Disappearance of Katrice Lee: How the investigation has unfolded

Katrice Lee, the daughter of an Army sergeant, was only two-years-old when she disappeared in November 1981.

Who is Katrice Lee?

Katrice Lee was born on 28 November 1979 at the British Military Hospital in Rinteln. 

She disappeared on 28 November 1981 – her second birthday – from a shopping centre near Paderborn in Germany.

The Lee family lived in Schloß Neuhaus, while Katrice's father, Richard Lee, was serving as a sergeant in the 15th/19th King's Royal Hussars in Paderborn.

The two-year-old was born with an eye condition in her left eye, that would have needed two operations to correct. 

What were the circumstances of her disappearance?

Katrice went missing from the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) shopping complex in Schloß Neuhaus, close to Paderborn.

The family was at a checkout in the NAAFI when Katrice's mother, Sharon, realised she had forgotten crisps. 

She asked her sister Wendy, Katrice's aunt, to watch the toddler, but when she returned in what she has estimated was less than a minute, the little girl was gone.

Wendy told Sharon the two-year-old had run after her, and she thought they were together.

The family quickly raised the alarm and searched the NAAFI, shouting out the girl's name, while Mr Lee's fellow service members also helped with the search.

Watch: Katrice's father described the investigation into his daughter's disappearance as a "complete and utter sham" in 2017.

Original search

Both the German police and the Royal Military Police (RMP) carried out an extensive search of the area, with the help of soldiers and volunteers.

The RMP were effectively in charge but had to negotiate with the German police because the NAAFI building was in a German town.

The investigation did not get very far and, despite dragging the local river and conducting house-to-house inquiries, no trace of Katrice was ever found.

Critical of original efforts, Mr Lee has since told Forces News the number of "people on the ground" seemed to "die off" after the first full day of searching for Katrice.

The theories

German police believed Katrice could have fallen into the fast-flowing River Lippe, near to the NAAFI, which was thoroughly investigated.

However, the Lee family always dismissed this theory, stating that Katrice would not have gone near water.

Mr Lee and his family believe Katrice was abducted and taken as a surrogate child. They have been critical of the initial investigation, which focused on the River Lippe.

He said: "I believe the whole investigation has been a complete and utter sham.

"We felt we've always been a bottom feeder in a fish tank."

A road into the complex should have been blocked and names of those inside the complex taken, he said, adding that the "golden hours" for the search were missed due to a focus on the river.

Mrs Lee also complained about the investigation, saying: "It took six weeks for the girls working on the checkout on the day that my daughter disappeared to be interviewed and, in one case, it took 20 years for one of those members of staff to be interviewed. 

"It took 48 hours for border control points to be informed my two-year-old daughter was missing and it took 24 hours for the sniffer dogs to be brought in to the NAAFI to pick up a scent for Katrice."

Katrice Lee Search Paderborn
Royal Military Police search for new evidence in May 2018.

The case reopens twice

The case was first reopened in 2000 under the name Operation Bute.

The BBC's Crimewatch programme mounted a reconstruction of Katrice's disappearance, on what would have been her 21st birthday in November 2000.

A suspect was found but was released without charge and the case was then closed again.

In 2012, the RMP admitted mistakes were made during the first investigation and the case was reopened for the second time.

The RMP reanalysed information gathered during the initial investigation and identified the River Alme as an area of particular interest.

Watch: A number of e-fit images showing what Katrice would look like at certain ages have previously been released.

A new photo-fit

In February 2017, RMP released a photo-fit of a man that they wanted to speak to in connection to the case.

An eyewitness is said to have seen a man, portrayed in the photo-fit, at the time of the disappearance carrying a small child into a green saloon vehicle.

Katrice Lee Man E-Fit
The e-fit released in 2017, depicting a man wanted in connection with Katrice Lee's disappearance (Picture: MOD).

The River Alme

In April 2018, a team of military personnel and civilian forensic experts announced they planned to excavate a stretch of the riverbank along the River Alme.

A review of the evidence had concluded the riverbank was "significant and of interest".

Senior Investigating Officer Warrant Officer Richard O'Leary said a green saloon car, a main focus of the investigation, was also seen on a bridge going over the River Alme the day after Katrice's disappearance.

Excavation of the riverbank started in early May and was scheduled to take five weeks, but the military said investigators were able to conclude work faster than planned.

The British military announced on 29 May they had ended the renewed investigation after finding no new evidence.

Bone fragments were found during the search, but were dismissed by forensic experts as being associated with a child of Katrice’s age.

The site was ruled out of the investigation in June.

Watch: In 2018, Mr Lee said the failed search had only strengthened his family's belief that Katrice was abducted.

The arrest

On Monday 23 September 2019, the Royal Military Police arrested a person in connection with the disappearance of Katrice Lee. 

The man, a former serviceman, was released without charge two days later.

An Army spokesperson said: "The search of an address in Swindon continues and the Royal Military Police are keeping the Lee family informed of developments."

Katrice's father, Richard, said: "This arrest brings it all back and makes it feel raw.

"As with parents in all cases of missing children, we want a happy ending but that might not be the case and we just hope we will get answers."

A woman poses as Katrice Lee online

Heidi Robinson, 40, set up a Facebook profile under the name of Katrice.

Ms Robinson sent a friend request, on Facebook, in August last year to Katrice's sister Natasha Walker.

She continued to pose as the missing toddler, despite the family urging her to take the profile down.

After the DNA test confirmed she was not Katrice, she claimed it was a cover-up.

In October 2019, Ms Robinson was given an 18-week prison sentence suspended for two years with a mental health treatment requirement for 12 months and was ordered to carry out rehabilitation activity for 40 days.

Investigation scaled back

Renewed investigations were scaled back in December 2020 when military police announced they would only react to new lines of inquiry. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed on 3 November 2021 to meet "father to father" with Mr Lee, to assure him his daughter had not been forgotten.

Following the pledge Mr Lee tweeted Forces News, saying: "I have been in this position before.

"Until I am sat in his office l will approach this with caution."

Later in the month, Mr Lee visited the place in Germany his daughter vanished from nearly four decades prior and encouraged anyone with new information to come forward.

He said: "I had two blissful years of Katrice growing up and then she was snatched away from us on her second birthday and that's the tragedy.

"I will now continue to keep Katrice's case, as best I can, in the media so that we can get the answers.

"Without keeping it in the media you will not get the answers."