Public grief and private greed of kidnap mother

Karen Matthews hatched an extraordinary plot to abduct her daughter, report her missing – and then claim a £50,000 reward. She will have many years in prison to reflect on a shocking crime.

For the 24 days of her daughter's disappearance, Karen Matthews, her face haggard with apparent sleeplessness, her voice hoarse with feigned anxiety, begged for the safe return of nine-year-old Shannon.

As she sobbed pretend tears, hundreds of police officers and countless volunteers from her own community – many of them children – scoured the area around the Dewsbury Moor council estate where she lived, desperately looking for a sign that the schoolgirl might still be alive. Detectives from West Yorkshire Police, for whom the search was the biggest and most complex since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper two decades earlier, had been convinced that Shannon was dead, yet they did not give up. And all the time, as £3.2m of police resources were ploughed in to the search and neighbours took to the streets in the depths of a Yorkshire winter, Matthews continued to cry for the cameras.

It was an extraordinary and brazen charade, and yesterday a jury at Leeds Crown Court concluded that the 33-year-old mother of seven was responsible for her own daughter's disappearance. Along with her co-defendant Michael Donovan, 40, the uncle of Matthews' partner, Craig Meehan, she had falsely imprisoned the schoolgirl, drugging and tethering her in the hope of collecting a reward of £50,000 offered by a national newspaper.

The officer in charge of the investigation described Matthews as "pure evil". Both she and Donovan, whose own barrister conceded he was a "pathetic inadequate", now face long prison sentences for kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.

Yet the plight of Shannon Matthews was not just the agony of a girl growing up in an abusive, insecure and loveless world where her mother kept her doped for months on end on the powerful drug Temazepam. It also cast into the light a segment of society that seemed to take the metropolitan commentariat by surprise.

This was a place known all too well to people across Britain living close to poverty, on estates where women like Matthews could have seven children by five different partners and no one thought it remarkable. Where an entire community would celebrate Shannon's eventual discovery by dancing in the streets swigging from cans of lager; where people's lives revolved around child benefits and the dreaded knock on the door from the loan sharks. It was a world painfully at odds with that of another child who had gone missing seven months earlier, Madeleine McCann, the daughter of two middle-class doctors who was snatched during a holiday on the Algarve. The McCann case prompted a massive international hunt and a £2.5m reward fund, turning her parents into macabre celebrities – and, in the damaged psyche of Karen Matthews, appeared to offer a bizarre way out of her humdrum existence.

Although only 33, Karen Matthews looked much older. Forever dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothing, she was the antithesis of the glamorous female TV reporters who flocked to Dewsbury Moor, a windswept housing estate on the fringes of the avowedly working-class former mill town. Matthews was herself from a large family, one of seven children. But by the age of 14 there was already trouble at home, according to her only sister Julie Poskitt, who yesterday publicly condemned her sibling. "You have kids to love and protect, not to use them as a shield just for money," she said.

Matthews has described how she went to live in a children's home, telling documentary-makers who came to film her that she couldn't cope with all the "stress and lies and stuff". She returned to live with her boyfriend's mum aged "17 or 18", she recalled. Two years later she was pregnant with her first child. In the following decade, men – some of them little more than boys – came and went. But all left her, she told the jury during another lachrymose performance, this time in the witness stand.

She stayed with Shannon's father, Leon Rose, four years her junior, until Shannon was two. She then embarked on two other relationships, both of which yielded children. By the time Shannon disappeared she was living on Moorside Road with Craig Meehan and four of her children.

He had been among a group of youths who used to hang around on the street outside Matthews' home. He defied the image of feckless benefit scrounger, working as a fishmonger at a local Morrisons. Though he had believed Matthews' youngest daughter was his, a DNA test proved otherwise. During the four weeks of Shannon's disappearance, Meehan, aged just 22, appeared side by side with his partner. Both denied claims made by Matthews' parents that he was violent and abusive towards her and the children, though this was a story that was to change following her arrest. In evidence, Matthews claimed Meehan had threatened and beaten her, even raping her. Meehan had other problems, too. During the investigation, police took away his computer and found it contained child pornography. He was jailed for 20 weeks.

Like Matthews, Meehan also came from a large family, comprising nine aunts and uncles, among whom was Michael Donovan. It was inside a divan bed in Donovan's flat in Batley Carr, just a mile from her home, that Shannon was eventually found.

Throughout the search for Shannon, Donovan was living an outwardly normal life, even popping to the shops to buy prescription tablets and lager while she was locked up inside. Detectives believe the schoolgirl was tethered to a roof joist by a noose. She was forced to follow a series of carefully laid-out rules that forbade her from turning up the television, going to the window or calling for help. It was never established that Matthews visited the flat, but a possible link between the two emerged in the form of a drawing found screwed up in Donovan's waste paper basket, depicting two adults having sex with an accompanying note in Shannon's handwriting saying "Mummy and Mick".

For his part, Michael Donovan – who changed his name from Paul Drake in tribute to a character from the sci-fi series V – cut an unprepossessing figure. Gaunt and with no teeth, he existed on a diet of potato waffles and fried eggs. He suffered from dystonia, a condition that made his legs tremble and caused him to fall over. As well as depression and anxiety, he had a very low IQ and was highly impressionable. He had also endured years of bullying, not least while on remand during the trial, when he was found to be acting as a servant for one of his fellow inmates at Leeds jail, even washing his feet. Another inmate showed his dislike in more direct fashion, breaking Donovan's jaw twice.

Though he was written off by work colleagues as a "dimwit" whose antics could often be as amusing as they were puzzling, Donovan had a sinister side. As a juvenile he picked up a string of convictions for arson, shoplifting and criminal damage. Following his arrest, his ex-wife Sue Bird went public with a string of lurid allegations, including the claim that he enjoyed violent sex, once trying to strangle her, as well as spanking and dressing her up as a schoolgirl. In 2006, Donovan was accused of abducting one of his daughters from Ms Bird, taking the girl on a trip to Blackpool without the mother's permission. Charges were eventually dropped.

Yet what was actually going through the minds of the two kidnappers might never be fully understood, admitted the man who led the investigation yesterday, Detective Superintendent Andy Brennan. While Donovan was quick to point the finger at Matthews, she continually changed her story, offering five different versions of events. She went from protesting her innocence to blaming her former partner, Craig Meehan. She also accused Donovan of acting alone. In another version she claimed she asked him to take Shannon while she prepared to leave Meehan.

"Although she has started to give away elements of the truth," the detective said, "even now, I don't think we have got the full truth from her."

Huge police effort that triumphed by chance

When Shannon was found in the flat of a member of her extended family, West Yorkshire Police faced accusations that they should have found her more quickly, writes Jonathan Brown.

Few, however, could criticise their commitment to finding her. Police believed that if Shannon had been abducted by a paedophile, the chances of discovering her alive diminished rapidly with every passing hour. There were 1,400 sex offenders registered as living in the surrounding area.

At its height, one in 10 officers from the force was engaged in the operation. Thousands of vehicles and people were stopped, and some 2,850 premises were searched in the half-mile radius of Shannon's school. Three-quarters of all the UK's sniffer dogs were brought in.

At first, officers simply could not believe that Matthews was lying and it was a routine inquiry that eventually took them to Donovan's flat. A neighbour told them she had heard a child's footsteps in the property above. When officers smashed down the door, to their astonishment they found Shannon hidden safely inside.