On May 3, 2007, an incident took place which drastically changed a group of people’s lives forever. It wasn’t long before the entire United Kingdom, and then whole world, found out what happened. Dramatic accounts reported by the media meant the public swiftly came to their own conclusions about this tragic case.
The case I’m referring to is the disappearance of 3-year-old English girl Madeleine McCann while on holiday in Portugal. Madeleine’s disappearance prompted the largest search for a missing person in history. Pretty much everyone knows her name. To this day, she is the most famous missing person in the world.
This piece isn’t going to be about Madeleine, however. It’s a very different story I’m going to tell here: that of Shannon Matthews. I began this piece describing Madeleine’s case because if Madeleine hadn’t disappeared, it’s likely Shannon wouldn’t have either. This case has always fascinated me and I can’t wait to tell you about it.
The Moorside Estate
Moorside Estate is located in Dewsbury Moor, North Yorkshire. The area was once a hub for the heavy wool industry and much of the community was employed in factories producing items such as rope and war uniforms. The wool industry began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s and many factories closed, resulting in an increase in unemployment. With that, social problems and crime in the area also rose.
By the 1980s, the area was depressed and showing signs of deterioration. The lack of work opportunities available meant families were largely dependent on government benefits. Young people left school with no plans for the future and soon turned to crime.
In the early 2000s, the situation in Dewsbury Moor was bleak. Many residents, particularly the elderly, felt unsafe walking around the council estates. The government acted accordingly, investing large sums of money into revamping the area. Residents of the council estates saw more police posted on their streets in an effort to reduce crime, and large sums of money were put into creating a greater community feel, for example, by installing picnic tables, benches and play equipment for children. Dilapidated homes were restored. The Moorside Estate became a desirable place to live for those seeking council housing.
Shannon was born September 9, 1998 to Karen Matthews and Leon Rose. Shannon was Karen’s third child. Karen and Leon broke up in 2001, and Leon took Shannon’s older brother to live with him in Huddersfield, about 9 miles from Dewsbury. Due to ‘domestic issues’, Shannon saw little of her father when she was young.
Karen was 28 when she moved into a house on the Moorside Estate (I believe in 2003) with three of her children, including Shannon. Her other three children lived with their fathers. Karen met 18-year-old Craig Meehan, who worked as a fishmonger at a local supermarket, on the estate and the two became involved. After just a few weeks, Craig moved in with Karen and her three children. Karen soon became pregnant with her seventh baby.
Karen never had much direction in life, leaving home when she was just 16 following a fight with her parents, Gordon and June, whom she did not see for a number of years after that. However, Karen took baby Shannon to live with them for several weeks after she was born. Living with her grandparents initially gave Shannon a good start in life; having raised seven children of their own, Gordon and June were no strangers to babies and toddlers and were extremely dedicated grandparents. They knew Karen struggled to provide for her children and wanted to do everything they could to help. After Karen moved back home, however, the level of care and attention Shannon received fell drastically.
From late 2002 to 2003, Shannon and her siblings were on the council’s at-risk register, meaning Karen was constantly monitored to ensure her children were safe and being adequately cared for. However, in 2004, Shannon and her siblings removed from the register, when social workers advised that the children were not at risk of any serious harm. Social workers would always notify Karen before they were planning a visit, meaning Karen always had time to prepare before they arrived. She would buy real food to fill the fridge and kitchen cabinets with and clean the house.
Karen was neglectful of her children from the beginning. In fact, they were her main source of income; the more she had, the greater the amount of child benefits she received. Karen would receive £286.60 weekly, and this amount would increase each time she had a new baby. Instead of spending it on her kids, she would buy cigarettes, beer and pizza. The children were rarely given real meals and lived on a diet of mainly crisps, chocolate and bags of sweets. Karen did not buy diapers when her children were babies, instead using plastic carrier bags she would make into diapers with tape. She spent her days watching television and playing video games with Craig.
Unsurprisingly, Shannon resented living with her mother and Craig. They regularly argued, which often ended with Shannon running to her bedroom in tears. Shannon longed to leave her mother’s home and live with her father. Beneath some peeling wallpaper in her bedroom, she had scratched the words ‘I want to live with my dad’.
February 19, 2008
Shannon woke that morning and for a brief moment had forgotten the fight she had with her mother and Craig the previous evening. She had sworn at Craig and left the house, running to her uncle’s home up the street. Shannon enjoyed spending time with her cousins and begged her uncle to let her stay at his house that night. Her uncle refused and had his 10-year-old daughter walk Shannon home. Shannon cried the whole way back.
That morning, however, Shannon had something she was actually excited about. Her class at Westmoor Junior School were going to Dewsbury Sports Centre to go swimming. Shannon got ready for school, grabbing her bag with her swimming gear as she left her bedroom. She went downstairs and almost immediately the argument with her mother began again. Shannon left the house as Karen yelled ‘don’t come back!’ and slammed the door behind her daughter.
Shannon and her classmates were taken to the sports centre by bus and enjoyed their time at the pool. The bus drove them back to the school, dropping them off in front of the building at 3:10pm; this was reported as the last time Shannon was seen. She said goodbye to her friends and began walking the half-mile home. However, Shannon never made it home. At 6:48pm, Karen Matthews called 999 to report her daughter missing.
Shannon Is Missing
Day 1 (February 19 - Evening)
Police arrived at Karen’s home at approximately 7:15pm. Only Craig and the other children were home; Karen was out searching for Shannon. Karen arrived home, clearly upset as she sat down to answer questions from the police. She was adamant that Shannon would not have run away. Karen was convinced that Shannon had been abducted by a stranger and wouldn’t leave of her own volition because she was happy at home. Karen repeatedly said, ‘I know she is out there somewhere’.
Police travelled to Leon’s home in Huddersfield to see if Shannon might have gone there. Six months before Shannon disappeared, she would regularly visit her dad, which she enjoyed very much. However, following an argument over money, Karen cut Leon off and wouldn’t let Shannon see him anymore. Leon was devastated to hear Shannon was missing and immediately drove to Dewsbury Moor to join in the search.
Neighbours soon showed up at Karen’s home, curious to see what was happening. Once they found out, they also joined the search. Many searched the estate and the surrounding area until 4am, but there was no sign of Shannon. Authorities and searchers became particularly concerned for Shannon’s welfare as temperatures dropped to –9 °C that night.
By the next day, February 20th, there were 200 police officers searching for Shannon. They knocked on doors, questioned Karen’s neighbours and checked in any places they thought a child might hide. The hills and moors surrounding the estate were combed carefully for any signs of Shannon. There was an increasing concern that she had not run away; authorities had to face the very real chance that she had been abducted.
Julie Bushby, head of the Tenant’s Association, took the organisation of the civilian search for Shannon into her own hands. The Dewsbury Community Centre became the central hub for civilian searching for Shannon. The public were determined to do anything they could to help find Shannon; many dropped everything to participate in the search.
Police returned to Karen’s home to speak further with Karen and Craig and try to gather any information that might aid the search. Chief Superintendent Barry South held an emergency press conference. It had only been 9 months since Madeleine McCann had gone missing on holiday in Portugal, so missing children cases were fresh in the minds of the public. Chief Supt. South assured the public that police were doing everything in their power to locate Shannon safe and well and that all available resources were being used.
Police warned Karen not to speak to the media, as it could be harmful to the investigation and put Shannon’s life in further danger. Karen disregarded the warnings however; later that evening, she came out of the house onto the front porch where a large crowd of reporters had gathered. On camera, she clutched a teddy bear and pleaded that her ‘beautiful princess daughter’ come home.
Karen’s best friend, Natalie, became suspicious of her almost immediately, claiming Karen never referred to Shannon as a princess. When she asked Karen if the bear belonged to Shannon, Karen replied that she didn’t know.
The night came and went and there was still no sign of Shannon.
By February 21st, over 200 residents from the Moorside Estate and the surrounding area joined in the search for Shannon. Missing posters were put up around the estate and volunteers wore T-shits with ‘Have you seen Shannon Matthews?’ printed on them.
The Sun newspaper offered a reward of £20,000 for information leading to Shannon’s safe return. A local business in Huddersfield also offered up £5000.
One Week Missing
By February 26, the search had grown, now including behavioural experts, a dedicated team of scientists, mountain rescue teams and specially trained victim recovery dogs. There was still no clues as to Shannon’s whereabouts.
Two Weeks Missing
Both Karen and Leon spoke at another press conference. Karen wore a ‘Help Find Shannon’ T-shirt and once again carried the teddy bear as she posed for pictures. She appeared noticeably unemotional and flat compared with how she had acted in previous press conferences. She continued to voice her belief that Shannon had been abducted and was out there alive somewhere.
1500 motorists, 3000 houses, 250 officers/60 detectives were involved in the investigation, with nearly two thirds of the UK’s victim recovery dogs used to search homes in the estate and those on Shannon’s route to school. The search for Shannon became the largest police investigation to take place in West Yorkshire since the Yorkshire Ripper investigation 30 years before.
The longer Shannon was missing, the more people speculated about what could have happened to her. There were rumours that Craig was violent towards Shannon. Both Leon and Karen defended Craig however, insisting he had nothing to do with Shannon’s disappearance.
With the help of Karen, police put together a complete set of Shannon’s fingerprints. They also obtained DNA profiles from Karen and Craig, and Shannon’s siblings, and with that were able to retrieve Shannon’s full DNA profile.
Karen and Craig assisted detectives in putting together a family tree of the Matthews family. Police aimed to make a visit to each person on the family tree. This was a slow process; there were more than 350 individuals to get through. They attempted to narrow down the list of individuals to those whom they believed to be persons of interest.
Police were tipped off about individual whom Karen and Craig failed to mention to the detectives. This was Craig’s uncle Michael Donovan, who lived less than a mile from the Matthews home. Donovan was known to be somewhat of a loner. He did not work, having sustained a head injury in a car accident, and relied completely on disability benefits.
It was assumed that Karen and Craig just forgotten about Donovan, given there were so many other names. There was something strange, however; Donovan hadn’t once participated in the searches for Shannon even though he lived so close by.
March 14 2008
Detectives planned to visit Donovan’s home that morning. By this point, the investigation was looking bleak. Police had knocked on over 700 doors and spoken to countless friends and relatives of Shannon, but they were no closer to finding her than they had been on the day she went missing.
Detectives Townsend and Kettlewell arrived at the block of flats where Donovan lived in Lidgate Gardens, Batley Carr. They knocked on Donovan’s door, but nobody answered. They tried a neighbour’s door, and were informed that Donovan should be there as his car was parked outside and he drove everywhere we went. They made their way downstairs, knocking on the door of the flat below Donovan’s. A woman answered and told them she had heard Donovan walking around his flat that morning. She also told them that in the past few weeks, she had heard what sounded like a child shuffling around the flat and assumed that Donovan’s new girlfriend must have a child. This put the detectives on alert and they immediately called for backup.
Shannon is Found
Unable to get anyone to answer at Donovan’s flat, police officers kicked down the door and entered into the silent hallway. They searched for any signs of human presence, checking doors and looking in each room. Eventually they came across one door which was locked, and they kicked it in. The room smelled of fresh cigarette smoke. At that moment, they heard a soft whimpering coming from under the bed, then the words: ‘Stop it, you’re frightening me.’
The bed was a divan style bed with drawers underneath and solid sides. When two officers tried lifting it, they couldn’t get it off the ground as it was so heavy. Then something moved on the other side of the bed. A small girl crawled out from one of the drawers at the bed’s base. The officers couldn’t believe their eyes. She tried to stand, but was woozy and disorientated. Detective Kettlewell swiftly picked her up and headed for the door with her in his arms. He asked her where Donovan was and she replied that he was also under the bed.
The officers peered through the crack from the drawer. Donovan was huddled tightly in the corner. They yelled at him to come out, but he wouldn’t move. There on the spot, he was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping. Police eventually managed to get Donovan out from under the bed, but he wouldn’t go calmly. He shouted and kicked the officers as they dragged him to the police car. Neighbours had gathered on the stairwell, watching and yelling at Donovan as he was dragged off.
One neighbour saw Detective Kettlewell carrying a girl down the stairs and asked if it was Shannon. He replied that it was, and that she was physically alright. Shannon was put in the back of another police car and reassured that she was safe. She was driven to the police station where she would be looked after. She was placed under police protection and taken into emergency care by social services.
A forensics team set up a tent outside of the Donovan’s building. They dusted the inside of the flat for fingerprints and took swabs for DNA. They discovered a long white tether coming down from an opening in the ceiling. Following it up, they found it was tied to a beam in the roof. When Donovan went out, he would tie it around Shannon’s waist to restrain her. It was long enough that she could reach the bathroom and the bed. Under the bed where Shannon was found was a supply of the tranquilliser temazepam and travel sickness medication melcozine. They also found £600 in cash and the latest Sun newspaper, announcing that the reward for information leading to Shannon’s safe return was now at £50,000.
They also found a list of rules which Shannon had to abide by in the flat while Donovan was out. It read:
You must not make any noise on bang your feet.
You must not go near the windows.
You must not get anything or do anything without me being here.
Keep the TV volume (low) only up to 8 or lower.
You can play the Super Mario games and you can play some DVDs and you can play the CD music.
IPU stands for ‘I Promise U’.
After the Discovery
Hold your horses. This story is far from over.
News that Shannon had been found travelled quickly. Julie Bushby was at the Dewsbury Moor community centre, the hub for the search for Shannon, when she got the phone call. Soon, everyone was hugging each other and crying tears of joy. Residents of the estate were calling and texting each other and the news spread fast. Karen’s neighbours came running to her house, shouting that Shannon had been found. On hearing the news, Karen froze at first and then burst into tears.
Residents of the estate as well as people from further afield came to join in the celebration. Many came out of their houses, taking to the streets where they cheered and tore down the missing posters.
Police went to Karen’s home to confirm that the news of Shannon’s discovery was true. Craig cried, and Karen turned her head away to conceal her emotion. The police offered to drive them to the station to see Shannon, which they accepted. When they arrived at the station, they were informed that they wouldn’t be able to see Shannon face-to-face in order to preserve forensic evidence. They observed Shannon, who was calm and a bit confused, through a glass barrier. Karen’s behaviour seemed off. She didn’t cry or display any kind of emotion you would expect from a mother whose daughter had been missing for 24 days. Instead, she stared, her face expressionless, at Shannon. All Karen said was, ‘she’s got new clothes’.
Meanwhile, those from the Moorside Estate who had dedicated so much of their time to finding Shannon were still celebrating. Shannon’s school was notified and teachers held an impromptu assembly, in which they told Shannon’s schoolmates that she had been found safe. Many were so relieved they burst into tears. Once the children returned home from school, a full blown party erupted in the estate. There was copious drinking, loud music and even fireworks. Everyone was overjoyed. Karen and Craig were not in attendance, however, as they had been put up in a hotel so they could have some relief from the press.
Michael Donovan, Shannon’s captor, sat in the Halifax police station with his lawyer putting together a statement. He explained that Karen Matthews was the mastermind of the whole thing: her plan was that Donovan would keep Shannon at his house while Karen pretended she was missing. Once the reward money for Shannon’s safe return had reached £50,000, Shannon would be ‘found’ and Karen and Donovan would split the money. The reward money had reached £50,000, but before Karen could tell Donovan what to do, he was arrested. Donovan told detectives he did not want to go through with it at all, but that Karen had threatened that she knew people who could kill him if he did not comply. He insisted that he had never hurt Shannon and had looked after her, buying her toys and clothes.
Donovan met Karen at the wake for Craig’s father, where they bonded over many drinks. Donovan and Karen seemed cosy that night, and there were rumours that the two were having an affair.
Shannon was doing well, but remained in the care of social services. Each day, she would have 10-minute sessions with a police officer specially trained for questioning children in a room set up in a classroom style.
On March 17, Donovan was charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and committing acts intended to pervert the course of justice. He appeared in Leeds Crown Court by video link from his prison cell on March 26. His trial date was set for November 11.
After the initial relief felt by the residents of the Moorside Estate, people became more confused by Karen’s behaviour. She didn’t seem happy that Shannon had been found, wasn’t asking when Shannon would be coming home and didn’t express any contempt towards Donovan for kidnapping her daughter. Karen’s friends and others who had spent time with her began to discuss with one another Karen’s behaviour while Shannon was missing. One of Karen’s closest friends, Natalie, remembered how Karen had acted while Shannon was still missing, and said the following during a later interview with the BBC:
"It was like a normal day at Karen's. Her and Craig were laughing and joking, playing computer games, like I'd just popped in for a brew. I was dying to get her on her own but it was impossible. Craig never left her side and if it wasn't him, there were always others around. They'd be having conversations and if I walked in they'd all go quiet."
Chief Superintendent Barry South first met Karen before a media appeal. He spoke of Karen appearing relaxed and nonchalant when there were no reporters around, but once they appeared, she snapped into the role of an anxious mother. He said:
"I remember thinking whether she was autistic because she was laughing and smiling. Immediately I thought, 'Something's not right with this woman'."
Karen and Craig were told by police that Shannon would not be able to return home until they had completed their questions and carried out tests on Shannon to see if she had been abused while she was with Donovan. Karen still failed to show any concern for her daughter, simply answering with a short ‘okay’. Police told the press that this was in Shannon’s best interests and they wanted to keep her in emergency police protection until they had fully established what happened to her. However, the real reason they were not letting Shannon go home was Michael Donovan implicating Karen in his statement.
Then on April 2, Craig Meehan was arrested on suspicion of possessing child pornography discovered by detectives on his computer. They had seized the computer during the search for Shannon. On April 3, Meehan was remanded in custody and charged with 11 offences of possessing indecent images of children.
After Craig’s arrest, Karen’s friends didn’t know what to think. They did not know about Donovan’s statement, but they were becoming increasingly suspicious of Karen, and whenever they tried to ask her questions about what happened, she would brush them off.
Julie and Natalie got in touch with DC Freeman, who had also been the Matthews family’s police liaison officer during the search for Shannon. They told her they planned to get Karen to talk, and DC Freeman agreed to help them. She had also found Karen’s behaviour since Shannon had been found very odd.
The women gathered in DC Freeman’s car; Karen sat in the front, avoiding eye contact with her friends.
Natalie said: ‘Look Karen, I'm not going to beat about the bush. There's a lot of stuff I've seen you do and say, none of it adds up to me. You know I know there's something going on.’
Julie asked if she had been involved in Shannon’s disappearance.
At that, Karen burst into tears and wailed, ‘It’s true’.
Karen is Arrested
On April 6, Karen was arrested on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice. On April 8, she was charged with perverting the course of justice and child neglect.
Michael Donovan and Karen Matthews were both gave different accounts of what had happened. They both implicated the other as the mastermind of the kidnapping.
Police came to the conclusion that this was what had happened in terms of planning the kidnapping:
Karen asked Donovan to meet her at a local café. She explained to him that she would pretend her eldest son was missing, while Donovan kept him captive in his home. Donovan refused; he hadn’t even met her eldest son. Karen decided Shannon would be a better option, mainly because she was a girl, and Karen thought she would likely attract more attention and a greater sum of reward money quicker.
Karen told Donovan that she would report Shannon missing, and once the reward reached £50,000, she would instruct Donovan on what to do next. Karen had written up her plan on a piece of paper. She gave it to Donovan and once he had learned what he needed to do, he would flush the paper down the toilet. Donovan insisted that he wanted no part of it, but Karen threatened that she knew men who could kill him. He agreed to do what she said. Karen never admitted her part in the scheme to police.
Karen’s other children were subsequently taken into care. Karen’s house sat vacant and was boarded up. Her neighbours, feeling shocked and betrayed, began vandalising the house. They couldn’t believe that Karen could carry out such a heinous act on her own child. Shannon’s friends and family grieved for Shannon, who they would never see again.
Shannon and Donovan were both tried together at Leeds Crown Court on November 11 2008. The trial lasted 3 weeks. During the trial, it came out that the temazepam and melcozine had been used to tranquilise Shannon while she was being held at Donovan’s home. Even more shocking were the toxicology tests showing that Shannon was being drugged for up to 20 months before she was kidnapped.
Karen cried the whole time she gave evidence and denied having anything to do with Shannon’s kidnapping. According to Karen, Craig made her take the blame. She told the court that she was scared of Craig and felt she had to do what he told her to.
The jury found Karen and Donovan both guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. They were each sentenced to 8 years in prison. They were both released in April 2012, after serving less than half of their sentences. Karen was relocated to the south of England and given a new identity and a make over. Karen was immediately recognised, regardless of the make over and the public were outraged at the level of care that was taken to keep her identity private.
An investigation into Kirklees social services was carried out, to find out whether more could have been done to protect Shannon and her siblings. The decision by social services to remove Karen’s kids from the council’s at-risk register was scrutinised. In June 2010, they put out a review, which stated that: ‘there was no way professionals could have predicted that this abduction of Shannon would take place at the hands of her mother. The only way to avoid it from happening would have been to remove Shannon from the home and there is no evidence to suggest that this was justified on the basis of professional knowledge about this case.’
Shannon and her siblings were each given new identities and placed separately in new foster homes. We do not know why Leon, Shannon’s father, or her grandparents, Gordon and June, were not granted custody of Shannon.
Shannon Matthews and Madeleine McCann
Unsurprisingly, these two cases drew many comparisons from the media and the public. Police were quite certain that Shannon’s kidnapping was inspired by Madeleine’s disappearance. DS Andy Brennan, of West Yorkshire Police, said:
"Madeleine McCann gave them the idea - the fund money. Clearly the McCann case was still in everybody's mind. Karen Matthews is pure evil. It's difficult to understand what type of mother would subject her own daughter to such a wicked and evil crime."
The British class system was also deeply scrutinised; it was widely believed that the level of attention and the amount of reward money the cases received was influenced by the girls’ family backgrounds. This belief is in no way unfounded. An article in The Independent showed that, as of March 13, the day before Shannon was found:
‘UK newspapers published 168 stories on Shannon's disappearance, while in the first 21 days after Madeleine's disappearance from her holiday apartment in Portugal, UK newspapers produced 539 articles.
In the same period, the reward fund for Madeleine's safe return stood at £2.6m. Contributors included celebrities such as entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, author JK Rowling and footballer Wayne Rooney.
The cash reward for Shannon's return currently stands at £50,500, after The Sun newspaper yesterday increased its contribution from £20,000 to £50,000. The remaining £500 represents the savings of 66-year-old Winston Bedford, a neighbour of Karen Matthews who offered the money because he was unable to participate in the searches for Shannon.’
Detectives also investigated claims that Kate and Gerry McCann had been receiving phone calls and emails from Karen’s family asking for money from the Find Madeleine McCann fund to assist in the search for Shannon. Kate and Gerry were on the verge of donating £25,000, when police involved in Shannon’s case advised them against it.
The craziest thing about this case is that Karen having Shannon kidnapped was inadvertently the best thing she’d ever done for her daughter. Shannon actually told social workers that during her time in captivity at Donovan’s, she was happier than she was at home.
Shannon’s home life was miserable; she was neglected and used for child benefits by her mother. Karen never had any interest in her children, beyond the money she received as a result of having them.
I hope that wherever Shannon is now, she is happy.