Leanne, the daughter I miss so much

Leanne Tiernan was kidnapped and murdered more than three years ago. Her mother Sharon has taken part in a TV programme about the hunt for the killer. She talks to Sheena Hastings about the hole left in her life. "HI, it's Leanne here. I can't get to the phone right now. Call back later. Bye."

Strangely enough, that's the message you hear when you call Sharon Hawkhead on her mobile phone. She uses an old mobile that belonged to her daughter. The phone Leanne had with her the night she was kidnapped as she walked from a bus stop to her home in Bramley, Leeds, has never been found.

Sharon rang and rang, but no-one answered, and eventually the line went dead.

It doesn't seem strange to Sharon that the caller is taken aback at hearing the voice of a 16-year-old whose life was cruelly extinguished by John Taylor, who lay in wait in the darkness of the lonely wooded area of Houghley Gill.

In some way the phone must make her feel close to her daughter, who would have been 20 this September. "I won't stop using it 'til it breaks," says Sharon, a small blonde woman whose eyes seem to have lost any light they ever had, during the months and years since Leanne went to town and never came home, on November 26, 2000.

The living room walls of the house where Sharon and Leanne's older sister Michelle live are alive with vibrant photographs of the missing one. Her black cat Suki is curled up on a cushion, lost in sleep. Leanne's possessions, including many soft toys, are still crammed into a small bedroom.

The three rottweilers are still in residence, including Cassie, the one Michelle and her then boyfriend Darren took out to look for Leanne the night she disappeared. She had got off the bus with her friend Sarah, they parted company, but when Sarah called Leanne at home shortly afterwards, she was not there.

The case triggered one of the biggest crime inquiries since the days of the Yorkshire Ripper – an inquiry that cost 2m. Nine months after she was last seen, Leanne's body was found 16 miles away, in Lindley Woods, near Otley. She'd been strangled and was wrapped in 16 bin bags and a duvet.

It didn't take long for West Yorkshire Police to find their way to the door of Bramley man John Taylor, who was eventually brought to justice for Leanne's murder, and later for committing two rapes carried out 12 years earlier. He received a total of four life sentences.

After the turmoil of the last three years, Taylor is now safely behind bars, and all has gone quiet. No periodic bulletins from the police, no more hoping that Leanne will walk through the door. "For a long time after she went missing, I left the door open so she could just walk in," says Sharon.

"That Christmas, although we didn't much feel like it, I decorated the living room and my mum made the full traditional dinner, convinced that Leanne would turn up on Christmas Day. We'd already bought her some presents before she disappeared, and they were waiting."

"We miss her so much. She could be a stroppy, sulky teenager. She loved loud music and dancing. But without her things are very quiet here."

Sharon says she tries not to think about what happened to Leanne, whose dead body is believed by forensic experts to have been frozen for many months before being dumped in the woods by Taylor.

"But it's only about five seconds before I think about her when I wake up each day. I have a photo of her that no-one else has seen beside my clock by the bed." We all became used to the sight of Leanne with her long blonde hair and smart school uniform, beaming at us from newspapers during the months of investigation.

The process of bringing forward information about both the girl, and later about her killer, naturally involves making full use of the media. Sharon had to face the cameras at countless press conferences, as well as divulging everything about Leanne and the family, in the hope of furthering the inquiry.

The sight of a distraught families does apparently help to jog the public memory, but Sharon found the exposure almost unbearable.

"When we did the first press conference after she'd disappeared, I did my best to answer questions that were fired at me from all over the room, as I sat there blinded by the lights. Afterwards, I was told that I had not been emotional enough." She says she's wept most of her tears in private.

The cameras had their appetite for emotion fed fulsomely, though, at the press conference after Leanne's body had been found on August 21, 2001. "After the first occasion we used a prepared script, because it was better for me. No-one's ever told me how to behave in front of the media.

"When they'd found her, we went into the room in front of everyone and I couldn't speak. I broke down and had to run away. At the time, you do what you're told you should, and you do it because you think it'll help. But that was too much."

There are times during the horror that are now a blank for Sharon. She got through it without going insane, she says, by going back to work in the offices of a finance company, and by attending a spiritualist church.

Michelle sits quietly smoking and listening to her mum. For a long time Sharon was terrified of letting her remaining daughter out of her sight. Michelle's employers at a catalogue company were prevailed upon to let her do shifts which meant minimal travel in the dark, and often Sharon would meet her daughter at the bus stop. Michelle still obviously feels Sharon is "bubblewrapping" her. "It's hard for mum, but I really don't take risks."

Tonight, ITV1's Real Crime series will look back over the Leanne Tiernan story, analysing the police investigation and how the nuts and bolts of the successful case against John Taylor were brought together. They believe Taylor must have committed other violent crimes in the 12 years between the two rapes and the murder of the Bramley teenager, and are determined to fill in the gap.

But why did Sharon go in front of a camera again, after all the family has been through?

"Well, I believe he did other crimes, and people might come forward with information after this. But I don't really think about him. He's nothing, less than nothing.

"I just like talking about Leanne."

sheena.hastings@ypn.co.uk

Real Crime: Girlsnatcher is on ITV1 at 11pm tonight.