LARISSA, Greece – The lawyer for the Roma couple accused of abducting the little blond, blue-eyed girl who has become known around the world as “Maria” says her clients say the girl’s real mother is a Bulgarian Roma prostitute.
Christos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, said they were Maria's parents until DNA tests revealed they were not biologically related.
Now the couple says that a prostitute and her pimp/boyfriend, “Michaelis,” were looking for a home for the unwanted baby among local Roma families and they could not resist the urge to help the baby, according to their lawyer Marietta Palavra, who spoke to NBC News in an exclusive interview.
‘I cannot just leave it’
Palavra, who at times became emotional during the interview, said the couple initially did not want the infant Maria because they already had five biological children of their own.
Palavra said Salis, who police say had been arrested for armed robbery in the past, was adamantly opposed to taking in another child. He said he felt it would be like "bringing a bomb into the home” because eventually people – and police – would notice, and ask questions.
But Palavra says his wife, Dimopoulou, persisted, once she held the baby who they say was brought to their home by both the Bulgarian woman and her boyfriend.
"She saw that it looked like a Barbie doll, an amazing Barbie doll. And it was crying in her arms," Palavra said. "And she thought, 'I cannot just leave it. I don't want it to die or to fall into very bad hands. That's why I decided to take it.' That is what she said."
The last time the couple saw the biological mother, they say was about a year ago when she stopped by to see Maria and wave to her.
The couple’s version of events comes amidst reports that DNA taken from the girl does not match anyone in Interpol’s global database of missing people in 190 countries, officials said.
One of their own
The child was well cared for by her new family, Palavra said, insisting there is no evidence she was ever sent out begging, as the charity currently caring for her has speculated.
Palavra described a heartbreaking scene when Maria was removed from Salis and Dimopoulou – saying it took several police officers to separate her from them. When one officer gave Maria some chocolate to try to calm her down, allegedly the first thing she did was to give some to Dimopoulou, in an attempt to comfort her.
Their lawyer said the couple has been extremely worried about Maria, and crying in jail where they could now stay for close to a year, awaiting trial. She said that while Dimopoulou had not stayed in touch with the biological mother, she had a phone number for the boyfriend Michaelis, and spoke to him from jail Sunday.
But since then, Palavra said both the mother and Michaelis have been unreachable.
"Probably because the biological mother of Maria is in panic, too," Palavra said.
Police would not confirm local news reports that they are now actively seeking a Bulgarian woman in the case – but they did agree in a phone interview with NBC News that the couple's story "could be possible."
"Most of the Roma people here have not gone to school, at all," Palavra said. "This couple doesn't know the alphabet….They could not even write their own signatures.
“When the investigation started, they didn't know what to do. They felt a lot of pressure and panic, so they started making up stories.”
Since then, Palavra said, they have given investigators extensive detail about their story, including detailed physical descriptions of both people allegedly involved.
No match yet
But, what about the 14 children, in total, that police have said Salis and Dimopoulou officially registered as their own? And have collected thousands of dollars each month in state benefits for? Palavra declined to respond, saying police are investigating that.
Palavra said she feels the need to be the voice of this family whose story she has come to believe.
"As a mother first, and a lawyer second, I would never have taken the case if I believed they had stolen this child. I would have actually accused them, and felt bad about them for doing so."
If the couple's story does turn out to be true, this would of course mean that Maria had not been abducted – and is not some other desperate family's missing child.
"If the biological mother can be found, first of all, all over Greece and all over the world there will be relief that this girl will have an identity,” said Palavra. “Secondly, what the couple is saying, that they didn't steal the baby, will be immediately proven, though they are accused of other kinds of crimes, like illegal adoption. But a lot of parents around the world will know that this is not their missing child."