Shannon Matthews: The kidnap hoax that shocked the UK

Shannon Matthews Image copyright PA
Image caption Shannon Matthews is now 18 and living with another family

A new BBC drama set around the hoax kidnapping of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews has drawn criticism from the victim's grandparents.

June and Gordon Matthews said that The Moorside, starring Sheridan Smith, was "sick and disgusting" and the events should not be treated as entertainment.

So what is the drama?

The Moorside - named after the estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where the real-life events unfolded - will be screened on BBC One on Tuesday with the second and concluding part the following week.

But rather than being Shannon's story, the BBC says it actually focuses on the experience of the woman who led the campaign to find the youngster.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sheridan Smith as Julie

Sheridan Smith will star as Julie Bushby, a member of Dewsbury's residents and tenants association.

"The themes of faith and trust in human nature, and the way the whole community came together, really inspired me," said Smith.

Bushby has given a small selection of newspaper and TV interviews in the past week, praising Smith's portrayal and revealing that the actress has stayed in touch since filming.

The programme was written by screenwriter Neil McKay, who had previously penned TV dramas based around the real-life stories of Myra Hindley (See No Evil) and Fred West (Appropriate Adult).

What actually happened in real life?

The hoax kidnapping of the West Yorkshire schoolgirl dominated news headlines in 2008.

As local police undertook their biggest search operation since the Yorkshire Ripper, the nine-year-old was being drugged and hidden in the base of a divan bed by the very people appealing for her safe return.

Her mother, Karen, and Michael Donovan, the uncle of Karen's partner, were sent to prison for eight years for kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice, after the court heard about their plot to hide the child and claim a £50,000 reward that subsequently had been offered by the Sun.

The crime shocked the nation, but that shock was felt even more keenly in the local community, which had been seen playing a big part in the 24 days of searching; printing T-shirts, organising fundraising, and praying for the safety of Shannon.

When did Shannon disappear and how did police react?

Matthews reported Shannon missing at 18:48 GMT on 19 February 2008 after she had failed to return home from a swimming trip with her school.

The last confirmed sighting of her had been outside Westmoor Junior School, in Dewsbury, at 15:10 GMT.

Within 24 hours, West Yorkshire Police had started a massive search for her, with more than 200 officers involved.

Image copyright PA

And the community began its own operation, printing copies of Shannon's picture and posting them up around the neighbourhood.

The idea that Shannon had run away from home was touted, but her family insisted it would be totally out of character.

The search for Shannon

As the search entered its second day, around 200 volunteers joined the 200 officers already looking for Shannon.

Within the first week, specialists were drafted in to help, from behavioural experts and a dedicated team of scientists, to mountain rescue teams and specially trained dogs.

But when they found no sign of her, police warned that she may have "fallen into the wrong hands" and said they were "gravely concerned".

They also revealed a scribbled note on Shannon's bedroom wall, saying she wanted to see more of her natural father.

A growing reward is put on offer

On the eve of Mother's Day, 11 days after Shannon had disappeared, her mother launched an emotional appeal for her daughter's return.

"Mother's Day is a day when every mum wants her children around them," she said. "Today I don't want cards or presents, I just want my darling daughter home safely.

"I have a special bond with Shannon and I feel sure that she is alive and will come home to her mum."

It was that day that the Sun made its first reward offer of £20,000 for anyone with information that would lead to finding Shannon.

Newspapers, with support from police, occasionally make such reward offers when crimes are committed. Occasionally, they are known to provide a breakthrough and the newspaper which makes the offer may gain the benefit of a close relationship with the detectives and victims.

The emotional pleas

Matthews continued to appear on TV and make statements begging for her daughter to come home.

Image copyright PA

She asked for whoever had her to release her, said the family no longer felt safe and even suggested someone close to the family had taken Shannon to "get at her".

Others added their voices to the plea, including the head teacher from Shannon's school.

And the community was still out every day trying to find where she had gone, supporting the family and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Shannon's face.

The reward from the Sun was upped to £50,000 in another bid to find her.

Shannon is discovered not far from home

On 14 March 2008, Shannon was found alive. She was hidden in the base of a divan bed at a house in Batley Carr, less than a mile from her home.

Image copyright West Yorkshire Police
Image caption Police released this image of the bed Shannon was found in

The house belonged to Donovan, who was arrested after a struggle with police.

Matthews denied any part in the hoax but Shannon was taken straight into care after her discovery.

The mother and daughter saw each other for the first time on 3 April, but three days later Matthews was charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice over her daughter's disappearance, joining Donovan in the dock.

The community was left in shock.

A Freedom of Information request to West Yorkshire Police revealed the investigation into Shannon's disappearance cost £2,659,000.

The court case

On 5 September 2008, Matthews and Donovan denied all the charges at Leeds Crown Court.

The trial started in November and on day one it was revealed that Shannon had been drugged and tethered in the flat where she was found.

Prosecutors described Matthews as a "Jekyll and Hyde" character, who forced a sad look on her face when police and media were around.

Donovan was described as a fantasist by his own niece, and he claimed Matthews paid him and then threatened him to keep Shannon hidden.

The pair kept denying their parts.

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Julian Goose, summing up the case for the prosecution, said Matthews had "lied and lied and lied again" as she told five different versions regarding her daughter's disappearance.

Alan Conrad, who was defending Donovan, said his client was not an "evil monster" but in reality he was a "pathetic inadequate" who was "vulnerable, unsophisticated and weak in body and mind".

On 4 December 2008, the pair were found guilty, with the jury taking just six hours on their unanimous verdict.

On 23 January 2009, they were sentenced to eight years each in prison. Matthews was released in 2012 after serving half her sentence, by which time Donovan had already been freed.

Shannon is now 18 and living with a different family.

The two-part drama The Moorside will air on Tuesday, 7 February, and Tuesday, 14 February, at 21:00 GMT on BBC One.

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