￼As every hour passed, Karen Matthews’ little girl was still nowhere to be seen.
Nine-year-old Shannon hadn’t returned home after a school swimming trip. Karen, a mum of seven, was adamant her daughter would never run away, so she called the police and a search party was quickly dispatched.
As word spread, friends and neighbours joined the search and TV crews set up camp outside Karen’s house. It was only seven months after Madeleine McCann had disappeared and missing Shannon quickly became front-page news. Police advised Karen not to speak to the media as it could hamper the investigation, but their warnings fell on deaf ears.
Fronting up to the TV cameras outside her home, and clinging to her partner Craig Meehan for support, Karen sobbed her heart out. ‘Shannon if you are out there, please darling come home. We love you so much. If anybody out there has my daughter – my beautiful princess daughter – please bring her home safe,’ she pleaded, wearing a T-shirt with her girl’s name on it.
Karen’s desperate plea clawed at the heartstrings of parents near and far. People from the community spent endless hours pinning up missing posters and handing out leaflets, while strangers sent gifts and Easter eggs for Shannon to enjoy when she returned home. A local supermarket even offered the family free food.
However, Karen raised eyebrows when one trolley was filled with booze. Desperate to find Shannon, the police also thought there was something off about Karen and Craig.
‘There was a lot of enjoyment about the attention they were getting,’ Detective Constable Christine Freeman said.
Ever since 32-year-old Karen had her first child in 1996 there had been reports to authorities that she was neglecting her children. Her former next-door neighbour Claire Wilson said on one occasion there was a huge fight at Karen’s house, and she’d had to rescue Shannon.
‘She [Shannon] was a very timid child. She would flinch with sudden movements or loud noises,’ she told the TV show Panorama.
Regardless, Karen was now a victim whose child had seemingly vanished into thin air. Good mum or not, her precious daughter needed to be found.
Eleven days after she disappeared, a national newspaper offered a $35,000 reward. That was increased to $85,000 11 days later. By that point, detectives had all but lost hope of finding Shannon alive. But then something incredible happened – 23 days after the little girl went missing, the police were given a tip-off. It was the address of Michael Donovan, the uncle of Craig Meehan.
Bursting through the door of his grotty flat, detectives heard a child’s voice coming from a bedroom. Incredibly, concealed inside the base of a divan bed, they found Shannon. She was alive. Michael Donovan, then 40, was also found hiding in the bed. As Donovan was read his rights, he blurted out something shocking. ‘Go and arrest Karen,’ he spat.
He claimed Shannon’s own mother had hatched the plot to abduct her so they could share the reward money. What kind of mother could be so cruel?
Karen denied it, but the police now started investigating the theory that the evil mum had masterminded the plot after seeing the generous public donations to the Madeleine McCann fund.
Her behaviour at her reunion with her missing daughter spoke volumes. DC Freeman said Shannon ran to her mother and threw her arms around her. But Karen ‘almost shrugged her off.’
‘Karen was particularly cold and had no interest in her. She didn’t want to be there,’ said Freeman.
A further search of the flat where Shannon had been imprisoned revealed a noose on an elastic strap, which had been used to restrain her when Donovan left the premises. Tests revealed the schoolgirl had been given a cocktail of drugs to subdue her – not only during her 24 days in captivity, but in the two years prior.
Three days after being reunited with her daughter, Karen Matthews was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. She had been lying the whole time. Karen had plotted with Donovan to kidnap her own child.
The ordeal left Shannon traumatised and suffering from nightmares. The youngster was taken into care and given a new identity with a family who welcomed her into their home. Shannon’s siblings were also put into care and given new lives.
On December 4, 2008, at Leeds Crown Court, Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan were both found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment, and perverting the course of justice. They were each sentenced to eight years’ jail, but were both released after serving just half of their terms in prison.
Karen’s partner Craig Meehan was convicted of having child pornography on his computer and jailed for 20 weeks. Since being released in 2012, Karen has reportedly forged a new identity, become a teetotaller and has turned to God. But 10 years on from her heinous crime, many doubt her capacity for change.
Superintendent Andy Brennan who led the search for Shannon said, ‘It’s difficult to understand what type of mother would subject her own daughter to such a wicked and evil crime. Karen Matthews is pure evil.’
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!