WE fear the worst.
That was the grim admission made by senior police officers today on the 16th birthday of missing Blackpool teenager, Charlene Downes.
Detectives investigating her disappearance have not had a confirmed sighting since Charlene disappeared on November 1, 2003 and think chances of finding her alive are slipping by the day.
But the dedicated team who have interviewed thousands of people in the hunt for the teenager believe they are just one phone call away from finding out what has happened to the St George's High School pupil.
Det Supt Paul Buschini, who is leading the investigation, said: "I do fear the worst for Charlene but we have got to say there is no evidence.
"We are not able to say 100 per cent whether she is alive or not. While there is still a chance she will turn up alive and well, we will make every
effort we can to see her home safe.
"I will say I am absolutely convinced there are people in Blackpool who definitely do know what has happened to Charlene and for whatever reason, whether through fear or a belief they may have been involved in her disappearance, these people have so far been unwilling to come forward.
"I am also convinced that we are only one phone call away from discovering what has happened to Charlene and there is more than one person out there in Blackpool who can provide us with that call."
The special incident room based at Blackpool Bonny Street is packed wall to wall, floor to ceiling with ringbinders containing every scrap of information the team has gathered in the 16 months since Charlene kissed her mother, Karen, goodbye at the bus stop outside the Winter Gardens.
More than 3,000 people have been interviewed by officers but all leads have so far proved to be fruitless.
Det Supt Buschini said: "We are still on with it. We still have the incident room open and we still have a dedicated team of officers on the case.
"However, we still have no confirmed sightings – more than 300
alleged sightings but the number has fallen away over time. We still get people coming forward but not in the numbers we did at first.
"Initially we had many sightings that were very promising. We were very hopeful they would lead us to identifying where Charlene is but a number have proved to have no foundation at all. Some were mischievous and cost us a lot of time and effort.
"The main question is: Is Charlene alive? I am very worried about that, given the complete absence of a confirmed sighting and the fact she has not been in touch with any family or friends. These two facts, combined with aspects of her lifestyle, lead me to think she was very much at risk.
"We would like to put out the message to those people who know what has happened to her to take the opportunity to come forward to speak to myself or the inquiry team.
"Any fears can be discussed in confidence. If anyone has concerns about their possible involvement in Charlene's disappearance they should consider the fact that contacting the
police is preferable to the police knocking on their door."
Charlene is 5ft 1in tall, slim, with straight shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes. When she was last seen she was wearing a black jumper with a white diamond pattern, black jeans with gold eagles on the front and black boots. She may also have been wearing a white hooded top or cardigan.
* Anyone with any information should contact Blackpool Police on (01253) 293933 or the National Missing Persons Helpline on 0500 700 700.