a military compound, and there was no security surrounding it. It was on a civilian street. But the case has never been classified as a crime by the local German police.
When the theory that Katrice had wandered off produced no leads, Mrs Lee believes the military closed ranks to ensure that there was no suggestion that it failed to investigate the case thoroughly.
“We attempted to raise awareness of Katrice’s disappearance,” says Sharon. “We tried to arrange a collection to put money up for a reward for information. We intended to launch the collection to coincide with a planned visit by Princess Margaret. But at the last minute, the royal visit was cancelled and all the men, who had intended to help us raise the money, were confined to barracks.”
She claims that she has also seen an internal military assessment of the family, written by an Army psychologist, which dismisses Mrs Lee as a “woman of low intelligence”.
“We were treated without empathy or humanity. It was like we were an irritation, interrupting the strict discipline of the military. We had lost our daughter but we were in the way. They thought we should move on. Forget it. Not ask too many questions.”
Sharon, 59, a former HR manager from Gosport, Hampshire, and retired Sgt Major Richard Lee, 63, from Hartlepool – who has described his daughter’s disappearance as an “open wound” – divorced 20 years ago but remain united in their fight for the truth about what happened to Katrice.
They are also heavily involved in a support group for the families of other missing children, which includes Madeleine McCann’s parents Kate and Gerry.
Last week, defence minister Mark Francois wrote to the family acknowledging the failings in the case. In a statement, Mr Francois said: “The Royal Military Police have now acknowledged that the previous investigations were flawed, and have sincerely apologised to Katrice’s family for these failings.”
A letter to Iain Wright, her father’s MP and a former children’s minister, goes further. Mr Francois wrote: “As you know, I met with Mrs Sharon Lee on 13 December… At that meeting, Brigadier Bill Warren, the Provost Marshal (Army) acknowledged that the previous investigations were flawed.”
He added: “During the meeting, the Royal Military Police also discussed the current state of play on the work under way to better understand the actions taken by the police in 1981, and provided the family an opportunity to feed in their own thoughts and recollections from this period to the Senior Investigating Officer.”
“Mark Francois has been brilliant,” says Mrs Lee. “He is coming at it as a family man rather than as someone from the Ministry of Defence. He seems to have great sympathy for us as a family and what we have been through. He is the first person from the MoD in 30 years who was prepared to sit and meet with us and listen to what we had to say.”
She adds: “After so long, it is nice to finally hear that I am believed, that I am no longer being dismissed as a crazy woman who won’t go away, won’t move on.
“We still have had no explanation as to why we were not taken seriously, and why the Army tried to put the blame on us. We were dismissed as a family who failed to look after their daughter. From the beginning, there was a lack of humanity, a lack of care. One senior officer, just after Katrice disappeared, actually accused me of a lack of care of my daughter and said I had a 'terrible cross to bear’.
“At our meeting with the minister, we learnt that an investigator who came to our house the day Katrice disappeared to collect her pyjamas – to give her scent to the dogs – claimed that the only person in our quarters was our daughter Tasha. It was officially recorded that we had left our other daughter alone. But it was totally wrong. Our daughter was not alone. We wouldn’t have let her out of our sight. I was there, her best friend was there, other members of the family were there. But by recording this, it was as if someone was trying to emphasise the idea that we were negligent parents. That I was a bad mum, and the whole thing was my fault. That we didn’t care properly for our children.”
Natasha Lee, 38, was just seven when her sister disappeared. “But I still have vivid memories of my sister. I remember she was bright and bubbly. Cheeky. She used to follow me around. We shared a room most of the time. I was very proud of her. I was proud of being a big sister. Then she was gone.
“I remember my mother that day. After Katrice disappeared, I remember how she cried. The terrible sound she made. It haunts me.”
Natasha had stayed at home with her uncle that morning. Not being with them, there to look after her little sister, has left Natasha with an irrational feeling of guilt.
“I have terrible feelings about not going with them. No matter how much I tell myself it’s not my fault, I still feel guilty. That day robbed me of a normal childhood and of my sister, and the chance to grow up with her. She was only just two. Her personality was just starting to come through. Her disappearance has left a hole in my life. I look in the mirror and wonder if she looks like me. If I look like her.”
Both Mrs Lee and Natasha believe that Katrice was abducted. They live in hope that some day they will find out what happened.
“I believe she’s alive somewhere and that one day we might find her,” says Natasha. “She might not want to know me. I’d be OK with that. I just want to know she’s OK.”
“I hope that she was taken by someone who couldn’t have children,” says Mrs Lee. “I hope that whoever took her, loved her like I do, and brought her up and that she is happy somewhere.”
Last night, Iain Wright MP called on the Prime Minister to intervene in the case. He said: “This is not a political question. The answers to what happened to Katrice are almost certainly in Germany. I want David Cameron to talk to the German government and to get their help.
“After 30 years, the family deserve to know what happened to their daughter.”