On a cold February evening in 2008 Karen Matthews reported her nine year old daughter, Shannon, missing. Shannon was last seen outside her school, about half a mile from her home in West Yorkshire. This report led to one of the strangest “missing” cases the UK had ever seen.
The police response was massive from the very start. Karen’s friend Julie started to organize local searches. The community pulled together to try and find this lost little girl. The whole country was gripped by the story, hoping she would be found safe, as soon as possible.
A few days after her disappearance, police detectives revealed that Shannon had expressed a wish to leave home and had scribbled a note on her bedroom wall which said she wanted to see her biological father more frequently. Officers stated that they were “gravely concerned” for her safety.
While searching the woods and parks in the area ‘victim recovery dogs,’ that specialize in finding bodies, were brought in to aid the with search. They searched over 3,000 homes and spoke to 1,500 passing motorists.
The outpouring of support from the public was huge, with a well-known supermarket chain giving the family free food and paying towards the printing costs of flyers and t-shirts. The Sun newspaper offered a £20,000 reward leading to her safe return, and made it up to £50,000 on March 5th.
Whilst Karen Matthews made several public appeals for the safe return of her daughter, there were some who were suspicious about the mother’s occasionally questionable behaviour. The family liaison officer assigned to the case, Detective Constable Christine Freeman, was one of those people.
Speaking to The Telegraph in 2017, Freeman recalled how she felt like something was a bit odd from the get-go. “When I got to the house Karen and her boyfriend, Craig Meehan, were playing on an XBox. Karen hardly looked up,” she said. “After a few minutes my phone rang. I had a pop song as my ringtone and Karen got up and started dancing to it. I remember thinking ‘this is really odd’.”
Detective Constable Freeman wasn’t the only one to suspect something unusual was at play; Karen’s close friend, Natalie, also began to doubt the authenticity of her friend’s story.
“Karen came to stay at my house and when the TV cameras weren’t around I realized that it was as if she didn’t care. She was back to her normal, happy self,” The Mirror reports she said.
“Something just wasn’t right. I remember one time, Karen wanted to watch the news and Shannon’s picture came on the TV. My oldest daughter said: ‘I can’t wait for Shannon to come home.’ I said, being the honest mum I am, ‘well, it’s not guaranteed she’s going to come home so we need to prepare ourselves if that happens’.”
Karen’s response, however, was baffling, Natalie says. “Karen turned around and said: ‘Look she’s famous now, she’s on TV. Don’t worry, she’s coming home’.”
The police had told Karen not to speak to the press, as it could put Shannon’s life in danger but she ignored these requests and went outside to give a statement to waiting reporters. Natalie was shocked.
“Then 10 minutes later I’m standing in the kitchen making the kids’ tea and Karen is on the telly doing a live interview.”
“I went storming round and said, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ and she just said ‘Please Natalie, don’t shout at me’.”
Shannon’s mother said she believed her daughter was snatched by someone close to the family. Asked if she thought someone she knew was responsible, she told the BBC: “It seems that way because there’s no trace of her at all. There’s no trace of her swimming costume, her towel or anything.”
“The family don’t feel safe any more – it has broken the family apart,” she said, fighting back tears.
“It makes me think I can’t trust the people who are really close to me any more.”
Mrs Matthews said she was happy with the police investigation and accepted detectives needed to examine the criminal records of family members.
This whole time Karen Matthews played the tearful victim, pleading for the return of her “beautiful princess daughter.”
Three weeks into the search Chief Inspector Graham Armitage of West Yorkshire Police said: “It’s the biggest investigation of its kind now, it’s certainly the biggest missing persons inquiry since the Yorkshire Ripper, which I also worked on.”
It is estimated to have cost £3.2million.
24 days into being missing, Shannon Matthews was found on the 14th March, hidden, tethered and drugged under the bed in a house lived in by Michael Donovan. Michael had a low IQ, learning difficulties, and is the uncle of Shannon’s stepfather, Craig Meehan. A tip-off came from neighbours that heard a child in the property that they had never seen or heard before.
“I couldn’t see Shannon’s face – she was covered up. She was clinging to the officer for dear life” said one onlooker.
Police arrested Michael and during questioning he reportedly yelled “Get Karen down here! We’d got a plan. We’re sharing the money – £50,000.”
Thankfully, family liaison officer Christine Freeman confirmed that “Shannon was totally oblivious, bless her. She didn’t realise what was going on, which was probably a good thing.”
In excerpts from her police interviews, a detective asked Karen if she called 999 as “part of an act to make it look like she was missing, when she really knew she wasn’t missing” and she was seen to agree with this statement. It’s also claimed that Karen said, while crying: “People will hate me for what I’ve done. I’ve disgraced the kids.”
During the trial it came to light that Shannon had been drugged for up to almost 20 months before her disappearance.
On the 27th November, Karen Matthews gave evidence. Sobbing throughout, she denied having anything to do with her daughter’s disappearance, claiming that Meehan told her to ‘take the blame’ for what had happened. She said she did so because she was scared of him. In cross-examination, Julian Goose QC said that she had told police a total of five versions of the story and accused her of “telling lie after lie, after lie.”
On the 4th December 2008, Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan were found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. The plan had been for Donovan to release Shannon at Dewsbury Market, drive around the corner to ‘discover her,’ then take her to a police station and claim the £50,000 reward. This would be split between Donovan and Karen On 23rd January 2009.
Both were sentenced to eight years in prison.
Craig Meehan was convicted of possessing child pornography, which was discovered on his computer during the investigation, but had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
Karen Matthews was released in April 2012 after serving half. She was given a new name for use in public, although authorities did not consider her mentally capable of maintaining a completely new identity and she will retain her real name for engagement with officials.
In a recent interview Karen has spoken out for the first time about life. Living alone in the south of England after having been relocated following her prison release, 43-year-old Matthews said she’s “scared [she’ll] die lonely and alone.”
“I’m not Britain’s worst mum. I didn’t kill anybody… None of it’s true. I’m on the edge. From the start I didn’t know where she was. Others were involved. I didn’t have a clue,” she said. “You can’t kidnap your own child. I know the truth and I wasn’t involved in it. I still have nightmares thinking that it’s all going to happen again.”
Shannon was taken into care and put with a new family. She is now 19 years old, and there is a special order in place preventing anyone from contacting her.
Karen’s other children – she’s reported to have seven (including Shannon) by five different fathers – were also taken into care and given new identities.
The BBC went on to dramatize the whole event in “The Moorside.”