Head bowed in quiet reflection, Karen Downes allows herself a small, but telling, smile.
A simple gesture which reflects the poignant response of a mother presented for the first time with a photo of her daughter 10 years after she last saw her.
Staring intensely at the image of the teenager, digitally aged by a decade by university experts, Karen Downes’ eyes pass slowly between the new image and the last picture taken of 14-year-old Charlene before she disappeared on November 1, 2003.
“This picture was taken for a bus pass we were going to get for Charlene,” explains the mother-of-five pointing at the original, “She wasn’t allowed to smile, it had to be a serious one which was hard for her because she was always smiling.
She added: “It’s really lovely being faced with a photo of what she would have looked liked now.
“You don’t see a massive change between the two pictures until you look at them side by side.
“You can see she has lost her baby face. She is definitely more mature.
“She was so beautiful, I miss her everyday.”
To mark the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of the St George’s High School pupil, The Gazette contacted a lecturer in facial recognition at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.
Dr Faye Skelton, from UCLan’s Psychology department, offered to help create a computer-generated image of Charlene as she would have looked today.
Enlisting the help of Dr Charlie Frowd at the University of Winchester, she was able to use a series of mathematical equations to create the image.
Charlene was just 14-years-old when she disappeared after kissing her mother goodbye at a bus stop in Church Street on her way to meet friends in 2003.
And looking back on the disappearance, Karen said she still remembers the last time she saw her “cheeky” and “giggly” daughter.
She said: “I had been working for an Indian takeaway handing out leaflets in Church Street when Charlene came walking up the road with her sister holding a McDonald’s milkshake.
“She said she was going to meet her friends Natalie and Natasha at the bus stop and then they were going to head to the arcade on the pier.
“I told her to be home no later than 10pm. She kissed me on the cheek and she told me she wouldn’t be and off she went.”
But when Karen returned home from work later that evening Charlene still hadn’t come back.
Believing her daughter had walked home with her friends, she rung around to be told no one had seen her and she has stayed out when her friends returned home.
The police were called and an investigation was launched. The family were questioned extensively and the house was searched.
“Initially, police thought she was a runaway but I knew in my heart she wasn’t,” said Karen.
“She had been excluded from school and was due to go back just days after she disappeared, she was really excited, she just wouldn’t have run away.
“It was also pocket money day on the Sunday and she would have been back for that if she could.”
But worse was to come.
The huge police operation, dubbed Lancashire’s biggest ever missing person inquiry, was upgraded to a murder inquiry in March 2006.
Two men – the owners of the former Funny Boyz takeaway on Dickson Road, Blackpool – were arrested and charged with murdering the teenager and disposing of her body.
During the trial the jury at Preston Crown Court was told police carried out secret recordings during surveillance of one of the men’s car and flat on Hornby Road.
Officers told the court they could hear reference to Charlene’s body being put into a mincing machine.
But the jury failed to reach a verdict in 2007 and during the re-trial the men were acquitted of all charges and awarded a reported compensation sum of £300,000 each for false imprisonment. Today, Karen, 48, said the family are continuing to “live in limbo” and will be until they get justice for their “beautiful girl”.
She said: “Living with the not knowing is definitely the worst thing about this situation.
“I literally take each day as it comes. We will never have any closure until we know what happened to Charlene and because of that we are living in limbo. Hearing the news police thought she was dead and hearing the evidence in court was absolutely horrific.
“Charlene was a typical teenager. She was cheeky, giggly and had an infectious smile that could light up a room.
“She was very close to her brother and sisters and when the police asked if she could have run away from home I knew she couldn’t have.”
In the 10 years Charlene, who would now be 24, has been missing her family has grown as her sisters Emma, 28, Becky, 26, and her brother Robert, 22, have grown up and have children themselves.
“The daddy’s girl” who aspired to work with children has missed out meeting four nieces and nephews, soon to be five. Karen, who plans to mark the anniversary with a special memorial service and by releasing 10 white doves, said: “The grandchildren really help me to get through each day.
“They are like little tornadoes and Charlene would have loved being an auntie to them.
“We tell the children about her and we have Charlene’s pictures up around the house.”
Facial recognition expert Dr Skelton spoke about how she created the image of Charlene. She is well known for her artist’s impression of Christian Grey from the hit book series ‘50 Shades of Grey’. She said: “This is a terrible story, so it has been my pleasure to help out. The ageing transformation has been achieved using the EvoFIT facial composite system. It uses a series of mathematical equations to create the transformation and takes just a few hours to complete.”
‘We miss her as much as ever... We are asking, please don’t give up the search’
The mother of missing Blackpool schoolgirl Charlene Downes said the “hole” her daughter left in her family when she disappeared is “still as big” 10 years on.
Marking a decade since the St George’s High School pupil disappeared on November 1, 2003, Charlene’s devastated mother Karen is urging the police to remove her daughter’s file from the “dusty shelf” in a bid to help them get the answers they need.
Opening her heart to The Gazette about having to live with not knowing what really happened to her daughter, the mother-of-five said: “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Charlene. I wish she was here more than anything.
“The whole family misses her just as much as they did when she first disappeared.
“The hardest thing is simply not knowing what happened to our daughter.
“The best thing I have to visit and remind me of Charlene is her bench in the rose garden at Carleton Cemetery. We visit every Christmas, birthday, Easter and anniversary and we also take family and friends when they visit.
“I don’t go more as I still find it very difficult.”
Charlene was just 14 years old when she disappeared after kissing her mother goodbye at a bus stop in Church Street on her way to meet friends.
Karen, of George Street, Blackpool said: “The police tell us the case is open but it doesn’t feel like that.
“Charlene’s file will be on a shelf collecting dust - they don’t seem to be doing anything actively. I want the case properly reopened so we can get the answers we need.
“The police have never done enough to find her.
“I very rarely hear from the police but I lost a lot of faith and asked them to stop calling.
“The new investigating officer has been in touch and has told us he will be attending Charlene’s memorial service.”