Two hero policeman have described their feelings of utter joy when they discovered missing schoolgirl Shannon Matthews – and their sense of overwhelming relief that the little girl was still alive.
Detective Constables Nick Townsend and Paul Kettlewell have been “bonded like brothers” ever since they cracked the bizarre plot to kidnap the nine-year-old and brought a massive, 24-day police operation to an end.
Both were serving out their final months before retirement when nine- year-old Shannon vanished in March 2008 and they found themselves plunged into the centre of the £3.2million search.
The heroes, who appear in a new Channel 5 documentary about the case starting tonight, will never forget finding her inside a bed base in a flat where she was stashed by her mum, Karen Matthews, and “uncle” Michael Donovan.
Paul, 68, said: “I was elated. I couldn’t believe we’d found her and she was alive. As we went down the stairs it was like carrying my own child. She was compliant but bewildered.
“I passed Nick on the stairs and said, ‘I’ve got her!’ I still get emotional about that moment now.”
Nick, 61, added: “Nobody ever thought we’d see Shannon Matthews alive again, so to see her in the arms of PK…
“It’s hard to describe the emotion. You just want to cheer. I can’t describe anything other than euphoric.”
Those emotions were still running high when they finally had Shannon safely installed in the back of their car and were reduced to tears at the sight of her sat on top of a pile of evidence bags.
Matthews and Donovan were both jailed for eight years in 2008 after being found guilty of kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.
The vile pair had plotted the kidnap in a bid to collect £50,000 reward money.
They sedated Shannon with the travel sickness drug Traveleeze and held her at Donovan’s flat in Batley Carr, West Yorks, close to her home in Dewsbury Moor.
While the police and the public frantically searched for the missing youngster, Karen played the devastated mum.
She regularly spoke on television and told the press all about “my beautiful princess”. Nick and Paul now believe she used one TV interview to send a secret message to Donovan, who would be later be found hiding in the same bed base where Shannon was held.
Matthews told camera crews: “She’s out there somewhere, in a nice warm environment. But the person who’s got her is not coming forward…”
It was around Day 23 of the hunt when Paul and Nick first heard about Donovan, who was the uncle of Matthews’ boyfriend, Craig Meehan.
Donovan was a regular visitor to Dewsbury Moor but had not been seen there since Shannon vanished. So the detectives decided to pay him a visit.
There was no answer at his flat so the pair decided to speak to June Batley, his neighbour downstairs. What she told them made them determined to get into Donovan’s flat.
They knew from police briefings that Shannon had an unusual gait and walked with tiny steps.
June told the officers she knew Nick was in because she had heard movement upstairs, including the “tiny footsteps of a toddler”.
Nick said: “That’s when my spidey senses really started tingling. I couldn’t believe what I had heard.” They had to wait for back-up to arrive and use a door rammer to get into the flat.
Paul walked in first. He recalled: “There was a deathly silence, then I heard a little girl’s voice. She said, ‘Stop it, you’re frightening me.’
“I think Donovan had his hand over her mouth. I knew the voice had come from within the room. I couldn’t work out where it was coming from.
“There were some noises from within the double bed base, shuffling noises. Then Shannon started to appear head first. One of the officers passed her to me. I asked if she was Shannon and she said, ‘Yes.’”
Donovan bit a police officer as he was dragged from the bed base. He told them: “Get Karen down here. We’re sharing the money – £50,000.” While he was carted off in a police van, Shannon was in the car speaking on the phone to her rescuers’ boss.
Paul explained: “We had to get Shannon to say hello because Detective Inspector Chris Walker didn’t believe us!”
“It was almost like a dream driving to Dewsbury Police Station to deliver Shannon to my colleagues – and to say to them we’d done it as a team.”
Nick added: “That’s the last I saw of her. I hope she has made something of herself.”
But he did see Shannon’s mother again when he had to drive her to Newlands Prison.
He said: “She asked me what time it was and said, ‘Can’t you go any faster?’
“I asked why she was in such a hurry to get back to prison and she said, ‘It’s Chilli tonight. My favourite.’
“She never asked one question about her beautiful princess!”