November 1, 2003, seemed like an ordinary day in the Downes household.
But it was the last time the family and friends of 14-year-old Charlene Downes would see her alive.
It’s a case that has scarred the Lancashire seaside town of Blackpool over the last 16 years and no trace of the schoolgirl has ever been found.
Police launched a huge missing persons hunt for Charlene but officers now believe she was killed shortly after she disappeared.
Now, a Channel 5 documentary, Vanished: The Murder of Charlene Downes, re-examines the case in the hope new leads can be found as to what happened on that winter’s night.
Those involved believe Charlene could have been targeted because of the dark secret she was believed to be hiding.
Charlene was one of the victims of Blackpool’s “endemic child abuse”.
During the probe into Charlene’s disappearance police spoke to thousands of people and found teenage girls were “swapping sex for food, cigarettes and affection”.
But for her family, that Saturday started like any other.
Mum Karen explained: “She went out with Becky. I gave them their pocket money, £5 each.”
Becky added: “Charlene was wearing my clothes, she was very cheeky.
“It was very cold that night, absolutely freezing. Our plans were like any other teenagers – to go to the arcades and McDonald’s and then go and see our mum.”
Karen will never forget the final words she said to her young daughter, who would now be 29.
The devastated mum explained: “I said to her ‘don’t be late home my darling’.
“And she replied, ‘mum, I won’t be home late’.”
It would be the last thing Karen would ever say to her daughter.
Police launched a huge manhunt following the teenager’s disappearance but officers said they were greeted with a “web of lies” almost as soon as they started to investigate.
Detective Don Fraser said: “It became very difficult to see the wood for the trees. Girls of Charlene’s age were reluctant to tell the truth.
“They thought it best to tell a white lie to protect their own reputation.”
But then officers received a piece of bombshell information from Blackpool businessman, David Cassidy.
He claimed two kebab shop owners – Iyad Albattikhi and Mohammed Reveshi – were responsible for Charlene’s disappearance – and death.
David, who ran an arcade machine firm, told the documentary: “I had heard rumours of young girls getting into vans and not being seen until the next day.
“I’ve heard people say Raveshi was seen in bed with three young girls and one of them was Charlene Downes.
“I was told that she had had enough and was going to go to the police and that’s what triggered something in their heads and they weren’t going to let that happen.”
Charlene’s friends have confirmed that she was a regular in Blackpool’s kebab shops.
Close friend, Martin, said: “I was never allowed in the kebab shop, I just had to wait outside.
“I used to tell her this wasn’t right as they were fully grown men.
“She was really caring when she was 12 or 13 but at 14 she just changed.
“Her eyes had just gone, it was like she was trying to make it all go away.”
Another friend, Tash, added: “She wasn’t very streetwise, which made her more vulnerable to people who wanted to abuse her
“I was groomed as well but I wasn’t groomed to the point that I was taken advantage of.
“I’d go in, get my burger and give thema kiss on the cheek, that used to happen a lot, it wasn’t shocking to us, it was just normal.”
Followng her disappearance, chilling rumours were circulating round the seaside town about what had happened to the teenager.
One was that Charlene had been murdered and then disposed of in black bin bags.
And a second, gruesome claim, was that she had been killed and her body used in kebabs
Charlene’s friend, Tash, said: “One man is said to have become ill after eating a kebab and when it was tested, human remains were found.
“There was also a rumour that she had been put into a wall.”
Albattikhi and Reveshi have always denied any involvement in the teenager’s disappearance and suspected death.
Police were horrified at what the probe into Charlene’s disappearance had uncovered.
Don Fraser said: “We discovered what we believed to be an epidemic of he sex abuse of children.
These girls were 14 or 15 and were far too young to be taken advantage of by adults.”
Following a huge police investigation into Albattikhi and Reveshi, which involved covert surveillance of their homes and cars, the two men were charged.
Albattikhi was charged with her murder while Reveshi was accused of disposing of her body.
Both stood trial in May 2007 but the jury failed to reach a verdict.
A retrial was ordered for the following year but the covert-surrveillance gathered by Lancashire Police was found to contain errors, the case dropped and the men were released.
Both men have also repeatedly denied being involved in grooming gangs.
Single Reveshi, who had also been a foster carer to disadvantaged young people, said: ‘I don’t care where she is or whether she is alive or dead.”
But for Charlene’s mum Karenm with her daughter still missing and no body, the pain can never be over.
She said: “Charlene was my baby girl. She would be 29 now but to me she’s still a 14-year-old girl.
I’ve often walked round and thought I’ve seen her and shouted to her.
“I miss her terribly, I miss everything about her and I just wish I could have her back.
“She was hanging around in takeaways and meeting up with grooming men but I knew nothing about that but that was still part of her.”
Vanished: The Murder of Charlene Downes is on Channel 5 at 10pm tonight.