Dancing reluctantly for the crowd, the blue-eyed, pale-skinned little girl looks lost and out of place.

The child, filmed just three weeks ago in the crime-ridden Roma settlement where she was found by police, is now at the centre of an international appeal to uncover her identity.

Yesterday a charity caring for the girl, who is known as Maria and understood to be four years old, said she was treated like a ‘dancing bear’ by the family she lived with – who exploited her innocent looks, making her beg for money.

'Dancing bear': A still from a video taken last month shows Maria in the crime-ridden Greek gipsy camp

‘Dancing bear’: A still from a video taken last month shows Maria in the crime-ridden Greek gipsy camp

Exclusive video taken in September 2013 in the Roma settlement in Farsala, central Greece
Exclusive video taken in September 2013 in the Roma settlement in Farsala, central Greece

Video: The child was filmed just three weeks ago at the Roma settlement in Farsala, central Greece





Mystery: Maria - the 'blonde angel' - was found during a crackdown on illegal activities in Gipsy camps

Mystery: Maria – the ‘blonde angel’ – was found during a crackdown on illegal activities in Gipsy camps



Maria, who the Greek media has dubbed the ‘blonde angel’, is the focus of a global Interpol investigation after she was found in Tabakou gipsy settlement near Farsala, central Greece, during a drug and gun raid last week.

Police grew suspicious as she bore no resemblance to the couple claiming to be her parents. 

DNA tests showed she is not related to Hristos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, who have been charged with child abduction.

They will appear in court today as it emerged that police found a handgun and balaclava at the house where they found Maria.

Around 8,000 inquiries have been made about the girl.

Eight were described as promising, including four from the USA, and others from Sweden, France, Canada and Poland.

The arrested couple’s family have defended two unsettling videos of Maria, saying she was not exploited.

In the first video, from two years ago, she sucks on a dummy as she is made to twirl for the camera, being pushed and manhandled by a laughing Dimopoulou.

As she tries to wander off, the woman seizes her back.

At one point, a young boy tries to join in, but the woman shoves him away.

In the latest footage, she appears with Maria Dimitriou, 21, granddaughter of the gipsy camp’s leader.

Neat and tidy: The room of the girl understood to be aged four is the only bedroom in her 'family's' house

Neat and tidy: The room of the girl understood to be aged four is the only bedroom in her ‘family’s’ house



The woman accused of abducting Maria insisted last night: ‘We did no harm to her. We love her and she loves us.’

Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, who has been arrested with her husband Hristos Salis, told Greek television from her cell: ‘We gave her everything we could, like we do for our other children.’

She admitted Maria was not hers but said she presented her as her own ‘so she could have a proper family environment’.

Salis’s sister Dimitra, 34, told the Daily Mail that Maria had been abandoned by a Bulgarian cotton picker when she was two months old.

At the family’s small stone hut, she said: ‘The woman told us, “Take this baby. If you do not I will just give it to someone else”. She just left and never came back.’

She said they took in the child to protect her, adding: ‘We brought her up well, we loved her.’

Salis’s mother said: ‘The woman who gave birth to her was incapable of looking after her – she did not want her and begged us to take her.’

Mrs Dimitriou told the Mail: ‘Her mother sent her to join us on the stage. She liked dancing – she was not treated badly.’

Maria was ‘filthy and terrified’ when social services took her to Athens-based charity Smile of the Child on Wednesday.

Spokesman Panayiotis Pardalis said: ‘It was obvious that she was not a Roma girl. The little girl was terrified when she first came to us and didn’t talk at all, but she is now calm and has been playing with other kids.’

Director Costas Yannopoulos added: ‘She was living under bad conditions and was very dirty, but is now safe.’

She was released from hospital yesterday, after tests were carried out on her teeth to try to determine her age.

Mr Yannopoulos said evidence so far suggested she had been trafficked.

He told the Daily Mail: ‘In the footage you could see her dancing, going round and round like a little trained bear. I believe they were getting money from exploiting the child.’

Dimopoulou’s daughter Panagiota, 18, who released the footage to local television, defended the video.

Maria likes dancing,’ she said. ‘She was only pushed in the video because she got too close to the camera. There is no way we would use her for money – that is a lie. We took her in because her mother could not look after her.’

Last night family members showed the Mail the house where Maria was found.


They revealed a small but tidy brick home and claimed the only bedroom – with the only bed, a pink bedspread and cuddly toys – was reserved for her use.

A cupboard, again the only one in the house, contained little girl’s shoes and other clothes.

Pictures released by police show the little girl’s blonde hair may have been dyed brown when she was younger – indicating the family may have wanted to hide her difference.

But another daughter Emmannuella, 16, said Maria’s hair turned blonde naturally.

Mr Yannopoulos said it was ‘well known’ that ‘there is a baby-trade conducted by gipsies between Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and England.’

The couple have told various stories – that she was abandoned by a Bulgarian woman, or found on a rubbish tip – but Mr Yannopoulos said it is more likely she is from Scandinavia.

Yesterday residents of Farsala’s gipsy camp claimed a Bulgarian family had made an arrangement with the couple to look after their daughter since she was a baby.

Babis Dimitriou, the chairman of the Farsala village Roma association, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘There was a Bulgarian husband and wife who were working around Greece in temporary jobs, who used to stay here sometimes.

‘At one point they left the girl to be raised by the family here in the village.

‘The family raised the child as if it was their own, although her father would come back every now and then to see her. The last time he visited was only five days ago, after the arrests had been made.

‘All the other Roma here were telling the Bulgarian man to explain to the police that the girl was his, but he has now disappeared.’

Police said the family received more than £7,000 a month in benefits for the 14 children they claimed to have.

Police chief Vassilis Halatsis added that the woman had two separate ID cards and names.

He said: ‘Of the children we have traced so far, just by looking at them you can see that there is very little or no resemblance at all to the parents.

‘It is obvious that we are faced with a very well-organised racket, and it is certainly not the only one.’

Neighbours said the couple gave Maria special treatment because of her blonde hair. One woman, washing children’s clothes in a bathtub, said: ‘She was treasured because she was so beautiful . . . We all loved her.’

Salis’s brother Kostas added: ‘She had problems with her eyes. We took her to the doctor, we took her everywhere. We didn’t take her to sell her.’

Haralambos Dimitriou, 57, president of the gipsy settlement, said any conflicting accounts of how Maria came to the family were given ‘out of fear’.

Marietta Palavra, lawyer for the couple, said: ‘There is nothing but love and care between the Roma parents and the four-year-old girl.’

She said they could each face up to ten years in prison if convicted.

At the weekend a Greek couple who were told in 2009 that their baby was stillborn, but later exhumed the grave to find an empty coffin, underwent DNA tests, but found out Maria was not their child.

‘We were always suspicious and when we got the go-ahead from the local prosecutor to exhume the newborn from a local cemetery, we found no remains, nothing in the casket,’ the father, whose wife is fair with blue eyes, told local television.


DNA is found in almost every cell in the body including skin, hair follicles, and semen. Saliva doesn’t contain cells, but as it moves around a person’s mouth, it collects them.

DNA in blood comes from the white blood cells.

Many of these cells are porous which makes them easy to isolate DNA from.

DNA is found in bones, but because bones are calcified, it makes the extraction more difficult – unless bone marrow is present.

DNA determines eye and hair colour, bone density, height and so on. A large amount, 99.9 per cent of the DNA from two people is the same, yet 0.1% will be unique and this is known as a genetic marker.

A child inherits half their DNA from each of their parents. It isn’t exactly the same half each time, which explains why siblings look different.

The more closely related two people are, the more likely it is their genetic markers will be similar. Identical twins have identical genetic markers, for example.

During parental tests, scientists look for similarities in the genetic markers between two samples taken from the child and the parent.

The DNA is collected, traditionally, using swabs of the inside of a cheek to collect buccal cells.

The strand is isolated from the cells and millions of copies are made, using ‘polymerase chain reaction’. The more DNA available, the easiest the genetic code is to analyse.

By copying the strands, rather than taking new samples each time, it speeds up how quickly the tests can be carried out and why the results can now come back within a day, rather than weeks.

The DNA molecules are split at different points and the code at these points forms a ‘fingerprint’. The fingerprints from the two samples are compared to see if they match.

If the band patterns of the alleged father don’t match, he can be conclusively ruled out as the child’s parent.

In maternal tests, a particular form of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is tested. Both sexes have mtDNA but only women pass it on to their children.

If a daughter doesn’t share the mitochondrial DNA from an alleged mother, they do not come from the same maternal line.

The comparison is repeated to confirm the results and the more probes used; the


The family of missing Ben Needham revealed how Greek police refused to follow up reported sightings of the boy at the same remote gipsy camp where Maria was discovered.

Disappearance: Ben Needham was 21 months old when he vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991

Disappearance: Ben Needham was 21 months old when he vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991


Ben was 21 months old when he vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991.

His sister Leighanna said officers told them it was too dangerous to enter the Roma settlements to look for him – despite witnesses claiming they had seen a child there matching his description.

Ben’s grandfather Eddie, 64, tried to search the camps himself but was forced to stop when he was threatened at gunpoint.

Today his mother Kerry Needham, 41, told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is definitely not a surprise. We have always strongly suspected  Ben’s abduction was gipsy-related.’

She said it has already been strongly denied by Greek police who told her:  ‘Gipsies do not steal children – they have enough children of their own, why would they want someones else’s child?

She said she would also told: ‘It would be impossible to steal a blonde-hair, blue-eyed child within the gipsy encampment. This is proof they are wrong as this girl was turned up with blond hair and blue eyes.

‘We are in very close contact with South Yorkshire police and at the moment obviously they are saying there is no connection with Ben’s case which is fine, we are not saying these gipsies are the same ones that too Ben, we just now need the Greek police to investigate the gipsy community a lot further,’ she told the programme.

‘This case has given us fresh hope and maximum publicity and it is just a matter of time,’ sje saod.

Miss Needham, 20, who was born after her brother disappeared, said: ‘We as a family have strongly believed for a while that Ben was taken by gipsies for illegal adoptions or child trafficking and the discovery of this little girl shows how important it is to never lose hope.’

She now wants her DNA tested against Maria’s to determine whether the child could be related to Ben.

Ben’s father Simon Ward, who wanted the same camp searched, said the case has renewed hopes that his son will be found.

He told the Daily Mirror: “When I first heard I thought ‘Oh my God, yes, they have found her.’ It means this girl’s parents do not have to go through what we have been through.

‘But it also confirms this could have happened to Ben. It could be very important for Ben’s case.

‘It could throw up all kinds of information, and new leads.’

Five years after Ben disappeared, a local convict called Andonis Bedzios claimed he saw a child matching his description in the care of a well-known gipsy family at the Farsala camp and was told they had ‘got him from Kos’. He gave a statement to police which was never followed up.

A taxi driver also came forward to say he had seen Ben, from Sheffield, in his cab with a member of the same family.

But Haralambos Dimitriou, president of the gipsy settlement where Maria was found, said: ‘It is impossible that the little boy was here. At that time it was just tents here – but I would have known if he was here.’

South Yorkshire Police said ‘there appears to be no direct correlation’ between this case and the disappearance of Ben Needham.

In a statement they said: ‘The case of Ben Needham continues to be investigated by the Greek authorities and South Yorkshire Police continues to support his family.

‘No investigation is currently being carried out by the Force in light of this recent case and officers from South Yorkshire Police will only become involved should authorities in Greece require our assistance.’