The kidnapping of Shannon Matthews

Girl with outstretched arm and fingers
Image by Martin Adams | Unsplash images

On the 19th of February, 2008, nine-year-old Shannon Matthews was reported missing by her concerned mother, Karen Matthews, after she failed to return home from school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. For 24 days, Karen played the distraught mother, pleading for her little girl to be returned home safely. The search for Shannon would become West Yorkshire Police’s biggest operation since the search for the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, costing a whopping £3.2 million. Her story would capture the nation. However, the investigation would shift focus and reveal that not everybody in the Matthews family had been telling the truth…

When Shannon hadn’t returned home from school that evening, Karen called the police at 6:48 PM to report her missing. West Yorkshire Police launched an exhaustive search for the missing schoolgirl who was described as standing at around 4’1”, slim build with shoulder-length, brown hair. More than 200 police officers were drafted in to assist in the search which quickly became a major missing person police operation. Shannon’s mother, Karen, said that it was completely out of character for Shannon to not return home and said that she had never run away from home before. A child going missing is a traumatic ordeal for any parent and officers were sent to the family’s home to console Karen along with her boyfriend, 22-year-old Craig Meegan, who she had been with for three years.

The first point of action in the investigation was to try and retrace Shannon’s steps and ascertain when she was last seen. They would determine that Shannon had last been seen at around 3:10 PM that afternoon outside Westmoor Junior School, where she was a student. She had been returning from a school trip to the Dewsbury Sports Centre swimming pool. For reasons unknown, Shannon hadn’t walked the usual way home with friends, which was a short trip of just 10 minutes, and had instead, walked in a different direction alone. Her friend, Chloe West, said: 'She got off the bus with the rest of us and we were told we could go home. But Shannon went a different way to the rest of us and we don't know why, but we didn't ask where she was going.'

Dozens of local people joined in the search for Shannon as police made door-to-door enquiries and interviewed all of Shannon’s family and friends. When Shannon was last seen outside the school, she was wearing a black school jumper, a white cotton t-shirt, black trousers, a black coat with fur around the hood and pink and grey furry Bratz boots and locals were asked to keep an eye out for any of these items. A police helicopter hovered overhead searching for some kind of clue which would lead them to Shannon while the underwater search team searched the lake at Crow Nest Park.

As the hours passed and the temperature dropped, the concern for Shannon’s well-being escalated. Overnight, the temperature was below zero and fog engulfed the area, hampering the search. Speaking outside the family’s home the following day, Karen made a tearful plea for her daughter to return home: 'Shannon, you are a princess in every way, come home. Shannon, you are not in trouble, darling, please come home. This is the first time Shannon you’ve done it, we don’t know why baby, but we love you.' She went on to describe her daughter as loving and caring and said that somebody could not wish for a better child.The disappearance of Shannon truly united the people of Dewsbury in a determined and common cause. Thousands of multi-lingual leaflets were printed and distributed throughout the area. The pouring rain didn’t deter the searchers and if anything, it encouraged them even further to try and find Shannon. Time truly was of the essence. A handful of locals travelled to Leeds on a coach to distribute the leaflets to shopping centres, pubs and stores. Carla Radcliffe, one of the searchers, said: 'In a case like this, you pull together. We were out on the estate last night. It was really quiet and yet it wasn’t.'

A couple of days after Shannon vanished, Detective Superintendent Andy Brennan revealed that an adult claimed to have seen her the day after she was reported missing. The witness claimed that he had sen her at around 9:15 AM on Moorside Road, which was just a couple of streets away from her home. Detective Superintendent Brennan said that they were looking into the reported sighting as well as a reported sighing of Shannon at some point between 6:30 PM and 7:30 PM in the playing fields behind her school on the day she disappeared. What was extremely perplexing to the police working on the case was the lack of CCTV evidence. Britain is one of the most electronically scrutinised nations on earth and yet there had been no CCTV footage of Shannon from the day of her disappearance.

As is protocol when a child goes missing, the police searched Shannon’s bedroom to try and uncover some clues. Here, they discovered a scribble on the wall in Shannon’s handwriting which read that she wanted to live with her estranged father, Leon Rose, instead of with her mother in the household of half-brothers and half-sisters. Further investigation would reveal that Shannon had confided in some friends that she had wanted to run away from home. Leon had ceased his weekly contact with Shannon the summer beforehand due to problems with Karen’s extensive family, which included children by five other men. He considered that Shannon had attempted to find her way to his home and put out an appeal, stating: 'If you can hear me, if you can get to the nearest phone box and ring 999 and then tell them your name, then they'll be able to come and pick you up.'

Karen was at the forefront of the search for her daughter. She made several pleas for her safe return and granted interviews to a number of news channels. She said that Shannon’s disappearance had completely torn the family apart and that she couldn’t sleep at night or go into her daughter’s bedroom. At one point, Karen had even suggested that somebody she knew had kidnapped her daughter to hurt her. When asked to elaborate as to who she believed could have kidnapped Shannon, she said: 'No idea at all. All my friends and family have all been checked and there are no sightings of her things there at all.'

Some media reports suggested that interest in Shannon’s disappearance waned quite quickly and even suggested that the public weren’t as interested in the case because Shannon had come from an impoverished council estate and was a member of a dysfunctional family. While the search for Shannon continued, it was swiftly pushed from the headlines to make room for minor developments in the search for Madeline McCann, who had vanished nine months earlier. The family faced extreme scrutiny in the form of inappropriate questions that went far beyond necessity. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Karen was asked how many children she had by how many fathers while her boyfriend, Meegan, was asked if he had ever been violent towards Shannon. The case clearly showed the class prejudice which can sometimes be prevalent in the media as well as in society.

Meanwhile, The Sun newspaper offered up a £20,000 reward for information which could lead to the safe recovery of Shannon. By the 10th of March, this reward was increased to £50,000. Within weeks, the search had swelled to more than 250 police officers and 60 detectives as well as 16 of the 27 specialised victim recovery dogs in the United Kingdom. West Yorkshire’s police training school was temporarily closed so that the cadets could offer their assistance in the extensive search. Over 1,500 motorists were stopped and questioned while over 3,000 homes in the area were searched.

On the 14th of March, 2008, there was a massive and unexpected twist in the case when it was reported that Shannon had been found alive and well. She had been found hidden inside the base of a divan bed inside a flat located in Batley Carr, around a mile away from where she lived with her family. Even more astonishing, the flat belonged to 39-year-old Michael Donovan, who was the uncle of Craig Meehan, the boyfriend of Karen. Police had been alerted to the flat by Donovan’s downstairs neighbour who heard children’s footsteps coming from above. Donovan was arrested and charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment while police announced that Shannon was placed under an Emergency Police Protection Order while they established the full facts of what had happened.

Much to the horror of the nation, Karen would be arrested a couple of weeks later and charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice. It would be revealed that Shannon had been the victim of an extraordinary scam planned by her mother and Donovan in a bid to collect the reward money that would be generated from the disappearance. The plan was that Donovan would eventually find Shannon, take her to the police station and collect the reward fund which he would then split with Karen. When Karen was arrested, she gave five different versions of events to police, initially blaming Donovan and then other members of her family.

Michael Donovan and Karen Matthews stood trial together at Leeds Crown where they both gave contradictory explanations. On the 4th of December, 2008, they were both found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice and handed down eight-year prison sentences. In handing down the sentences, Justice McCombe said: 'It must be doubtful whether Matthews and Donovan could have conceived or continued these offences without the assistance or connivance of others.' While many believe that others conspired in the hoax, citing the low IQ of the duo, police were never able to find enough evidence to charge anybody else.

Lamentably, after it was revealed that the kidnapping had been a hoax, the case became the inspiration for many cruel jokes; many people forgot that Shannon was a victim who had experienced an extremely traumatic event. She had been drugged and concealed inside a hole in the bed no larger than 12 inches by 6 inches. When she was rescued, her entire body was shaking as tears rolled down her face. During the trial, it was discovered that Karen had been drugging Shannon with the sedative, temazepam, for up to two years before the planned kidnapping.

In the aftermath, Shannon had regular nightmares about being tied up. In Donovan’s flat, police had found a looped tether knotted to a beam and he admitted that he had tied Shannon up so that she could use the lavatory but not reach the windows or doors. When Shannon was taken into protective care, a social worker described her as 'disturbed, traumatised and frightening.' She needed psychotherapy sessions followed by individually-based therapeutic interventions to help her recover.

Following her terrifying ordeal, Shannon was placed in the care of social services before she was given a new identity and moved in with a new family.