real life

The kidnapping hoax that had a nation enthralled and then very, very angry.

On the 19th of February, 2008, nine-year-old Shannon Matthews was reported missing in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, England.

At the time, the case was shrouded in mystery. Elevated to the status of a Madeline McCann-type disappearance and compelling an entire country to be enthralled by the crime, the case took up much of police resources and even greater media attention.

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, the West Yorkshire Police questioned 1,500 motorists and searched 3,000 houses. The paper also reported that by the 5th of March – just two weeks after Matthews was reported missing – more than 250 officers and 60 detectives were involved in the investigation, equating to about 10 per cent of the West Yorkshire force’s operational strength. Over half of the UK’s sniffer dogs were also used.

It became the largest police search for a missing person in the area in 30 years.

By the 14th of March, under a month after the search started, the nine-year-old was found and the real mystery began. Where had she been? Who had she been with? Who had taken her?

The truth of Shannon’s disappearance was far less violent, but arguably all the more tragic than initially considered, when news broke.

Her mother, Karen, had fooled the UK into one of the more elaborate kidnapping hoaxes of our time. This week, the BBC is airing a drama called The Moorside that is based on the story of Shannon’s abduction.

After she was found in the home of 39-year-old Michael Donovan, the uncle of Karen’s boyfriend Craig Meehan, police grew suspicious.

The kidnapping, it appeared, was planned all along. Karen and Michael were interested in generating money through publicity and taking it for themselves.

Their foiled plan was a fallible one.

Michael was to eventually “find” Shannon and claim the reward. The reward was to be split between them.

However, the duo were both convicted of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice in December 2008 and sentenced to eight years prison.

Karen Matthews was released in April 2012 after serving half her sentence, while Donovan was released in March 2012.

The BBC drama is to take the focus off both Matthews and Donovan, and instead centre on Karen’s friend Julie Bushby, who coordinated hundreds of local volunteers who gave their time and energy to take part in the search.

In the immediate aftermath, Shannon was placed under police protection, cared for by the social service and given a new identity. Today, she is 18 years old.