Episode 5 – The Disappearance of Charlene Downes

Back in 2003, Charlene Downes was a 14-year-old schoolgirl living in Blackpool, England. Even though she had become somewhat of a truant and often hung around in the wrong crowd, Charlene’s mother was comforted by the fact her daughter always returned home.

But then, one day—she did not. Today, more than 20 years later, we have a pretty good idea of what might have happened to Charlene, and yet, nobody has ever been convicted of murdering her, and the body has never been found.

Charlene Downes was born in Blackpool on March 25, 1989, to Karen and Robert “Bob” Downes. They lived in Buchanan Street together with Charlene’s younger brother, Robert—and two older sisters—Emma and Becki.

Charlene was one of those babies who woke up every three two-four hours and screamed the bloody murder every time until she got her way. But when she grew up into a toddler, she became an adorable child, according to Karen. She said her daughter was adventurous and strong-willed, constantly pinching Emma and Becki’s dolls for fun. Charlene was a little troublemaker—in a good way at this point—that gave the family home an energy all of its own. Unlike her sister’s Charlene was such a tomboy and used to prefer having a chat around bedtime instead of listening to stories before going to sleep. Her mother remembers thinking:

“She’s like an old woman, no wonder she and I are such good pals.”

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Karen and Bob had troubles in their marriage during Charlene’s childhood, and at one point, they were apart for eight months before they gave their relationship another chance. Many of their arguments were about children— Bob said Karen was too soft with them, and in turn, Karen said Bob was too harsh. Still, they tried to make it work. The family relocated to Blackpool from the West Midlands in 1999 when Charlene was ten years old. It seemed that the fresh start was exactly what they needed. Within two weeks, Bob—who had lost his job earlier—now found a new one as a doorman, and Karen began working in a hotel for the rest of the season. Charlene, Emma and Becki were put into schools, and they seemed to settle in straight away.

According to Karen, Charlene made lots of friends and soon became inseparable from a boy called Martin. The two would be seen walking hand in hand down the street, chatting away like a couple of pensioners—Martin had a similar old-fashioned view of life like Charlene. And every weekend, they would go together to Sunday School. Karen recalls watching them, thinking the family moving to Blackpool was the best decision they had ever made.

Charlene grew up to be a bright teenager who was doing very well at school. She was hardworking, well-behaving and serious about her faith. The next few years went like a dream—each member of the Downes family living their best life, but then, things began to change. In 2003, Emma had just turned 18, Becki was 16, Robert 12 and Charlene 14. According to Karen, Charlene’s behavior had started to unravel, and she was actually a bit of a handful. Charlene had begun laughing at Karen’s rules, giving cheek to her and not letting her mother know where she was when she went out or who she was with. Karen says Bob tried to deal with the situation as he did with everything, by shouting and laying down the law, but that did not work with Charlene—who seemed to take influences from his older sister, Becki.

Unlike Emma, who was well behaved, polite, and good at school, Becki refused to wear her uniform and, and refused to go to school too. If she did go, her teachers called her parents, reporting Becki misbehaving or arriving late. The situation got so bad Karen had to involve a welfare officer who spoke with Becki. Afterward, she agreed to go to school—just to start truanting again days later.

And then there was Charlene, who looked up to her older sister and copied everything she did. When Karen told her she needed to go to school, Charlene answered: 

I only need to misbehave, and then I’ll get into the center with Becki.”

Karen was frustrated but at the same time not too worried—she had been dealing with Becki and believed she was able to deal with Charlene. Soon, Charlene became playing truant too, going shopping with Becki in the middle of the day and was caught smoking. When Karen asked her daughter where she had gotten money even to buy cigarettes, Charlene only smirked and slammed the door of her room shut.

Not long after, Charlene was excluded from school for smoking. Karen says that she was not just bothered by her daughter’s bad behavior but the fact it felt like being just 14 years old, Charlene was growing away from her and shutting her mother out. The strong bond the two had had before seemed to fade. Karen no longer knew where Charlene was going, with whom she was staying and from whom she got money, and all questions went unanswered. Charlene also often stayed out later than she was allowed—hanging around the penny arcades. Yet, Karen tried to think that her daughter was just like many other girls her age, and it was all going to be just fine in the end.

Saturday, November 1, 2003, started like any other day in the Downes household. Charlene was up late in the morning, swooning over her Darren Day DVD while Karen’s mother served her breakfast—eggs on toast. At one point, Charlene asked her mother:

“I’ve lost one of my Rebook trainers. Have you seen it?”

She was still looking for the shoe while Karen was getting ready to go shopping with her mother. Charlene had plans to visit a neighbours house, who had just had a new baby, before going to the arcades with Becki and their friends. Before she left, Karen gave both of her daughters £5 each. By the time Karen returned, Becki and Charlene were ready to go out. Charlene was wearing black jeans with a gold-eagle design on the front, a black jumper with a white-diamond pattern, and black boots. She also had a little denim bag on her shoulder. Before the two stepped out of the door, Karen said:

Be good,” and smiled.

At 4:45 PM, it was time for Karen to leave for work to drop leaflets for the local Indian restaurant.  As it was the day after Halloween, you could still see children in scary masks and witch hats. At 6:45 PM, Karen spotted her two daughters drinking strawberry milkshakes while walking down the street. She told Becki and Charlene it was time for them to head back home soon, but Charlene still wanted to meet her friend Natalie at the arcades as they had agreed. So, Karen waited with her for 15 minutes before Natalie’s bus arrived. Charlene then kissed her mother on the cheek and said:

“Love you, Mum.”

Before Charlene and Natalie left, Karen reminded her daughter:

“Don’t be late home, darling. I don’t want you being late.”

Watching Charlene walk away toward the Winter Gardens, Karen smiled, not realising she would never see her daughter alive again.

When Karen arrived back home around 9:30 PM, Charlene was still out. As she still wasn’t home by 10 PM—which was her absolute cut-off time—Karen decided to call Natalie, who told her:

We left Charlene at the Carousel, at the end of the pier, at 9:30 PM...She told us she was going home.”

After that call, Karen realized things were getting serious. Charlene had never been out later than 10:30 PM. And so, Bob decided to go out with his pushbike to look around to see if he could spot their daughter, while Karen called 999 just in case something had happened. But the police instructed her to give Charlene until the morning.

With no other option, Karen and Bob—who still hadn’t been able to locate their daughter—waited up all night. Bob sat on the chair, Karen on the sofa, neither being able to close their eyes. By the time the morning came, and Charlene had still not returned, Karen desperately called the police again.

It was Monday morning when the police finally came to the family home, and Charlene was reported missing. One of the officers said:

“It is likely she has run away.”

The words were most likely meant to comfort, to say the 14-year-old was most likely alive somewhere, but for Karen, it just sounded like the police weren’t taking the situation seriously. Charlene was not the type to run away—she misbehaved, yes, but she always returned home. Right from the start, Karen had the feeling that somebody had taken her daughter.

The following day, the police called and said they would send a forensic team to search the family home for clues. Afterward, the house was left in a mess, but Karen was unsure if the officers had found anything significant.

CCTV cameras in the area were checked, and Charlene was captured on footage outside a Blackpool bar on Talbot Road with a woman in her 30s wearing a ¾ length black coat. Other than that, there was absolutely no trace of the 14-year-old…..Days missing slowly turned into weeks and then to months.

During the investigation, officers from Lancashire Police have taken more than 4,800 witness statements, and more than 10,500 lines of inquiry have been generated—but all the investigated leads just led to more dead ends.

Disturbingly, Charlene’s family later found out that the police had contacted the media, assuring them that this was just a runaway case and there was no need to cover the story. Because of this, much time was lost that could have been used to get all possible exposure which is critical in the early stages of missing person cases. Charlene’s face wasn’t in the newspapers until a month after she went missing.

It took three years before there was any development in the case. The police contacted Charlene’s family and informed them they believed she had been murdered. In an interview, Karen said after hearing the news, she dropped the boiling cup of coffee she was holding all over her thighs, but due to the shock, she didn’t feel a thing.

Two people were then arrested, 29-year-old Iyad Albattikhi—the owner of the ‘Funny Boyz’ fast food outlet in Blackpool—and his business partner Mohammed Reveshi. Again, the police didn’t handle the situation in the best way. They did inform Charlene’s family about the arrests, but they didn’t share any further details. Those horrific details, the Downes family had to read from the newspapers, which stated that Charlene had been murdered, and her body cut up and made into kebab meat.

The trial began in May 2007, during which a shocking piece of evidence was revealed—an audiotape of the two men talking about killing a girl, holding her body in a car and then cutting it up and putting it in kebabs sold from the fast-food outlet.

It was also revealed that there was a serious grooming and Child Exploitation ring operating in the Blackpool area.. . Allegedly, the men running local takeaways were giving young girls free food, alcohol, and cigarettes in exchange for sexual favors. Apparently, Charlene had been one of 60 girls who had been groomed and exploited by the ring.

Still, despite all the evidence provided by the prosecution, the jury failed to reach a verdict. A re-trial was scheduled to start the following April, but due to serious errors in the Lancashire Constabulary’s covert-surveillance evidence, Iyad Albattikhi and Mohammed Reveshi were released. It is widely believed these two men are the ones responsible for the disappearance of Charlene Downes, but there is no way of proving it—at least for now.

Furthermore, A 51-year-old man from Preston was arrested on suspicion of murdering Charlene on August 1, 2017, but he was released without charge two days later.

As for now, Charlene’s case remains open and unsolved, her family still waiting for answers. Unfortunately, the Downes were struck by another tragedy in 2021, when Charlene’s younger brother—Robert—collapsed and died inside the family home. His cause of death is not known as it is not known for sure what happened to his sister 20 years earlier.

There is still a £100,000 reward on offer for information leading to the conviction of Charlene Downes’ murderer or the discovery of her body.

 Anyone with information should contact the incident room on 01253 607370 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or you can email [email protected]

If you are a young person, you can find out more about Child Sexual Exploitation on our dedicated young persons’ website here www.trusted2know.co.uk/abuse/cse/

Episode Credits: 

Host – Rhiannon Doe 

Voiceover – Kwesi 

Website layout & design – Fran Howard 

SOURCES

Sold in Secret: The Murder of Charlene Downes – Paperback

Charlene Downes

Charlene Downes’ brother Robert laid to rest after dying suddenly aged 30

Charlene Downes, Killed for Kebab Meat?

New heartbreak for family of 14-year-old girl ‘murdered and served as kebabs in Blackpool

Who is Charlene Downes, when did she disappear and has anyone been charged with her murder?

17 years on from Charlene Downes murder – the search for the truth continues

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