Maria’s Story

Bank Holiday Monday, May 30th 2005, was a day Maria Shields would never forget. Her 18-year old son, Michael, was holidaying with friends in the Bulgarian resort of Varna, enjoying the post-match bonhomie of an incredible sporting night in Istanbul five days earlier. “We’d been on holiday to Bulgaria before, as a family and we’d had a great time,” says Maria, “but this was the first time Michael had gone abroad on his own. He’d begged me to let him go. He kept saying there was a space on the trip with his mates because someone had dropped out and he was desperate. He’d worked really hard on the railways in the weeks leading up to the Final, saving all his money for the trip, he loves his football so much”. Working as a railway engineer was something Michael had always wanted to do, he’d just completed a vocational course at college and was looking forward to something permanent on his

return from Bulgaria. But despite being on the verge of manhood, about to step out into the real world of hard work and responsibility, Maria Shields was reluctant to let her youngest child out of her care. “I was nervous about letting him go, he’d never been away on his own before, but he kept saying ‘Mam, I’m 18, I’m old enough’. So I said yes, he could go. You’ve got to let them go sometime, haven’t you?”

Giving her son his dream would turn into a mother’s nightmare when one of Michael’s friends called early that Bank Holiday Monday morning, to say Michael had been arrested for an attack the previous night on a local barman, Martin Georgiev, whose head had been split open by a man brandishing a brick.

“After the initial shock, I wasn’t that concerned because his friend had said to me ‘Don’t worry, Michael wasn’t even there, he was in asleep in his room, with his mates, it’s just a mistake, they’ll let him go soon’. But I wanted to know, why had they taken Michael if he wasn’t even there? And his friend said ‘Because of his size, they’re looking for a big fella, a big fella with dark hair’”. Michael Shields had blond hair.

Maria then became anxious. “I started to panic. We didn’t know what was going on. The only information we had was what his friend had told us. They were looking for a big guy with dark hair, and they’d arrested Michael, who was blond. It didn’t make sense. What should we be doing? How do we know what’s going on? We felt so helpless. The authorities weren’t telling us anything, so we rang the British Embassy in Bulgaria and eventually got told that three lads had been arrested but that Michael definitely wasn’t one of them”.

But an hour later, the friend rang again to say Michael had been taken away in handcuffs. Maria was horrified. “They just took him. No explanation, no reason, nothing, they just took him. He’s such a gentle lad, he must have been scared to death”. Maria rang the British Embassy again and was given the same story as before, that Michael was definitely not one of the men arrested. What had actually happened was, at 8am, three men, all friends but completely unconnected to Michael, had been arrested. They included Graham Sankey, a 20-year old electrician from Anfield who, once back in England, was to dramatically confess to being the actual man responsible for the attack on Georgiev.

Three hours after their arrest, at 11am, police arrived at Michael’s hotel, looking for a ‘big man’ and arrested Shields too. On the way to the police station, the car stopped at Big Ben’s Bar – the scene of the attack – where one of the arresting officers got out to speak to a group of witnesses, with Michael in full view of all of them, cowering in the back of the car, oblivious to what was happening. On arrival at the police station, two of the three men initially arrested, including Graham Sankey, were kept in separate cells, away from public view, while Michael and the third man were chained to radiators in a corridor. It’s no surprise, then, that shortly after his arrest Michael Shields was identified as Georgiev’s attacker by ‘witnesses’ who’d already been given ample opportunity to familiarise themselves with Michael’s face. He was identified by a number of witnesses, from an ID parade consisting of Michael and other, older, Bulgarian men wearing jumpers. Michael was given a white T-shirt to wear which wasn’t his but similar to the one worn by the attacker, and this despite irrefutable evidence that Michael had been wearing a beige T-shirt that night. On June 27th, Michael Shields was charged with the attempted murder of a man he’d never seen before.

“I fell apart” says Maria, “I was in pieces. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was a wreck. What do you do? What do you do when you know your baby is scared and afraid and you can’t do anything to help them? Michael didn’t attack anybody. He gets embarrassed when he walks into a room full of people, he’s a shy lad. He might be 6’1” but he wouldn’t harm a fly, and you’ll not find anyone to say otherwise, not one.” It’s true that even Michael’s ex-headmaster and a former policeman friend of the family were stunned at the news of Michael’s arrest. “They were in shock, they both came and said to me ‘Not your Michael, he wouldn’t hurt a soul’”.

“He’d rang his dad the night before it all happened, saying what a great time he was having. He’d bought us all presents and he was saying how nice the people were. ‘You’d love it, dad, it’s lovely here’”.

Twenty-four hours later, the teenager was in a prison cell, where he remains to this day. On July 26th, after a trial in which Sankey’s confession was ruled inadmissible, 18-year old Michael Shields was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to serve 15 years in jail. His tearful cries of ‘I’m innocent!’ haunt Maria’s dreams on the rare nights she manages to get any sleep. “I feel like I’m floating,” she says, “it’s all one big, bad dream. I

don’t know anything anymore, but I have to believe that Michael will come home. He didn’t do anything. He just went to a football match and was having a good time with his friends. He told the truth and look what’s happened to him”.“He’s as clean as the day he was born”.

Letters from Michael

To Mum,

What started off as one of the best parts of my life has turned out to be so bad . . . but knowing that my family will be there when the truth comes out and coming home to the greatest city in the world is what’s driving me on.

I cannot put into words how much I am missing you. I am counting the days until I can show you.

Don’t worry yourself over me because all I want is my life back and my family in good health.

The truth will come out but the most satisfying moment was you already knowing I was innocent.

I would not do this to my worst enemy.

The people I’m in here with are really nice even though they can’t speak English. They are always cleaning the cell and telling me to get washed.

I’m sitting here dreaming of when I get back and you are coming home at 11am from work and shouting me to get up.

Please be strong and keep that scouse cooking for me.

YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE, (I will walk every step with you).

A big thank you to all the people in Liverpool.Love, Michael

To Everyone,

Thanks for all of your support, it’s cheering me up when I feel down.

I still cannot believe there is a campaign and people are walking around with my face on their T-shirts.

There is no day I am looking forward to more than the day I come home.

I’ve just finished the letters and I was crying but it was not a sad cry – it was a happy cry.

I know how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful family supporting me.

I sleep with my letters under my pillow and I will keep going strong.

I am just looking forward to the day I am home.

To my nephew and niece (Philip, 4, and Kelsey, 9) Don’t get too comfortable with the remote, with my computer, or in my bed – but keep it warm.Love, MichaelFurther interviews and accounts will appear soon so please add the site to your favourites and keep in touch by adding your email address to our mailing list.