Shannon Matthews is a name you'll have been very familiar with back in 2008, after reports of the abduction of the 9-year-old became headline news across the country. As the case unwound, with the youngster disappearing from her hometown of Dewsbury, it emerged after 24 days of Shannon being missing that her mother, Shannon Matthews, had plotted the kidnap in conjunction with her boyfriend's uncle, Michael Donovan.
In the years since, the BBC turned the shocking case into a true crime drama in their show, Moorside, and now Channel 5 is examining it closely with new documentary, The Disappearance of Shannon Matthews, airing this evening (10 February). The programme is expected to feature never-before-seen interviews with key witnesses as it untangles the messy and traumatic case. So what actually happened? We take a look back at the news story that shocked the nation...
Shannon goes missing
Shannon was reported missing on February 19, 2008, after having last been seen outside her school, Westmoor Junior School in Dewsbury, west Yorkshire. She had been on a swimming trip, but after realising she had not returned home, her frantic-sounding mother, Karen Matthews, contacted the police.
As the hours since Shannon was last seen increased, missing posters began to pop up and concern began to heighten. Local residents, led by Karen's friend Julie Bushby, began carrying out their own searches alongside 250 officers and 60 detectives who were deployed in the hunt for the little girl.
The search extended to 3,000 local houses, with 1,500 drivers around the local area also being questioned. It was the biggest police inquiry in the area since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and is thought to have cost £3.2million to run.
Three 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.
The Sun offered a reward of £20,000 on 1st March, 11 days after Shannon's disappearance, for anyone who could provide information about the little girl's whereabouts, but upped this to £50,000 another 11 days later, on 12th March.
While Karen Matthews made several public appeals for the safe return of her daughter, there were a couple of people 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 X-Box. 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 Brown, 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 realised 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'."
But Karen's response was baffling, Natalie recalls. "Karen turned around and said: 'Look she's famous now, she's on TV. Don't worry, she's coming home'.
The fact that Karen also spoke to the press against police advice also bugged Natalie. The police had specifically told her it could put Shannon's life at risk, so when Karen went outside her house and made a statement to the awaiting reporters, Natalie was shocked.
Shannon is found
On March 14, 2008, after 24 days missing, Shannon Matthews was found. She was discovered alive, hidden in the base of a divan bed at a house occupied by Michael Donovan in Batley Carr, West Yorkshire. Michael Donovan just so happens to be the uncle of Shannon's stepfather, Craig Meehan. Donovan, who was born Paul Drake, had learning difficulties, with an IQ of around just half the national average.
Shannon had reportedly been tethered to the bed and drugged with sedatives to keep quiet. Further tests revealed Shannon had been drugged for up to almost two years before her disappearance. Officers discovered her after a tip-off from neighbours who reported hearing a young child's footsteps which they hadn't heard before.
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."
Police arrested Donovan on the scene, and charged him with kidnapping and false imprisonment, but during police questioning, the then 39-year-old reportedly yelled: "Get Karen down here! We'd got a plan. We're sharing the money – £50,000."
Following a police investigation, Shannon's own mother, Karen was also arrested, and on April 8, 2008 she was charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice. It's thought Matthews and Donovan had plotted to release Shannon after a while, and to later 'discover her', take her to a police station, and then claim the reward. Not that it sounds like a particularly foolproof plan; you'd imagine it might have roused suspicion if the mother of a missing child was the one to come forward and claim the reward money upon her daughter's return home.
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."
In the years since
Following a trial at Leeds Crown Court which began in December 2008, both Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan were sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
Karen served only half of her sentence, and is thought to have earned money during her time in prison by writing letters to male pen pals outside of prison who would send cash in exchange for the thrills they got from the notes.
Karen, now 45, cut and dyed her hair upon her release from prison and moved to the south of the country where she is believed to be volunteering in a Christian charity shop, having reportedly turned to Christianity. But after having been photographed by the press while in her probation house, she has since changed her identity completely.
In a 2018 interview with The Mirror, Karen Matthews went on to speak out for the first time about life after several years in prison, telling the paper she was "scared [she'll] die lonely and alone".
Going on to insist she's innocent of plotting to kidnap her own daughter - despite having been found guilty and serving a prison sentence for the crime - Karen Matthews said: "I’m not Britain’s worst mum. I didn’t kill anybody... From the start I didn’t know where she was. Others were involved. I didn’t have a clue.
"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."
Following the traumatic experience she had as a child, Shannon Matthews was taken into care, and given a new identity and family. She's now 22 years of age. There's a special order in place which prevents anyone (mainly the press) from contacting her, but her grandparents June and Gordon Matthews spoke to the Daily Mail about having seen a recent picture of their granddaughter, who they described as "beautiful."
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.
Craig Meehan, although apparently not involved in the kidnap plot, was later found to have been in possession of child pornography, for which he was sentenced to 20 weeks in prison. The child pornography was not thought to be related to the Shannon Matthews case, but Meehan went into hiding following these charges, and was spotted out in public for the first time last year. He was reportedly seen buying beer and scratch cards, before retreating into a bookies.
Michael Donovan was released in 2012 after also serving just half of his sentence. Little is currently known of his whereabouts.
Julie Bushby stayed in contact with Karen for the duration of her imprisonment. According to prison letters written by Karen to Julie, the friend used to buy clothes and luxuries for the shamed mother. Julie is reported to have said of her friend: "I felt sorry for her then, and I still feel sorry for her now".
The other friend to feature in the BBC's Moorside drama, Natalie Brown, feels very differently, however. "When the truth came out I was angry, frustrated and confused," she said. "I was her friend for four years and I just thought, 'Why didn't you come to me and tell me what was going on?' We could have sorted it out before it got to that mess."
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