Shannon's miracle: the backlash begins

The community that never gave up looking for the missing nine-year-old has been celebrating all weekend. But, discovers Cole Moreton, after the joy of her return, troubling questions are starting to be asked

Sunday 16 March 2008 01:00

They had hangovers from hell in Dewsbury Moor yesterday, after a wild street party to celebrate the rescue of Shannon Matthews. And with those throbbing heads came whispers, accusations and questions. Even as her mother, Karen Matthews, was speaking of the "overwhelming" joy of seeing the nine-year-old again, neighbours were asking when Shannon would be allowed to come home. And why had it taken 24 days to find the girl, if she was in a flat less than a mile from her house? Had detectives ignored a tip-off? Why hadn't they previously thought to question the man who is now accused of taking her, the uncle of her stepfather? And could anybody else in the family have been involved?

"When I first saw Shannon again I was overwhelmed," said Ms Matthews, 32, last night. "I just couldn't stop crying, knowing she's back where she belongs and she's safe. I never gave up hope and now she'll be able to come home and sleep in her room again. We've got her new pink bedding, which she'll love." Ms Matthews thanked the police, and said the support of the community had been fantastic. The media had also been helpful, she said, but "we would appreciate it if the family could be left alone now to allow us to come to terms with recent events".

Shannon's father, Leon Rose, said: "I am buzzing over it – especially since Shannon has been found alive. I'm over the moon and I can't wait to see her. I'll grab hold of her and give her a cuddle and tell her I love her."

Police have yet to charge Mick Donovan, formerly known as Paul Drake, in whose home Shannon was found under a divan bed on Friday. Unconfirmed reports yesterday suggested he was being questioned about the possibility of other family involvement.

"I was devastated when I found out it was a family member," said Shannon's next door neighbour and uncle, Neil Hyett, as he helped make plans for a huge party for all the children on the estate. They want Shannon to be the guest of honour at the event, in the field behind her house, "with bouncy castles and all that". But it could be a long time before she goes home.

Yesterday Shannon was with specially trained police officers in an interview suite designed to be as child-friendly as possible. "Shannon has had a comfortable and settled night and is starting on the road to recovery following her ordeal," said West Yorkshire Police. "She has had breakfast this morning and has been playing with a kitten."

Shannon has been put under an emergency police protection order, which means she cannot see her mother or stepfather, Craig Meehan, without officers being present. That means not going back to live at her family home on Moorside Road for the moment. The couple also talked to detectives yesterday, before returning home.

Ms Matthews has barely slept for three weeks, and was unable to hold off tears, say friends. She has also fallen out with her own parents, over accusations they made against Mr Meehan. One police officer said: "We are trying to make sure, while Shannon is with us, that we have the family within our care."

The protection order expires tomorrow but will almost certainly be extended by a magistrate. "It will remain in place until we have had time to establish the full facts of what happened since her disappearance," said a police statement.

Shannon went missing on her way home from school in freezing fog on 19 February. The hunt that followed was the largest in the area since the Yorkshire Ripper, around 30 years ago, with 60 detectives and more than 300 uniformed officers involved. They used sniffer dogs, helicopters and divers, searched alleyways and bins, and carried out door-to-door inquiries, but did not knock at the flat in Batley Carr where she was found until last Friday morning.

"The police have been fantastic, but you still want to know, what took them so long?" said one of Shannon's neighbours yesterday, as thick white smoke rose over the streets near her home. It came from a big pile of leaflets, the last of thousands printed off and given out by volunteers, as the days passed and desperation grew. Little girls don't come back alive after 24 days. But this one did.

Detectives are cross their pride at finding her has been tarnished by accusations that they took their time. Yesterday they were attacked by Edward McMillan-Scott, Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, who said they should have checked more carefully. "In more than three out of four cases like this, a family member is involved, so a thorough search would have included the suspect in this case."

But a source close to the inquiry defended the police, saying they had started by interviewing close relatives, then widened out to the extended family. There were "literally hundreds of people" in a "huge family network" requiring a lot of resources, the source insisted.

Shannon's family life is complicated, and she does have many relatives in the area. Her mother has given birth to seven children by five fathers. She says Shannon treats Mr Meehan, 22, like her dad. But a message was found scrawled in felt-tip on the wall of Shannon's bedroom, saying that she wanted to live with her real dad, Leon Rose, 30 miles away in Huddersfield.

Comparisons with Madeleine McCann who went missing in Portugal last year were inevitable. Shannon was not the daughter of a couple of good-looking, wealthy, middle-class doctors with friends who knew how to work the media, as Madeleine was. Last week, Radio 4's Today programme was criticised for an interview with Ms Matthews that dwelt – unfairly, many thought – on her home life.

But accusations have also come from within her own family. Her mother, June Matthews, told a newspaper last week that the children had an awful life and Mr Meehan was violent. But he insisted: "I have never hit [Shannon] or any of the children. I love those kids. June is lying because she doesn't like me."

So how did the police find Shannon at last? Claims of tip-offs leading to the arrest have been "overstated", said an officer. With rewards for information totalling £50,500, and red-top newspapers offering cash for exclusive stories, it is not surprising there have been several different reports about why they smashed down that door.

The charity Missing People has said it contacted West Yorkshire Police to pass on information that she might be there. A man living nearby said he had phoned the police hotline some time ago, "but no one ever got back to me". Another neighbour said she had been alerted by a discarded swimming costume and towel (Shannon had had a swimming lesson just before her disappearance). There were other stories, too, including from the neighbour living downstairs who heard "little footsteps" but knew the occupant did not have children living with him.

Ryan Baynes, a tiler from Dewsbury, told The Sun he had called Crimestoppers "within days" of Shannon's disappearance and told them about Donovan, who had allegedly behaved strangely at a family funeral six weeks previously. He bounced the girl on his knee and paid her "far too much attention", said Mr Baynes. "I expected a call from the police to say they had either arrested him or discounted him. But each time I called I was told it was being looked into. It really began to niggle me."

Despite this, police insist they initially visited the flat on Friday only as part of routine inquiries, working their way through the long list of members of Shannon's extended family. But however it happened, the raid took place at 12.30pm that day. Shannon was found in a compartment underneath a divan bed. She was dressed, and not tied up. According to reports, a policewoman hugged her, then whispered: "Where is the man?" Shannon pointed, and they found him hiding in another compartment under the bed. As she was carried out, her arms around a policeman's neck, a neighbour shouted out: "Is that Shannon?" The officer smiled and said: "It certainly is."

She was said to be "very quiet" but apparently physically uninjured. Donovan was reportedly dragged from the building, calling out: "I'm a poorly man. I should be taken to hospital. I'm not well." He is the father of two girls, but is believed not to have seen them for several years.

His neighbour, Mandy Dixon, described him as a "scrawny, scruffy, horrible man" who was most often seen polishing his silver Peugeot 406.

Rumour of the rescue spread fast through Dewsbury Moor. Julie Bushby, chair of the tenants' association and leader of the extraordinary community campaign to find the missing girl, was being filmed by a news crew when she rang Karen Matthews to find out what was happening. "It's all round Asda," she said excitedly. "It must be true."

But Ms Matthews, who was at home, said she had to wait for the family liaison officers. When they arrived, friends and neighbours were asked to go upstairs. "We heard them say the words 'safe' and 'well'," said Shannon's aunt, Amanda Hyett. "Then we all shouted out."

The spontaneous party that followed lasted until the early hours of the morning, said Neil Hyett. "I gave up at 4.30am, but it was still going." Disco lights were set up in the street and music blared out. Fireworks were set up in front gardens and children kicked through piles of leaflets as if they were snow. "We had 10,000 left," said Mr Hyett, whose house next door to Shannon's was searched by forensic officers but who became one of the leading members of the campaign to find her. Not everyone who partied had played their part, he said. "There were faces there I had never seen before in my life. Free beer, see." He paid for every drop of his, he said, "apart from a bottle of Southern Comfort I went halves on with a reporter".

There was anger as well as joy. One partying neighbour told a news crew: "I just hope nothing has happened to her. Because if it has, God help the person that has done it. This community doesn't forgive that easily."

In Dewsbury Moor the morning after, there were empty bottles and cans strewn in the gardens, and leaflets that were not being burned were stuck to the pavements like old confetti.

There are already signs that the togetherness brought on by the search for Shannon could fall apart. But so much was achieved by the people of this much-maligned area. They lacked the glamour, the organisation or the wealth of the campaign to find Madeleine McCann (currently offering a reward of £2.6m sponsored by Sir Richard Branson, among others), and they faced the prejudice of people who looked down on a scruffy council estate on a hill in West Yorkshire, but they kept going anyway, even when it looked hopeless. "People are saying Julie Bushby deserves an honour, and she does," said Mr Hyett, "but there should be something for the whole community. We didn't give up."

More than 90 per cent of abducted children are killed within 24 hours of going missing, according to an American study. Despite that, when we last spoke two weeks ago, Mr Hyett was already planning celebrations in his head. "Once it is over and she's back, we'll have a bloody big party." It sounded like desperate self-delusion back then, when he looked around at the empty street. "It's gone out of the media, hasn't it?" he continued. "Before, you couldn't park for television vans and reporters' cars. Now they've all been sent away on other stories."

Yesterday they were back. And plans for that party could be made in earnest. "We always said we couldn't do it until she was home," he said. "You can understand why it would take time; she's been through such an ordeal. We'll wait, though. We just want to get our Shannon home and give her the biggest cuddle."

Lost and found

19 February 2008 Last sighting of Shannon Matthews at 3.10pm outside Westmoor Junior School in Dewsbury. Her mother, Karen Matthews, reports her missing after she fails to return home.

20 February 200 officers from West Yorkshire Police search for Shannon while Ms Matthews makes a plea for her return.

21 February 200 volunteers join the search. Police say a sighting of Shannon on the day after she disappeared is "significant".

22 February Police release CCTV footage of Shannon leaving Dewsbury Sports Centre on 19 February.

26 February Police search involving mountain rescue teams, trained dogs and scientists fails to find any trace.

4 March Police use Shannon's DNA to aid the search.

11 March Police say half the UK's specialist search dogs are involved in the hunt.

12 March Ms Matthews expresses concern that Shannon has been taken by someone she knows.

14 March Shannon is found alive hidden in a bed at a house in Batley Carr, a mile from her home.