Schoolgirl found alive against all odds

IT BEGAN with a suspicious neighbour and the sound of a child in the flat above. The small home of pale brick in Lidgate Gardens contained a secret.

Yesterday, when West Yorkshire Police crashed through the door and opened up the drawers of a divan bed, they discovered the frightened figure of Shannon Matthews, abducted 24 days earlier.

In a separate drawer on the other side of the bed, the police made a more disturbing discovery: a 39-year-old man who was hauled out and arrested on suspicion of abduction. It is understood the man is a relative of Shannon's stepfather. The largest police operation in the area since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper 30 years ago came to a close with hope triumphing over tragedy, triggering dancing and celebratory drinking in the streets of Dewsbury, Shannon's home town.

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The property where she was found, which had a small Pokmon toy in the window, was just a mile from the nine-year-old's home and was understood to be on a police watch-list. When two detectives visited yesterday morning, they grew suspicious and questioned a downstairs neighbour, who told them of hearing a child's footsteps in the property, which was not usual.

The officers called for back-up which arrived in the form of four police vans complete with dogs. Neighbours crowded on to landings and watched as, at 12:30pm, uniformed and plainclothes officers smashed the blue back door of No26 off its hinges and charged inside. Five minutes later, a plainclothes officer emerged carrying a girl in a pink top in his arms.

Christopher Heaps, who lives at No 4, asked: "Is it Shannon?" The officer said "yes", while another officer declared: "We've got her."

Last night, Mr Heaps said: "I was very shocked. I couldn't believe it was on my own doorstep." Mandy Dixon, 37, whose home overlooks the flat, said: "

Officers went inside and seconds later came to out say they had got her. Someone asked, 'Is it Shannon?' and they said, "Yes, she is fine". They came out with her a few moments later and put her in a car and took her away. She looked frightened."

In the tight-knit, working-class community of Batley Carr, where the discovery was made, news travelled swiftly to nearby Dewsbury, where neighbour Peter Brown broke the news to Karen Matthews that her daughter was alive.

Mr Brown said: "She just froze. She was in shock. Then her reaction was crying. After that, she had a phone call from the police liaison officer. They came to pick her up."

Shannon's father, Leon Rose, 29, said he was "over the moon". He said being reunited with his daughter would be like "winning the lottery".

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Within minutes of the news of Shannon's discovery, neighbours – who had spent three weeks scouring waste-ground and handing out flyers to assist 300 police officers in the search – were dancing in the street.

A banner was strung up across a window, declaring "Welcome back, Shannon", and bearing the signatures of all her friends. Children returning from school to houses in Shannon's road cried and hugged each other, chanting Shannon's name.

Callie Brown, eight, who is in Shannon's class, said: "We all had to go into the hall for an assembly. I was crying my eyes out. I'm going to give these 22 letters to her from her friends. I have missed her loads."

Last night, specialist officers from West Yorkshire Police were beginning the delicate process of interviewing Shannon to find out what happened to her.

Shannon's mother had raised the alarm at 6:48pm on Tuesday, 19 February. Mrs Matthews said she had said goodbye to her daughter at 8am as Shannon said to her: "I'll see you at teatime, Mum. Love you."

When Shannon did not return at 3:30pm as usual, she went out looking for the youngster, trying first her cousin's home a few hundred yards from her house in Moorside Road. When it became clear Shannon was not at any of her friends' homes, Mrs Matthews dialled 999. Police eventually released a clip of that frantic and tearful call.

The investigation process was complicated by the complex nature of her family relations.

Shannon's natural father, Leon Rose, 29, lives in Kirk-heaton, near Huddersfield. He and Mrs Matthews separated more than five years ago. Shannon's full brother Ian, ten, lives with him. Mr Rose said Shannon may have run away to try to find him, after writing on her bedroom wall that she wanted to live with him. Earlier this week, Mrs Matthews said she believed someone she knew had snatched her daughter "to hurt her".

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Some locals were angry that rumours had linked Shannon's stepfather, Craig Meehan, with the young girl's disappearance.

Last night, Peter Brown, the neighbour who broke the good news to her mother, summed up the feeling of the community.

As the bottles of wine were opened and the tops of cans of lager pulled off, Mr Brown said: "We're going to have a party."

Neighbours gathered in Moorside Road, setting up disco lights and letting off fireworks.


• 25 February: Some 50 specialist police officers are drafted in to check wheelie bins on the route Shannon would have taken home from school.

• 26 February: Friends and neighbours of Shannon hold a vigil to mark one week since her disappearance.

• 1 March: On the eve of Mother's Day, Shannon's mother makes an emotional plea for her daughter's return home.

• 4 March: As the search enters its third week, Shannon's parents together with her headteacher, Krystyna Piatkowski, hold a joint press conference to repeat their call for information.

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• 5 March: The police team releases a recording of the 999 call made by Shannon's mother in the hope it will prompt witnesses to come forward.

• 11 March: Three weeks to the day since Shannon's disappearance, police teams stress there will be no let-up in the search for the nine-year-old. Almost half of the UK specialist search dogs are involved in the operation, they say.

• 12 March: Shannon's mother says in a radio interview that she believes someone she knows snatched her daughter to hurt her.

• 14 March: Shannon is found alive in Batley Carr – just a mile from her home – 24 days after going missing.

A 39-year-old man is arrested in relation to her disappearance.