'My sister vanished - I can't believe she's dead'
Seven years ago, teenager Charlene Downes disappeared. Now police suspect she was the victim of a sex ring targeting young girls. Her sister Becky and mum Karen describe the agony of losing her
Becky, now 23, had no idea her sister had already been sucked into the town's seedy underbelly, where organised gangs of men groomed teenage girls for sex. And she never suspected that this was the last time she'd lay eyes on her.
That was November 1, 2003, and Charlene has not been seen since. Her body has never been found.
"When Charlene vanished that day, a massive hole opened in our lives. We were always inseparable," says Becky, who was 16 at the time.
"I was involved in a car crash when I was nine, and ended up on a life-support machine. When I came out of the coma, I couldn't even tie my own shoelaces, but Charlene did everything for me. She was so caring, she helped me recover. Who would have wanted to hurt her? I couldn't understand it."
The answer was even more horrific than Becky could have imagined. Three years after Charlene's disappearance, a detective superintendent told the devastated Downes family that he was 99.9 per cent sure she had been murdered.
By then, police suspected Charlene had fallen victim to Blackpool's secret sex ring of older men plying young girls with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol in return for sexual favours. And detectives have since uncovered the appalling sexual abuse of dozens of girls like her.
Preying on young girlsNow it has emerged that at least 60 schoolgirls were groomed for sex by a Blackpool gang. Police suspected that the children were targeted at a series of fast-food outlets - and offered chips and vodka in return for sex.
An unpublicised police report produced after Charlene disappeared alleged that the girls had been victims of a gang of mainly Middle Eastern men who met them through takeaway joints, or "honeypots" as police describe them. Police believe that the men systematically groomed girls - mostly aged between 13 and 15 - for sex.
This shocking report has only just come to light, after being uncovered by The Times. It includes accusations from the police that the problem had been denied by agencies for years for fear of being accused of racism.
The investigation, however, came too late for Charlene. Two men were arrested in connection with her alleged murder, but were later cleared of any involvement. The general evidence that emerged during their trial in 2007 shook her family to its core.
"We wish we could have stopped her from going out that night, that we could have protected her. But we had no idea what was going on.
"About 13 girls, all similar in age to Charlene, gave evidence to allege they had been given food, alcohol and cigarettes in return for sex with men they met at takeaways. I thought Blackpool was a nice town. I was dumbfounded.
"It broke my heart, seeing these young girls describe how they were given the date-rape drug GHB in drinks and were woken up after they'd been abused. One of them said Charlene was plied with vodka, and would give sexual favours in exchange for chips," adds Karen.
"It made me feel sick to the stomach. I had to leave the court and throw up in the toilet when I heard that. How could anyone do that to our little girl? How could anyone abuse a child like that? It's disgusting.
"The court case lasted 13 weeks and it was sheer hell. I had to run from the court when I heard some of the details.
"The prosecution floated a theory that Charlene had been strangled and put through a mincing machine before burying her remains. Someone even apparently joked that she'd gone into the kebabs. To hear that my daughter could have died like that was unbearable.
"I couldn't bring myself to go into court for a few days after that but then I forced myself to return for Charlene's sake. I would have felt like I was letting her down otherwise."
No new leadsThe trial ended with the jury failing to reach a verdict and a scheduled retrial collapsed in 2008. Both the accused men were formally cleared of murder and of helping to dispose of Charlene's body. They denied ever knowing Charlene, and each of them was paid almost £250,000 in compensation for malicious prosecution.
The murder investigation is ongoing into other possible suspects, but so far police have no new leads. The only hope is new evidence will emerge so they can get justice for Charlene.
The Downes family moved from Wolverhampton to Blackpool 10 years ago. Karen and her husband Bob, 49, wanted to raise their four children somewhere safe, somewhere idyllic. The seaside resort seemed perfect and they soon settled into a three-bedroom terrace on Blackpool's north shore, just a few minutes walk from the Golden Mile.
Their dream life seemed complete. Until the day in November 2003 when Charlene disappeared into the crowd with her two friends, Natalie and Natasha. At around 9pm, they said goodbye to Charlene as they were babysitting for a friend, and she told them she would go home. But she never arrived.
Even now, Becky holds on to the belief that her little sister is alive.
"If I let go of that little feeling of hope, I'll crack," she says. "I carry the guilt around with me constantly. If I didn't leave her that day, would it have happened? It's on my mind 24/7. This November marks eight years since she disappeared, but I can't move on. I can't let go."
Struggling to live in the shadow of her missing sister, Becky had to give up her job in admin. Her parents have also floundered. Bob, a security doorman, is currently off work sick. Karen, who used to work as a club promoter in town, can't cope with work either. Charlene's other two siblings - Emma, 26, and Robert, 19 - are both scarred by their sister's disappearance.
The police have made it clear that they think Charlene is likely to have died the night that she vanished.
"Charlene was quite immature for her age and impressionable," says Karen. "Perhaps she was drawn to the buzz and excitement, like young girls can be.
"But I'd never smelled drink on her and she wasn't a drug addict. She was a giggly, cheeky young girl."
Charlene's legacyAfter Charlene's disappearance, one of Britain's first multi-agency sexual exploitation projects, Awaken, was set up to target attackers in the town and offer support to vulnerable young girls.
"I think parents and girls are now much more aware because of the Awaken project and because of what happened to Charlene," says Karen.
"The tragedy of Charlene is a lesson. I just pray no other family has to go through what we've suffered.
"Charlene wasn't a bad kid. She went out at night but she'd always be back when we told her to be, usually by 10.30pm.
"I think she was killed because someone made her do something she didn't want to do and she threatened to tell the police. She's the sort to fight back. She'd have reported him. I think she was killed in anger."
Most child sex offenders in Britain are white men, usually acting alone. But the allegations about a Blackpool sex ring suggested a totally different kind of offender.
In a town that is over 95 per cent white, many of the men said to be grooming these girls were of Middle Eastern origin.
A former senior Lancashire police officer cited "concerns about upsetting community cohesion" to explain the reluctance of authorities to publicly accept the very specific offender profile for a long time.
"If someone has done wrong, it doesn't matter whether they are black, white or whatever," Karen says angrily. "I think it's disgusting that it was kept quiet for so long."
Since 1997, there have been 17 court cases across northern England in which gangs of men have been tried for preying on girls aged 12-15. A total of 56 men have been convicted of a number of crimes including child abduction, indecent assault and rape. Of those, 50 men were Muslim and most were of Pakistani origin.
A national inquiry was launched earlier this year into the findings. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Edwards, from West Mercia police, has called for an end to the "damaging taboo" surrounding gang-led grooming.
"These girls are being passed around. To stop this type of crime you need to start talking about it, but everyone's been too scared to address the ethnicity factor."
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a national Muslim youth organisation, says: "These people think that white girls have fewer morals and are less valuable than our girls. This is a form of racism that is abhorrent and totally unacceptable in a society that prides itself on equality and justice."
The bottom line for Charlene's family, however, is that her killers remain at large. Justice still eludes them and the lack of answers has left them devastated.
"Without Charlene's body and without someone jailed for her murder, there's no closure," weeps Karen. "We live our lives in limbo. We had a bench put up in Stanley Park in the town in memory of Charlene, because we had nowhere to go. It's in a beautiful spot overlooking a lake.
"We go there for every birthday, every Christmas and the date she went missing to take flowers and remember her for an hour or so. She used to love going there with her dad as a little girl to feed the ducks. And on her birthday, all the family come over and we have a cake and toast her."
But they refuse to give up hope. "We want justice for Charlene," says Becky. "We want to find her."
- For further advice and information, contact Missing People on 020 8392 4590 or Missingpeople.org.uk.
The other victim?
Charlene isn't the only young girl to disappear in Blackpool. In August 2007, 15-year-old Paige Chivers (left) also vanished after storming out of her family home following a row.
Paige regularly visited local fast-food outlets, and detectives suspect she was another victim of sexual grooming, exploitation - and murder.
In one of their biggest investigations, police interviewed over 2,800 people, and took 1,200 statements. A £12,000 reward was offered but, despite several arrests, no one has been charged.
Like Charlene, Paige's body has never been found.