What happened to Shannon Matthews?

by Amy Rowland |
Published on

Wearing her favourite furry boots and chatting with her schoolmates, nine year old Shannon Matthews was just like any other carefree schoolgirl.

On 19 February 2008, and Shannon was leaving her weekly, school swimming lesson and after a short coach journey back to Westmoor Primary School, in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Shannon made the ten-minute walk to her home on Moorside Road. The youngster lived with her mum, Karen, then 32, and her stepdad, Craig Meehan, 22, but her family situation was complicated.

Karen, who was unemployed, had seven children from five different relationships, and Shannon hadn’t seen her biological father for over a year.

But on that fateful day, Shannon never made it home after swimming and at 6.48pm, West Yorkshire police received a phone call from Karen reporting her as missing.

Police cars were dispatched to the house immediately and a concerned neighbour burst into the home of Julie Bushby, Karen’s friend and chairman of the local residents’ association, to break the news.

Julie said, ‘They asked if I would open up the community centre. Word got around the estate pretty quick. You were just on auto pilot, and you did what you could.’

From the local community centre, Julie called on friends and neighbours from the close-knit community and within an hour, over 100 people from the estate had arrived to help with the search. That night, Julie and her helpers even slept at the centre where they kept all the lights on, hoping they would act as a beacon to guide Shannon home.

But the following morning, Shannon was still nowhere to be found. The media gathered outside Karen’s house, and police dogs, helicopters and patrols hunted for the schoolgirl.

Shannon’s school photo was plastered onto missing posters and comparisons were drawn between Shannon and Madeleine McCann, who’d disappeared nine-months earlier on a family holiday in Portugal.

24 hours after Shannon’s disappearance, Karen made an emotional TV appeal. She said, ‘Shannon, we love you so much. If anybody’s got my beautiful, princess daughter, please bring her home safe.’

More than 250 officers were involved in the search. The Sun newspaper offered a £20,000 reward for Shannon’s safe return, which was later increased to £50,000. The search stretched into days and weeks, but although she appeared grief-stricken, Karen’s demeanour began to arouse suspicion.

A police officer alleged that when Karen was offered a free dinner from her local fish-and-chip shop, she replied, ‘I’ll have to have one of my kids go missing more often.’ And when Shannon’s face appeared on the news, Karen would also gleefully boast that her daughter was ‘famous.’

Then, on 14 March, 24 days after she went missing, Shannon was discovered.

A tip-off led the police to a ground-floor council flat in Batley Carr, less than a mile away from the Moorside estate. Horrifyingly, Shannon had been drugged, tethered and concealed in the base of a divan bed. Michael Donovan, the uncle of Sharon’s step-dad, Craig, had been holding her captive.

For Julie, and the other neighbours who’d led the community search, there were tears of joy. But nobody could have predicted the betrayal that was about to be revealed…

Although the police had found Shannon alive, she wasn’t allowed home and three days later, Donovan, a father of two, was charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment.

Apparently, his daughters had been taken into care after allegations he’d made them watch him have sex with prostitutes. Donovan’s name hadn’t been mentioned to police by members of Shannon’s extended family, but during his arrest, he’d shouted, ‘Get Karen down here! We’d got a plan. We’re sharing the money - £50,00!’ Karen denied she knew Donovan, but family members said they’d met at a family funeral three months earlier.

On 2 April, Craig was arrested on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children. Karen’s life was unravelling, and Julie, with the help of a police support officer, finally persuaded her to reveal the truth. Breaking down, she confessed that she’d asked Donovan to look after Shannon as a part of a plot to get away from Craig, but ‘everything went wrong.’

Karen’s crocodile tears were a sham though, and she had actually involved her innocent daughter in an evil money-making scheme.

Karen was arrested, and despite her confession, she told ‘lie after lie’ to the police, tearfully denying she’d arranged Shannon’s abduction.

Craig Meehan was cleared of being involved but was sentenced to 20 weeks imprisonment for possessing child porn.

Both the community, and the wider public, were appalled and outraged. Karen was dubbed ‘Britain’s Most Hated Mum’ and Shannon and her siblings were taken into care. Karen told friends, ‘They were saying it’s all me. It wasn’t just me.’

The plan was allegedly 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.

At Leeds Crown Court, Matthews and Donovan were found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. The judge sentenced them to eight years in prison, adding he was doubtful they’d acted alone, and he suspected there were others involved.

Karen was branded ‘pure evil’, but Julie didn’t believe Karen possessed the ‘intelligence’ to implement such a plan. In the hope of finding answers, she visited her friend once a month in prison. She said, ‘I kept a diary but Karen’s story changed each time. I’d compare what she said, and nothing connected. Karen’s a child in my eyes. She was sending me letters from prison with pretty little flowers on them.’

Karen was released in April 2012 and was given a new identity. She dyed her hair and settled in the south of England.

Donovan was also freed in 2012, from HMP Leeds, after serving half of his sentence. He changed his name to Aiden Johnson and was pronounced dead at Three Valleys Hospital in Keighley, West Yorkshire, on 16 April. He had cancer and apparently collapsed in the secure mental health hospital where he had been for six years after his release from prison in 2012.

Following the trauma she experienced, Shannon was given a new name, a new life - and the hope of a better future.

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