Police errors mean girl's killer may never be found

Officers to be disciplined over poor handling of covert surveillance operation

Mark Hughes,Crime Correspondent
Friday 16 October 2009 00:00 BST

When Charlene Downes disappeared from her Blackpool home in the winter of 2003, her mother, Karen, put her faith in the police to find the 14-year-old.

Six years later, there is still no trace of the girl, who is now presumed murdered. Yet despite a lengthy investigation and a Crown Court trial, no one has been convicted of killing the teenager. And, because of a litany of mistakes by detectives investigating the case, it is now unlikely anyone ever will be.

Yesterday, the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) ruled that covert surveillance evidence gathered against the two main suspects in the case was flawed. This means that the evidence can never be submitted in court.

The IPCC said that Lancashire Constabulary's investigation was "handled poorly and unprofessionally" and that the evidence contained a "catalogue of errors which undermined the court case". Seven detectives will be disciplined.

Karen Downes has given up all hope of justice for her daughter. "Whoever killed Charlene must be laughing their heads off," she said. "I feel really let down that the police put us through this trauma when they must have known there were problems with the evidence. To me this just means they will never catch who killed my daughter. They've got no evidence at all now, have they?"

The IPCC report relates to the May 2007 trial of Iyad Albattikhi, who was charged with murdering Charlene, and Mohammed Raveshi, who was charged with helping Mr Albattikhi dispose of the body.

During the trial, the jury was played taped conversations in which Mr Albattikhi, who ran a takeaway restaurant in the seaside town, joked that he killed the girl, that she was "chopped up" and her body had "gone in the kebabs". In another excerpt, he said: "I killed her, I killed a girl ... I was just angry." His co-accused was heard on the tapes saying: "There is nothing left of her. She was here, she died, there really is nothing."

The jury failed to reach a verdict. A retrial was set for April 2008. However, while preparing for the second trial, senior police officers raised issues with the surveillance evidence, much of which had been obtained by a police informant, David Cassidy, who had worn a wire-tap device when speaking to Mr Albattikhi and Mr Raveshi.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was notified, as was the IPCC. The second trial was abandoned when the CPS offered no evidence against the men. Mr Albattikhi and Mr Raveshi, who say they have never met Charlene, were released.

Yesterday, after an 18-month investigation, the IPCC revealed that the flaws in the evidence included the fact that much of the recorded tape and video evidence was not properly transcribed, that the officers working on the investigation were "inexperienced and untrained" and that the informant, Mr Cassidy, was not properly briefed and so therefore asked the suspects leading questions.

One officer will face a disciplinary hearing, one has received a written warning and five will be given words of advice. Two other detectives retired before the investigation was completed and so cannot now be dealt with by the IPCC. A 10th, who has also retired but is still employed in a civilian capacity, will have his position considered.

Naseem Malik, the IPCC commissioner for the North-west, said: "Six years since the disappearance of Charlene, her parents are no nearer to knowing what happened to their daughter. I cannot imagine how distressing this must be for them. The failings in Lancashire Constabulary's investigation can only have compounded that distress. Lessons must be learned ... to ensure such failures cannot happen again."

The disappearance of Charlene, who would be aged 20 now, exposed a dark side to Blackpool's holiday resort image. During the trial, the court heard that Charlene was one of a number of girls who frequented local takeaways and performed sex acts on male employees in exchange for food and cigarettes.

The tragedy has also taken its toll on the Downes family. A week after the trial collapsed, Karen Downes was arrested for stabbing her husband, Robert, during an argument. He did not press charges, saying he understood his wife lashed out because of grief and distress.

Last month, Charlene's older sister Emma, 24, went on trial for racially assaulting Iyad Albattikhi's brother, Tariq, at a nightclub. The charge was dropped when she admitted a lesser charge of common assault, accepting she slapped the man once. She was stopped from doing so a second time when he grabbed her hand and told her: "It's got nothing to do with me."

Karen Downes is still angry. She has criticised the police for not doing enough to find her daughter, saying that Charlene's working-class upbringing meant that her disappearance was not taken seriously.

"I often wonder," her mother says, "if she had been from a posh family and was having piano lessons, would they have tried harder to find her?"

Even yesterday's announcement that the police officers whose conduct during the investigation effectively scuppered any hope of a prosecution will be disciplined has not sated her anger.

She told The Independent: "I have only just come to terms with the fact that Charlene is dead. It's very hard to accept, but I know deep down that she must be dead because she would have been back by now if she wasn't.

"I've been told I'll get an apology from the police but I don't want them to say sorry. An apology is not going to find my daughter. The fact that some police officers will be punished is no consolation. I want to know what the police plan to do now. But I know the answer: nothing. There is nothing they can do. Unless they find her body and it has DNA or some sort of forensic evidence, there is no way they will be able to convict anyone now."

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