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Real Life

"My daughter went out and never came home" - a mum shares her heartbreaking story of loss

They told us she’d been murdered in the most brutal way, but I keep hoping she’ll come home

By Take 5 team

Karen Downes, 54 shares her heartbreaking story:

It was a wet and miserable winter's day. I was dropping leaflets for a local takeaway shop into letterboxes for a bit of extra cash when I spotted my daughters Becki, 16, and Charlene, 14, walking down the street.
They were sipping on milkshakes and giggling.
"Hi Mum," smiled Charlene.
We chatted for a while, but it was cold.
"I'm off home," Becki said shivering.
Charlene said she wanted to meet up with her friends.
"Just make sure you're back on time," I told her.
Charlene was going through a rebellious phase. As a youngster she'd always been shy and quiet, but recently she'd become a bit of a handful, answering back and staying 
out late.
I knew what teenage girls were like so I tried to cut her some slack, but I didn't like it.
Especially when her teacher told me she'd been skipping school. I'd also caught her smelling of cigarette smoke.
Now, as I watched her skip off to meet her friends, I sighed. I hoped she'd behave and come home on time.
I worked until late evening, and when I got home, my husband, Bob, was in a temper.
Me and Bob
"Charlene isn't back," he huffed.
I was annoyed. Time went on and there was still no sign of her.
"She'll turn up," I said.
All night, Bob sat in his chair and I waited on the couch. Every time the door creaked, I jumped up.
Half of me wanted to give her a good telling off. The other half just wanted to put my arms around her.
"Do you think we should call the police?" I asked my mum, who lived with us.
I was worried about making this into a bigger deal than it was.
I felt sure Charlene was at a friend's and that she'd turn up soon.
She'd done it before.
Truthfully, my other big concern was that social services might get involved.
I was struggling to look after my family as it was.
Bob and I argued a lot.
I didn't need any more pressure.
Instead, I called all Charlene's friends and we went searching around town.
The hours dragged and still she didn't come home.
Finally, on Monday morning, I couldn't put it off any longer.
I called the police and reported Charlene missing as tears streamed down my face.
I thought Charlene was going through a rebellious phase
"We think Charlene is a runaway," one officer said.But I knew she wouldn't do that. She'd always come home before.
Our house was searched and Bob and I were interviewed.
Days passed, but there was no news of Charlene.
Then, the police called with an unconfirmed sighting.
My heart was in my mouth, but it wasn't her.Over those first few weeks, there were lots of false sightings.
"Where is she?" I wept.
I felt so guilty, going to bed in a nice, clean home with warm sheets.
What if Charlene was sleeping outside somewhere?
What if she was bound and gagged, held against her will? Or worse?
I was tormented with nightmares. Every time there was a body found, I was sick with fear it was her.
My other daughters, Emma and Becki, were in limbo. My son, Robert Junior, suffered terribly too.
He began sneaking out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night to search for his sister.
I had no idea, until a policeman knocked on the door, with Robert by his side.
"We found your son wandering around," he said firmly. "He's only 12."
Charlene in her school photo - she didn't seem streetwise
I was so focused on Charlene, I'd been neglecting my other kids. My whole family was breaking apart, piece by piece.
Sinking into my own world of depression and despair, I drifted away from Bob.
We argued, blaming each other. He drank too much. I cried all the time.
Soon, a horrible picture emerged.
Through the investigation, the police came to believe Charlene had been groomed by a paedophile ring.
There was a gang of local men who were giving vulnerable young girls food, alcohol and cigarettes in exchange for sexual favours – one of them was Charlene.
Friends of hers had described how she would go into various fast-food takeaways for 20 minutes and return with cash and cigarettes.
I was stunned. Charlene wasn't streetwise.
She was the last person I'd have thought would get caught up in that sick horror.
I'm still looking for answers of what happened to Charlene
But suddenly it started to make sense: her change in behaviour, skipping school, the smell of smoke on her.
I'd thought she was going through a rebellious phase when, in fact, she was being groomed by paedophiles.
The despicable thought made me shudder.
Police decided to treat Charlene's disappearance as a murder and soon after, made some arrests.
Four years after my daughter disappeared, two local takeaway workers stood trial for her murder.
The prosecution claimed someone had found one of the men in bed with Charlene and, scared he'd be caught, he'd killed her.
Then they claimed that Charlene's body had been cut up and minced into kebabs in the takeaway shop he owned.
"Oh it's horrific," I cried when I read the papers.
But the police told me not to believe everything I heard.
In the end, the defendants weren't convicted, and a retrial the following year was abandoned.
The men were allowed to walk free and I was left with no answers.
I felt absolutely desperate.
I was a working mum, uneducated and poor. Did that mean my daughter didn't matter?
Last year, I wrote a book, called Sold In Secret. I wanted to tell my story, to try to find out the truth of what happened to Charlene.
I wanted to raise awareness too, amongst other mothers, about grooming and the sexual exploitation of children.
The last sighting of Charlene.
Over the years, many people have blamed me for what happened.
I feel so guilty that I didn't see the signs that she was being groomed and that I didn't call police sooner.
Nobody can blame me more than I blame myself, believe me.
Yet I'm still a grieving mother. I still need justice for my daughter.
The police enquiry into Charlene's disappearance is still open and they've recently raised the reward for information to $180,000.
Deep down, after 16 years, I have to accept that my darling girl is probably dead, but without a body, I'll always have a glimmer of hope she'll come home to me some day.
I will never stop fighting for the truth.

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