By John Leicester And Jill Lawless, The Associated Press on December 15, 2023.
LE PECQ, France (AP) – The vehicle’s headlights silhouetted the exhausted teenager walking alone in the rain in deepest rural France, with a skateboard tucked under his arm.
“I said to myself, “˜That’s strange. It’s 3 am in the morning, it’s raining, he’s all by himself on the road between two villages,” delivery driver Fabien Accidini recounted.
From there, the story gets stranger still. The youngster, it turned out, was Alex Batty, a 17-year-old from Britain who had been missing since 2017.
British and French authorities confirmed on Friday that the teenager found by Accidini this week was the boy who vanished at age 11, when his mother and grandfather took him on what was meant to be a short family holiday in Spain.
Instead, it turned out to be a six-year-odyssey through Morocco, Spain and southwest France, living a nomadic, off-the-grid life. Batty told French investigators that they moved from house to house, carrying their own solar panels, growing their own food and living with other families in what the teenager described as a “spiritual community,” French authorities say.
But Batty suddenly popped up again this Wednesday, on the remote road where Accidini found him, after he and his mother parted ways. A French prosecutor said Friday that the teenager decided to go his own way after his mother told him that she wanted them to move yet again – to Finland.
“When his mother indicated that she intended to leave for Finland with him, this young man understood that this journey had to stop,” the prosecutor, Antoine Leroy, said at a news conference in the southwestern French city of Toulouse.
He said Batty walked for four nights – resting during the days – and fed himself with “different things that he found in fields or gardens” before Accidini picked him up and delivered him to the safe keeping of French police.
The mother, Melanie Batty, has probably left for Finland, Leroy said. And the grandfather, David Batty, is thought to have died about six months ago, he said. Both are sought by British police in connection with his disappearance.
Accidini said he spotted the teen alone in the rain with a flashlight, a rucksack and his skateboard. The deliveryman stopped “and asked if he was OK, what he was doing there, if he needed help and if he wanted me to drop him in a village,” Accidini told French broadcaster BFMTV.
Initially, Batty was suspicious, giving a false name, Zac, but he was also “very, very tired,” Accidini said. So he climbed aboard and they got chatting while Accidini finished his round.
“Once he felt reassured, he gave me his real name and told me that he had been kidnapped by his mother five years ago,” Accidini said. The teen added that he “then spent time in Spain and that he’d been in France for the past two years in a spiritual community that was a bit strange with his mother who is also a bit strange, a bit loopy.”
“He’d had enough. He said, “˜I am 17. I need a future.’ He didn’t see a future for him there.”
In a separate interview with La Depeche, Accidini said Batty “told me that he had been walking for four days, that he’d left from the mountains. He didn’t really know where.”
“He was very thirsty when I picked him up. I gave him some water.”
Batty used Accidini’s mobile phone to send a message to his grandmother. Accidini showed it to BFM. It read: “Hello grandma it is me Alex i am in France Toulouse i really hope that you receive this message i love you i want to come home.”
In the U.K., Greater Manchester Police said Batty has since spoken by video call with the grandmother, Susan Caruana.
“Whilst she is content that this is indeed Alex, we have further checks to do when he returns to the United Kingdom,” Assistant Chief Constable Chris Sykes said.
He said police were “still establishing the full circumstances around his disappearance and where he has been all these years.”
Sykes said Batty would return to relatives in Oldham, near Manchester, in “the next few days.”
“Our main priority now is to see Alex returned home to his family in the U.K.,” Sykes said.
Lawless reported from London.