Posted on October 21, 2013

First Pictures of Gypsy Couple ‘Who Snatched Little Maria’ as They Appear in Court Accused of Abduction and Face up to 20 Years in Prison

Ben Spencer et al., Daily Mail (London), October 21, 2013

These are the first photographs of the gypsy couple who appeared in court today charged with abducting Maria, a young blonde girl whose identity remains a mystery.

Hristos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, have been held in custody pending trial after responding to the charges behind closed doors in Larissa, Greece, this afternoon.

The couple, who face a sentence of ten to 20 years in prison if convicted, deny snatching the girl and say they took her under their care after her mother handed the girl to them shortly after giving birth.

‘It was an adoption that was not exactly legal, but took place with the mother’s consent,’ Constantinos Katsavos, one of the lawyers for Salis, told reporters, adding that is what the couple testified in court.

The couple were also charged with procuring false documents, while Salis faces separate charges, together with other people from the settlement, for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offences.

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 photos released today show authorities seized a haul of goods including a range of chainsaws, a pen-style pistol with bullets as well as drugs.

The evidence photos also show credit cards which are believed to be stolen, alongside a pistol and a balaclava.

Police grew suspicious about Maria because she bore no resemblance to the couple claiming to be her parents. DNA tests showed she is not related to Salis and Dimopoulou.

Today a dental test revealed she is between five and six-years-old–after previous estimates had put her age at four.

At the weekend a charity caring for the girl said she was treated like a ‘dancing bear’ by the family she lived with–who exploited her innocent looks, making her beg for money.

Yesterday a video was released showing Maria dancing reluctantly for a crowd. 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.

Today Greek media are reporting that Maria’s DNA is being compared with DNA samples from people in seven other countries.

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.

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.’

‘We’re talking about a woman who could not raise this child and who gave it to the couple in 2009 through a third party shortly after her birth,’ a lawyer for the couple, Marietta Palavra said at the weekend.

‘There has been no kidnapping, no robbery, no trafficking,’ insisted her colleague Konstantinos Katsavos, who also represents the couple.

‘They did not buy the child,’ he said.

‘We know the (girl’s) parents are from Bulgaria,’ Marios Sainopoulos, a representative for the Roma community in Greece, told Skai TV on Monday.

‘The mother gave the child away because she could not raise it… the child was not kidnapped,’ he insisted.

Police allege the woman claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for.

Police said the family received more than £7,000 a month in benefits for the 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.

According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of Greece’s 300,000 Roma are illiterate.

They are already stereotyped by some in Greece and elsewhere as social outcasts, thieves and beggars – and now they fear they will be stigmatized as child traffickers as well.

The case ‘doesn’t reflect on all of us,’ said Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community.

Police have raided dozens of Gypsy settlements across Greece in the last few weeks, including four more camps Monday in Athens and Thessaloniki.

The state-run Athens News Agency reported Sunday that police were investigating hospitals and childcare agencies for possible child trafficking, suspecting a ring operating between Bulgaria and Greece.

‘The police are investigating every possible angle,’ a spokeswoman at the local Larissa police station told AFP.

In January 2011, police arrested more than a dozen people in the two neighbouring Balkan countries, for the trafficking of newborn babies to Greece.

In that case it was Roma babies who were being trafficked. The ring arranged for pregnant Bulgarian women, primarily of Roma origin, to give birth in Greece with their babies then sold off in illegal adoption procedures.