IT is 15 years since her daughter disappeared into the bright lights of Blackpool. And still Karen Downes waits.
Amid the torment her life has become since that day, Karen’s ears are still constantly on alert for the one sound that could mend her broken heart.
“I still stupidly hope for the day when Charlene walks though the door, shouting ‘Mummy I’m home’,” she says. “I know I made mistakes. She was 14 and wayward. I should have spotted what was going on.”
In the years since Charlene vanished on November 1, 2003, Karen has faced a series of hammer blows…
Her own guilt at feeling a failure as a mother. A bizarre and shocking twist in her marriage that left her dumbfounded days after her daughter had gone missing.
A bungled police investigation – and a terrifying court case in which a jury heard Charlene had been the victim of a grooming gang in her home town and had been murdered, chopped up and served as kebab meat.
Only now does mum-of-four Karen, 53, feel she can tell her full story. From the start, she had to face a nightmare no mum of a missing child should have to contend with.
Officers searched the house and found husband Bob had a secret – and they took him to the station and asked if he’d murdered Charlene because of it.
“When forensics were searching the house they found counselling records for a woman called Martina Peters,” says Karen.
“As they questioned Bob I searched our bedroom. As I rummaged under his clothes I found a rolled bundle and knew instantly, from the cheap scratchy lace, what it was. I felt sick as I unrolled a burgundy pair of pants, a black bra and tights. Hidden in a T-shirt was red nail polish.”
When her husband came home, Karen confronted him. “I asked him who Martina was and he said ‘It’s me, Karen.’ He had tears in his eyes and said he’d had counselling for transgender tendencies for two years. He said the police thought he might have killed Charlene because she caught him.
“I couldn’t take it all in. This was Bob who loved going for a few pints, a strong father figure. But with Charlene missing, it didn’t seem like the shock it should have been.
“And I knew he was no killer and was torn in two about his daughter.”
As the months passed, Karen took to sleeping in Charlene’s room, gazing up at Picture: PETER POWELL
WaYWarD Charlene at six with a cousin BouND BY GrieF Karen still with Bob despite the shock of his transgender secret HuNT sTill oN Reward poster for Charlene. Below: Memorial plaque