Mom writes book on family's anguish after daughter goes missing 15 years ago and was 'cut up and served as kebab meat'
Charlene Downes went missing in 2003 but her body was never found. According to her mother, Lancashire police dismissed her daughter as a 'runaway' and sidelined the case
Karen Downes believes an investigation into the murder of her 14-year-old daughter was sidelined because they belong to the working class. Charlene Downes, a schoolgirl from Blackpool, was allegedly cut up and served as kebab meat after her death.
Downes has been highly critical of the police after her daughter disappeared over 15 years ago and they dismissed her as a runaway. At times, she felt she was the only one searching for her daughter. Now, for the first time, Karen is speaking out about her ordeal in a new book, so that she can cement her beloved daughter's memories forever.
She says: "The police came but they just dismissed Charlene as a runaway. They wouldn't put her picture in the paper or on TV. It was six weeks later that her disappearance was made public."
She adds: "When Madeleine McCann went missing it made global headlines overnight. Of course, I feel dreadfully sorry for her parents. But was my daughter not worth the same? I can't help feeling we were sidelined because we are uneducated and working class. In the end, I was so despairing of the lack of interest in Charlene that I had my own leaflets printed and I handed them out myself, on the streets of Blackpool, night after night. Sometimes it felt as though I was the only one looking for her."
The investigation into Charlene's disappearance became the largest in Lancashire Police's history and was incredibly controversial.
Charlene was reportedly lured into a gang for sex before she was murdered, Lancashire authorities believe. However, two local takeaway workers who stood trial in 2007 were not convicted of the crime. Karen believes both she and the police missed vital clues that her daughter was being groomed. She had suddenly transformed into a rebellious teenager after being normally quiet and shy her entire life. She began to misbehave and started to act cheeky and moody instead of being the "affectionate, loving little girl" Karen knew.
Often, Karen had no idea where she was after she skipped school. One day Charlene came home with £70 and wouldn't reveal where she got it from. However, her elder sisters, Emma and Rebecca, assured Karen she would be back to her "normal self".
The 53-year-old mother adds: "When Charlene went missing it was horrendous. I kept thinking she would turn up, that she was just pushing the boundaries and testing my patience. I never for a moment believed I would never see her again, that she had been lured into a gang and groomed for sex. Looking back though, the clues were there and I just didn't see them – now I want other mothers to learn from my tragedy."
The situation affected the family gravely. Bob, the father, turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism while Karen cried all the time. Robert Junior, their son, would sneak out in the middle of the night to search for his missing sister. The other two daughters dropped out of college and work. The couple briefly separated but got back together - although Karen admits they will "never get back to how we once were".
Furthermore, a search into the family home by authorities revealed that Bob was a cross-dresser after they found ladies clothing and other corroborative material.
Karen says: "The week she vanished, the police searched our home and I was puzzled when they asked me who 'Martina' was. I thought they were suggesting that Bob was having an affair with a woman named Martina. But it turned out that Bob actually was Martina – she is his alter-ego. He had been dressing in ladies' clothes for two years and I'd had no idea. I rummaged through his drawers and I found nail polish and lacy undies. But instead of revulsion, I felt sympathy for him. He needed my support."
Karen writes about her family's predicament during the police investigation in her new book, 'Sold In Secret'. She says: "My older daughter, Rebecca, was the last member of our family to see her alive and she was devastated. There were bogus sightings too – a woman knocked at my door and said she'd found her body on a railway line. I was hysterical but she was just a crank. We had people saying nasty things; even claiming we were involved in our own daughter's disappearance. Bob was attacked in the local pub because people thought it was him. It was unbearable. I was tormented with nightmares. Every time there was a body found, I was sick with fear."
What Karen heard during the trial which followed broke her in two. "It was suggested in court too that, after she was killed, her body had been cut up and mixed into kebabs," she says. "It was horrific to listen to. As a mother, it almost broke me."
In new CCTV footage that emerged in 2014, Charlene was spotted shortly before she disappeared and police offered a £100,000 reward to locate her. However, the investigation is still headed nowhere.
Now, Karen holds memorials on each anniversary of her daughter's disappearance as she is unable to hold a funeral for her.
She says: "Deep down I have to accept that my darling daughter is dead, but without a body, I will always have a glimmer of hope. I will never stop fighting for the truth. Over the years, I've learned to be grateful for the 14 years I had with her, and to remember the happiness and the love she brought to us. I've written a book because I don't want Charlene to be forgotten – ever. She lives on through my campaign, and she will always be in my heart. If anything positive can come from this, I would like to help other families. I want other mothers to be aware of the signs of grooming – to spot them and act on them – before it is too late."