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Police investigate British woman’s disappearance in France a year ago

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/09/2020 Duncan Campbell and Jon Henley

French police are investigating the disappearance of a 52-year-old British woman who left her home in the western Charente region more than a year ago with just her clothes and a few thousand euros in cash and has not been seen since.

Karen Milsom, a Bristol-born care worker described as “caring”, “empathetic” and someone who always kept in touch with her friends, is one of more than 800 Britons listed as missing abroad by the Lucie Blackman Trust, a charity named for a young woman who disappeared in Japan 20 years ago and was later found murdered.

Milsom moved to France with her husband, Steven, an electrician, and their two sons, now in their 20s, 16 years ago, first finding work in the hotel and restaurant trade. More recently she had been a carer for an elderly British woman.

“She has never done anything like this in the past. It’s completely out of character for her to behave in this manner,” said her brother, Jon Ward, a Gloucestershire blacksmith. “We are extremely concerned. She would never have left her family with no contact for so long, so it’s my opinion that something has happened to my sister.”

Her husband said that just over a year ago she had taken €6,000 and some clothes and driven off in her car. Before she left she had an outburst in the house, he said.

“She had been fishing for an argument,” he said. “She was in one of her moods … She said no one cared about her. She would fly off the handle and then a couple of hours later she would apologise.”

He added: “I was gobsmacked when she left. She said she would be in contact as and when she wanted to … Three weeks later, I got a text off her to say that the car was at Ruffec station (25 miles away).” He said he collected the car in which he found a bag of men’s clothes, possibly for a charity shop, which he disposed of.

“She left of her own accord,” he said. “I really don’t know what could have happened. I don’t think she’d have took her life. I had two phone calls from withheld numbers. I spoke to her and it was a strange conversation.”

Steven said Karen had taken the sim card from his late father’s phone. “Maybe she was craving a more exciting life … I’m hoping she’s going to show her face, but at the moment I’m in limbo.”

He reported her missing after she had been gone for three weeks. “We wanted to give her a bit of time to sort herself out,” he said. He has since been interviewed by police on a number of occasions. Most recently, gendarmes emptied the septic tank at the house and have searched the property and surrounding areas using sniffer dogs trained to find human remains, he said.

Sue Jones, who has known Milson for 25 years said they met during ante-natal classes and have children of the same age. After she moved to France, they kept in regular touch. She saw her friend in June last year when Milsom was in the UK visiting her family. Jones always remembered her birthday, 25 August, had sent Milsom a present, and was puzzled that she did not hear back from her.

“She was a very bubbly person, very caring and empathetic,” Jones said. “But I knew she wasn’t very happy.” She said she had called and left messages saying “even if you don’t want to be in touch just send a message saying ‘I’m OK.’ I spoke to Steven and he said that he had had a text message from her saying ‘thanks for giving Sue my number, tell her I’m happy’.”

Jones said that Milsom’s mother had killed herself when she was a teenager. “I find it hard to believe that she would do that to her children,” she added.

Jones said that at a restaurant in Bristol in June last year Milsom told her: “If I was going to go away, I would go a long, long way away.”

Claire McDermott, who lives near the couple, has known Milsom throughout her time in France as their children attended the same school. “I knew she was massively bored and felt she had nothing to look forward to,” McDermott said, adding that in September last year she got a text message that said: ‘Hey, Claire, miss and love you all too. Will be back in December to explain and sort things out’, but had heard nothing since.

“Her going missing is completely out of character. She is the loveliest person. We keep hoping that she will knock on our door.”

While the number of British nationals living in France has been estimated as high as 400,000, the latest report from INSEE, the French national statistics office, puts the figure at 148,000 in 2016, with more than 40% in less densely populated areas of the mid-west including Dordogne and Charente. Roughly one-third are retired.

Jean-Charles Le Floc’h, a former French police commissioner and friend of the family, said it was “very regrettable” that the police investigation only got under way two months after Milsom’s disappearance. “It should have been reported earlier,” he said.

He said there were now three main theories. “First, she wanted to start a new life. But that takes time to plan, and someone close to her would probably have picked up on it. But she could have gone to meet someone; she could be hiding somewhere.”

Second, she took her own life. “But no body has been found,” Le Floc’h said, “and it is unusual for suicides to seek to hide. There is no evidence to suggest suicide.” Finally, she could have been murdered, he said.

Milsom is one of more than 800 people on the files of the Lucie Blackman Trust, named after the former flight attendant who went missing in Japan in 2000 and whose dismembered body was found a year later. The trust helps the families of those missing abroad to publicise their cases and gives practical help and advice.

Matt Searle, the trust’s chief executive, said that they had some feedback on the case which has been passed on to the authorities. He said that between 80 and 90% of their cases were resolved in one way or another, and that women account for around half of those on their files. The longest-running case to be resolved was someone who had been missing for 18 years, he said.

A lawyer from the French legal firm Caty Richard, which is representing the family, said she could not comment on the detail of the case because the investigation was still ongoing and the firm was bound by confidentiality laws.


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