Too little cared for, and too little mourned
There goes Charlene Downes, ten years ago today, skipping towards the bright lights of Blackpool. Never to be seen again.
It was late autumn, the final night of the season. During the evening, the 14-year-old was spotted in a bar at the seaside resort’s North Pier. Someone bought her a vodka and Coke. She left with a young friend. They headed for a dark, waste-strewn passageway lined on each side by the rear entrances to several takeaway food premises.
This was “Paki Alley”, where chips and alcohol were in plentiful supply for children smart enough to know that one good turn deserved another. Arcades and kebab shops were a cheap escape from teenage boredom but on that particular night, November 1, 2003, a crime took place which meant that Charlene never came home.
A decade on and the unsolved murder has barely registered with the mainstream public. By contrast, Britain’s far-right parties have taken such an interest in the Downes case that banners demanding “Justice for Charlene” were raised on football terraces by sections of hardcore fans.
Their focus was triggered by a 2007 criminal trial at which it was alleged that the child was killed by a Jordanian kebab-shop owner who later disposed of her body with the help of his Iranian business partner. No remains were discovered.
Lacking concrete proof of murder, the prosecution was built on hearsay evidence from an unreliable witness and on a police officer’s transcription of low-quality recordings from bugs placed in the flat and car of one of the suspects. Its accuracy was repeatedly challenged by the defence.
On the eve of a scheduled 2008 retrial, after the first hearing led to a hung jury, the case collapsed. Both defendants were acquitted. The far-right’s conspiracy theory — dark-skinned men getting away with the rape and murder of a white girl — gained strength in 2011 when it emerged that an unpublished police report identified more than 60 girls who were groomed for sex by Asian workers at a cluster of takeaways.
Today, Charlene’s disappearance will be marked by a memorial service in the town, organised by the British National Party. Tomorrow, its supporters will stage a demonstration against “Muslim grooming gangs”. Leading the tributes will be her parents, Robert and Karen Downes. They are cherished icons of the nationalist movement. But they sit on a hollow throne.
The truth, hidden until now, is that so many men of all creeds and colours were suspected of sexual offences against Charlene that when she first went missing the police did not know which way to turn. One of the trails led directly inside the Downes family home. Confidential witness statements, social services records and internal police reports reveal that the child protection authorities first became concerned about Charlene’s home environment in 1989, the year she was born.
Then, the family were living in the West Midlands. Police and social services launched a joint investigation because a convicted rapist, jailed three times for buggery and indecent assaults on two young girls, was a regular visitor to the house and was allowed unsupervised access to a child.
Mr Downes, now 52, was “strongly advised” by social services not to allow the man inside his home but the visits were suspected to have continued. A witness told the authorities she saw the rapist “fondling [a child] in the house and that the parents were present”. They deny that any such incident happened.
In 1998, when Charlene was 9, she and another girl alleged that they were being sexually abused by a man “trusted by Mr and Mrs Downes to take them to school”. He was charged with rape but the case collapsed when the other girl failed to give evidence.
Charlene’s parents told The Times that the man seemed trustworthy because “he had a girlfriend”. They rejected a police officer’s report that they “had some knowledge of the abuse but failed to act”.
The family moved to Blackpool in 1999 after Walsall social services threatened to prosecute the parents for wilful neglect and to have the children taken into care. In the North West, a succession of men were introduced to the family after meeting Mr Downes in local pubs. Some stayed overnight or even longer.
They included a man in his 50s who described Charlene, then 13, as his girlfriend, and a 40-year-old who later admitted to police that he paid her to carry out a sex act. Three days after Charlene vanished, a 34-year-old man, staying with the Downes family while on bail, was jailed for crimes that included indecent assaults on three young girls. He admitted indecently touching the missing child.
An account of life inside the Downes home came from an environmental health officer, visiting one morning on council business, who walked into a downstairs room to find Charlene, then 12, lying on a bed in a “skimpy” nightgown. Lying alongside her was a man in his 60s. The girl jumped up and “started to scoop a number of pound coins off the bed”. The man, “shaken and trembling”, began “pulling his trouser zip up and fastening his belt”.
In a witness statement, the council employee described his shock at “the situation I had stumbled into”. He said Charlene was quick to tell him that “it’s OK — he’s my uncle”. Mr Downes then entered the room, apparently unconcerned, and explained that the man was “a family friend”. The incident was reported to social services but “it was decided not to pursue the matter further due to lack of evidence, lack of co-operation from the family and no complaint from Charlene”.
Her parents described it as a misunderstanding. Mrs Downes blamed the council worker for being too “nosey”. They said that the man on the bed with Charlene was “a lovely, nice old man” who had merely been adjusting his trousers. Mr Downes said he did not know, at the time, that any of the men he brought home had a sexual interest in children.
The couple did not comment on a hospital doctor’s report from June 2000, when Charlene was 11, warning of suspected sexual abuse, nor on the 13 visits she made to an NHS walk-in centre over a 12-month period in 2002-03, when she regularly sought help for sexual health problems.
Her mother insisted this week that her husband always sought to protect their daughter. She described the documents seen by this newspaper as “widely exaggerated and untrue”.
This is the mother of a child who apparently made regular visits, aged 11, to a Salvation Army soup kitchen and was seen dancing for men outside a pub, aged 12. Her parents explained that she enjoyed going “to church” and often danced to “music that she liked”. It was against this background that Charlene began swapping sexual favours, during the final months of her life, with Asian and Arab takeaway workers.
The Times understands that, three months before she vanished, she was one of two girls driven by Asian men from Blackpool to a lay-by in Blackburn. There, at midnight, she walked down an alley with one of the men, returning an hour later. Back in Blackpool, she was handed an envelope. Her friend asked what was inside and was told it was “what I got for what I did in Blackburn”.
Another Asian man is known to have taken her to Manchester in an old BMW less than a week before she disappeared. Neither incident was connected to the two men who stood trial over her murder.
It can also be revealed that a week before she went missing, a white man with the “motive and opportunity to murder Charlene” gave her £40. He met her again on her final night. A police report described him as a “compulsive, perverted paedophile” living in “a squalid flat knee-deep in pornographic material of all types including those featuring young children”.
Lancashire Constabulary today announces a new investigation, pledging “an open mind” about the murder. Its inquiry will not be short of suspects. Some are white; some are not.
Evidence shows that Charlene Downes was failed throughout her life. Until now, she has also been failed in death. The reports suggest that she was let down by her parents, by care professionals, by dozens of sex abusers, by her killers and by a police force that mismanaged a murder inquiry.
Today, the BNP distorts her story to sow seeds of divisive malevolence. Too little cared for, too little mourned. She deserves better.