Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Believable Lie: the Shannon Matthews Kidnapping

Back in early 2008, a hue and cry was begun over the kidnapping of a little girl from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, called Shannon Matthews.

Shannon Matthews aged nine at the time of her disappearance

On February 8th, Karen Matthews contacted police because her nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, had failed to return from school, which was half a mile from her home.

A huge search started of the local area by police and the public, with an appeal launched and reward money eventually totalling over £50,000 offered by a tabloid newspaper for the little girl’s safe return.

Karen Matthews with boyfriend Craig Meeham, during the hunt for Shannon

It was reckoned to be the largest investigation since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper 30 years earlier, with eventually over 250 officers, 60 detectives and even 16 of the UK’s 27 specialist victim recovery dogs involved. Over 3000 houses were searched and 1500 motorists stopped and questioned.

Parallels were drawn between the case and that of three-year-old Madeleine McCann, who had disappeared from her bed in her parents’ holiday apartment in Portugal the year before. Much was made of the difference in the social standing of the two girls, with Madeleine McCann’s parents being articulate middle-class doctors and Karen Matthews being a single mother from a housing estate with numerous social problems in the north of England.

On March 14th, 24 days after she went missing, Shannon Matthews was found, tied up and drugged, hidden in the divan base of a bed in a flat in Batley Carr, West Yorkshire. The flat’s tenant, Michael Donovan – also known as Paul Drake – was arrested.

The divan bed base where Shannon was discovered, tied and drugged

And at this point things began to unravel. Donovan was the uncle of Karen Matthews’ boyfriend, Craig Meehan. It transpired that Karen and Donovan had planned the kidnapping as a means of generating money. The plan was that Donovan should release and then ‘find’ Shannon, taking her to a police station and claiming the reward. Tests of the little girl’s hair revealed that not only had she been drugged throughout her imprisonment, but that she’d also been regularly given sleeping pills for 20 months previously.

Donovan was charged with abduction and false imprisonment, and Karen with child neglect and perverting the course of justice. At their trial in November and December of 2008, both were found guilty and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.

In the aftermath of the trial, it appeared that for Karen Matthews, who had other children by different fathers and lived on state benefits, her children had come to represent a means of income. The more kids, the more benefits, so the fake kidnapping scheme could be seen simply as an extension of that greed.

There were several documentaries made in the eighteen months after the kidnapping, and in February this year the BBC aired a two-part dramatization of the case, entitled The Moorside after the name of the then-notorious housing estate where Matthews lived.

The Moorside starred Sheridan Smith (l) as friend Julie Busby, and Gemma Whelan (r) as Karen Matthews

When I first typed the heading for this week’s blog, I initially put the word Kidnapping in quotes, because in some senses it was not a genuine kidnapping as we would understand it, but then I removed the quotes, because I have no doubts that for Shannon herself the experience was very real.

I wondered, as I always do when these things unfold, what the reaction would have been to a crime novel based around this premise. Sometimes events are so bizarre that you know any good editor would query the logic, but at other times things read far more like fiction than fact. This is definitely the case with the story of Shannon Matthews.

Madeleine McCann remains missing.

Madeleine McCann age 3 (l) and an enhanced photo of her possible appearance 10 years later

This week’s Word of the Week is gowk, which is Scots for a cuckoo or foolish person. In Scotland, April Fools’ Day was once traditionally known as ‘Huntigowk Day’, from Hunt the Gowk. A suitable victim would be asked to deliver a letter, usually requesting assistance of some sort, which would tell the recipient “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” At which point they would send the victim on to another person, with the same concealed message for the recipient.


  1. What a gruesome story. But at least Shannon Matthews was alive when found.

    What became of her and her siblings? Does anyone know?

  2. What Kathy asked. One of the things that disturbs me most about this sort of high-profile case is that it tars women and children who have legitimate needs, and people tell each other that all "welfare moms" are cheats and sluts. Only a very small percentage are, but public opinion becomes hardened agains helping all of them.

    Most dreadful, of course are the lifelong scars on the psyches of the children. Shannon may grow up to have a productive, basically happy life. I pray she does. But what happened to her will never be completely cured.

    What an important story you tell here, Zoe.

  3. By the time of this incident I think some of Karen's other kids were already in care. And the toxicology tests on Shannon's hair showed that she had been drugged almost routinely, during any school holidays- to the extent that she would have been in her bed for the entire duration of the holiday.
    I know a question raised by the Tv programme was if Karen Matthews was bright enough to have thought all that up? What do you think Zoe?

    1. Good god! Think what that did to Shannon's poor developing brain.

  4. Prisons and elder care facilities at times engage in the same sort of chemical restraints, and wrong as that is, it doesn't sound nearly as severe as Shannon's loving mother's method. Our world's a frightening challenge for far too many children.

  5. Sad story that seems suited for novelization. I wonder what happened to Madeleine. The fact that these stories became internationally known really point up the differences between Britain and the US, where many children go missing and might not even make the front page of their city's newspaper. It's a hidden epidemic for us.