The Kidnapping of Shannon Matthews
The nine-year-old was taken on her way home, but the investigation was more sinister than anyone dreamed.
Shannon Matthews via express.co.uk
In 2008, Madeleine McCann’s abduction still filled the air on every news channel. The image of the three-year-old was plastered everywhere and no one could escape the mention of her name. Her kidnapping was the nightmare of every parent in the country, and for Karen Matthews, she was about to share the pain the McCanns were going through.
Shannon Matthews was born on the 9th of September 1998 in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Shannon had six brother and sisters, but only four of them lived in the home she shared with her mother Karen and her partner Craig Meehan. Shannon was the second oldest and was said to be a quiet and shy girl, but allegedly she’d told friends that she was considering running away.
On the 19th of February 2008, Shannon was walking home from Westmoor Junior School, like any other day. She’d had a swimming lesson, and the school was only half a mile from her home. Shannon never made it back to her house, and at 6.50 pm, Karen called the police to report her daughter missing.
West Yorkshire Police began searching for the nine-year-old, drafting in 200 officers to help with the search. In the month that followed, 1,700 motorists were questioned, and over 1,800 houses were searched in an attempt to find Shannon. Two hundred fifty police officers, 60 detectives, and 16 victim recovery dogs were brought in to help with the ongoing investigation. It quickly became the most extensive investigation in West Yorkshire’s history since the Yorkshire Ripper, 30 years earlier.
The media quickly moved in on the family due to the nature of the crime. Madeleine McCann had been taken in Portugal only a year earlier, and the coverage of her disappearance had held the nation’s attention ever since. Another kidnapping was only going to boost figures further.
The Sun newspaper offered a reward of £20,000 for Shannon’s return, and it was quickly increased to £50,000 twenty days later. Smaller local businesses and residents also provided money to the cause, and the West Yorkshire police created a website for Shannon. In addition, they released all the information they had on the case, including photographs and the initial call to police by Karen, reporting her daughter missing.
However, the level of publicity for the girl wasn’t as regular, leading to speculation that because Shannon was of a lower class in society, her disappearance wasn’t deemed necessary.
Contrast with the McCann abduction
Within 12 days of Madeleine going missing, Premier League footballers were wearing yellow ribbons in honour. The family was desperate, white and rich. They were doctors, who lived in a detached house in Leicestershire, and this made Kate McCann’s breakdown during the initial press conference more newsworthy. The reward for information about Maddie daughter started at £2.6million, and they had Philip Green, Simon Cowell and Sir Richard Branson willing to help in any way they could.
Karen Matthews and her missing daughter were a stark comparison. When family and friends attempted to hand out flyers at a rugby game to help raise awareness of Shannon’s abduction, they were told to move away from the grounds.
The Matthews were from a working-class background and didn’t have the same access that the McCanns had. They lived in a three-bed council house on an estate in Dewsbury Moor, and Karen had produced seven children from five different men, and she spoke with an accent. They were two different sides of a coin, and Shannon wasn’t what the media wanted to show.
Karen Matthews via West Yorkshire Police
The televised appearances began to call for Karen, and she appeared on the morning news, defending her partner, Craig Meehan, who was now under scrutiny. The public was beginning to turn on the family, even though Shannon was still gone.
Miraculously, 24 days after she went missing, Shannon was found.
On the 14th of March, the nine-year-old was discovered, drugged and tied up inside the base of a double bed. The apartment in Batley Carr was less than a mile away from the Matthews’ home and was being rented by 39-year-old Michael Donovan, Craig Meehan’s uncle. Locals described Donovan as a loner, and despite having two children of his own, they were never seen at the property.
The divan bed Shannon was kept in via West Yorkshire Police
A downstairs neighbour had called the police when she heard footsteps above her in Donovan’s apartment, despite him not being at the property.
Donovan was arrested and charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and committing acts intended to pervert the course of justice and was remanded in custody. Shannon was placed under police protection for 72 hours while doctors checked her. Police questioned her in ten-minute intervals, which lasted several weeks.
“I had heard a bit of noise and went outside to see what was going on,” he said. “The next thing I saw was the door being smashed in and the police going in. A few minutes later, I saw two police officers drag him out. He had handcuffs on and wasn’t walking. He was moaning, saying he’d done nothing wrong. After that, little Shannon came walking out behind him. She was wearing a blue coat and trousers; it looked like what she had been wearing in the CCTV pictures. She wasn’t crying or anything.” — David Hughes, neighbour of Michael Donovan. Interview from the Belfast Telegraph.
Shannon was safe, and the town rejoiced. The little girl’s disappearance had affected them all and they were happy that she’d been found alive. Street parties were held by those who searched for the little girl in freezing temperatures, celebrating Shannon’s safe return. Banners were hanged from windows reading, ‘Welcome back Shannon’, while tears of joy came from those who were told the girl had been found and her abductor had been arrested.
However, not all was as it seemed and as Shannon was interviewed, a story began to unravel that was more sinister than the investigators could imagine.
Although she was kept inside the double bed, drugged and tied up, she was allowed to move around the house. A list of rules made by Donovan suggested that Shannon was able to walk around his apartment and play video games. Police soon realised that this wasn’t a standard kidnapping.
The list of Rules Donovan made for Shannon via West Yorkshire Police
Piecing together the information they had, investigators quickly figured out the real story behind Shannon’s abduction. Karen and Michael Donovan had concocted an elaborate plot to get the reward money for themselves. They imagined if they could fake a child abduction and get a reward set up for her safe return — as the News of the World had with Maddie — Donovan could ‘find’ Shannon and claim the money.
32-year-old Matthews denied all allegations and initially blamed the crime on her partner, Craig Meehan. However, Donovan told police that Matthews had scared him into taking her daughter.
Michael Donovan via thesun.co.uk
Matthews was arrested on the 6th of April 2008 on suspicion of child neglect and perverting the course of justice. The same day, Michael Donovan tried to kill himself while in custody but failed.
In 2009, the jury was told of Donovan’s and Matthews’ actions in court. They listened as investigators described how they’d drugged Shannon with temazepam and travel sickness tablets, then kept her in the divan drawer of a bed, tied up by an elastic strap with a noose. The elastic let her walk around the apartment in a circle.
The access Shannon had around the apartment with her elasticated noose via West Yorkshire Police
They were told that Shannon had been given sleeping pills for almost two years before her disappearance and that her hair showed signs of continued use of the drug. It took the jury six hours to reach a unanimous verdict, and Michael Donovan and Karen Matthews were both sentenced to eight years in prison for their crimes.
“Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan seemed honestly to believe that they could stage the disappearance of Matthews’ own daughter and benefit financially from the huge wave of public sympathy that would inevitably follow. This was an abuse of public trust, public services, the public purse and worst of all Matthews’ own daughter for personal gain.” — Malcolm Taylor, Crown Prosecution Service.
Meanwhile, Craig Meehan was facing a very different set of charges. During a search of the Matthews’ property, police seized two computers that were found in the living room. After inspection, they were found to contain indecent images of children.
Craig Meehan via theguardian.com
In court, detectives explained that the term ‘Lolita’ — a common internet search term for people specifically looking for child pornography — was referenced 653 times on his computer. Meehan also had indecent images of a 15-year-old girl on his mobile phone.
Craig Meehan was charged on 11 counts of possessing children pornography and sentenced to 20 weeks in prison.
Karen Matthews was released from prison in April 2012 after serving half of the sentence handed to her. By the time she was free, Donovan had already been released but shortly went back to prison for fighting. Matthews was given a new identity due to being dubbed Britain’s ‘most hated mother’, but her anonymity was short-lived.
Despite being given a new name and an apartment in the south of England, she began to cash in on her notoriety. There was a stream of men looking to speak to the notorious woman and even gave her money for the opportunity. Instead of keeping a low profile, Matthews would steal champagne from the local shops in her new hometown and demand money from photographers for their use of her image. In 2018, she gave The Mirror an exclusive interview for an undisclosed amount of money.
Shannon Matthews was taken into care after her mother and stepfather’s trials. In court, it was reported that Shannon was suffering badly from her ordeal and was having constant nightmares, resulting in regular psychotherapy counselling sessions. She was given a new identity and was placed with a foster family. She is now 22 years old.