‘Not knowing is the worst, it is worse than knowing she is dead. I swear someone knows something...’
Today, as detectives release the picture they believe may be the last ever taken of murdered schoolgirl Charlene Downes, her mother Karen told The Gazette of her desperation to find out what happened to her daughter.
The grainy CCTV image, taken outside a Talbot Road pub on November 1, 2003, is being made public for the first time as police launch a fresh appeal for information they hope will finally help them crack the case after 11 years.
Set to appear on TV’s Crimewatch tonight, the footage appears to show a teenage girl and an older woman who police believe Charlene was with minutes before she disappeared forever in 2003.
Lancashire Police is also set to announce a “substantial” reward for any information that helps finally bring to light what happened to Charlene.
Police believe the woman in the footage – seen here walking with a young girl who officers believe may be Charlene – was with the 14-year-old when she was spotted by nearby bouncers shortly before going missing.
The woman has never been identified or spoken to by police since Charlene, whose body has never been found, disappeared on November 1, 2003.
Today her mother Karen told The Gazette: “I swear somebody knows something. I have said that all along.
“They might be frightened or they might have been bribed and it’s probably going to take money to bring someone forward.
“It shouldn’t be about money – I would rather people come forward because it’s the right thing to do – but I am glad the police are doing it. I will never be able to move on until I have closure.
“I dread Christmas. It was her favourite time of year and it will never be the same again without her.
“I can’t stress enough for somebody to please come forward and get some justice and closure for Charlene.
“Not knowing is the worst –it’s worse than knowing she is dead. I can’t lay her to rest or anything. I spend each day wondering where she is.”
Despite reopening the case last year, one decade later detectives have yet to make the breakthrough they had hoped for.
Det Supt Andy Webster, who was appointed senior investigating officer of the team set up to re-examine the case, told The Gazette he remains convinced Charlene was sexually abused before being murdered.
He said: “I firmly believe there are people who know what happened to Charlene, who know how and where she was killed and where her body was disposed of.
“Maybe someone has heard, who wasn’t present but knows about it – I ask them to search their conscience.
“The focus of our inquiry is finding out what happened to Charlene and a fundamental part of that is finding out how she lived her life.
“The bottom line is a 14-year-old schoolgirl went missing and we firmly believe she was murdered. Cases like this will never be closed until the people are caught.”
He said this new line of enquiry follows a thorough review of the information police received in the early days of the investigation, before it was upgraded to a murder probe.
It is for that reason that detectives have now decided to release this picture.
Two town centre door staff reported seeing Charlene between 9.15pm and 10.15pm on the night she disappeared.
Det Supt Webster said: “They have seen Charlene with an older woman with blonde hair and a three-quarter length black jacket.
“We have examined CCTV footage from that night and looked for that woman.
“We have uncovered a woman walking with a younger teenager along Talbot Road into Dickson Road.
“We cannot say this girl is Charlene but it fits in principle.”
The footage was taken outside the former Station Pub, now Ma Kellys, at 9.03pm on November 1, 2003. Police are now appealing for information about the woman’s identity.
Det Supt Webster, whose team have had to work their way through more than 20,000 documents from the original investigation since the case was re-opened last year, said he hoped announcing the reward would help kick-start their inquiries.
“I want to appeal to her friends for any information on her disappearance or her lifestyle – no matter how small,” he said. “It’s over a decade since they were last spoken to. Time has passed, they will have grown up and may have children themselves.
“It may have been very difficult for them to speak to us a decade ago. We understand child sexual exploitation far better than we ever did.”
Meanwhile, the new reward has been made available by Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw using cash seized from criminals in Lancashire.
Although the amount being offered has not yet been confirmed – it will be revealed during an episode of BBC’s Crimewatch tonight – it will be much higher than the £50,000 authorised by Mr Grunshaw for detectives investigating the murder of another Blackpool teen, Paige Chivers.
It will be paid in return for information that leads to a conviction in relation to Charlene’s murder or the recovery of her body.
Mr Grunshaw said: “Charlene’s family have had to endure 11 years of not knowing what happened to their daughter.
“Hopefully, the offer of a substantial and significant reward will take us a step closer.
“I have made a reward available because I firmly believe it is the right thing to do. We also believe someone, somewhere within the local community has the answers – hopefully the reward may be the trigger for them to come forward.
“It is of vital importance to get the answers we need.”
Following Charlene’s disappearance, two men were charged in connection with her murder.
A jury was unable to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered. However, before the retrial took place, the case was thrown out by a judge following concerns over the evidence and both men were acquitted.
Lancashire Police, which has admitted to making mistakes during its initial investigation, reportedly paid both men six-figure sums in compensation.
Timetable of a mysterious disappearance
November 1, 2003 7.15pm –Charlene is last seen by her mother Karen outside the Winter Gardens. After meeting a friend from the bus, the pair walk off towards the Promenade, heading for the Carousel bar on North Pier.
November 2 – Charlene fails to return home and her family frantically phone around friends and check known meeting places. Police are called in.
November 5 – A dedicated incident room is set up at Blackpool’s Bonny Street police station.
November 8 – Karen Downes makes a tearful press appeal for her daughter to come home.
November 18 – Police carry out a reconstruction of the last known steps of Charlene around the town centre.
November 25 – Police widen their search to Wolverhampton and Greater Manchester in case she has gone to visit family or friends.
November 29 – Charlene’s favourite star,TV celebrity Darren Day, makes an appeal for the teenager to get in touch.