Where Is Maddie McCann? 10 years today
Today marks a sombre milestone in the Madeleine McCann case. It has been a full decade since the three-year-old was reported missing from the holiday appartment where she, her twin siblings and her parents Kate and Gerry were staying, in Paria De Luz, Portugal. In the last decade, despite the deluge of inquiries made, the millions of pounds spent on the investigation and the multiple theories as to what happened, there hasn’t been a single compelling reason for her disappearance. 10 years on, the questions still remains: what happened to Maddie? Where is she now? Will she ever be found?
Madeleine McCann’s abduction in May 2007 and the media circus that followed can tell us a lot about human nature. Like Jack the Ripper, or any unsolved crime for that matter, lack of tangible evidence created a void. It also presented a small stumbling block for rolling coverage, but one it readily overcame by filling schedules with rambling chatter, live reports from the scene – whether something was going on or not – and studio guests pitching in with their two cents’ worth. 24/7 news channels and the internet bring us virtually instantaneous info, whether it’s factually accurate or not. The sensationalist craving for details means the void is filled with conjecture, innuendo and supposition. Any scrap will do to feed the beast. The immediacy of it all will compel us to snap judgements.
News channels and newspapers developed the McCann story into a soap opera. This well-used tactic sees the news become the meta-fictional version of an unfolding mystery, one that dominates and then obfuscates. For those directly affected, it is intrusive, bewildering and can even hinder the search for justice. The news media will take what is a living nightmare for a few and create a mawkish tale featuring goodies and baddies for all. A melodramatic plot jam-packed with hairpin twists and untruths would come to plague Kate and Gerry McCann, two doctors then in their 30s from Rothley, Leicestershire, even if they had a key hand in its birth and development. During a family holiday to the Algarve, a terrible personal decision and the unfortunate outcome of it led to an incident that shockingly changed their lives.
Until 4 May 2007, the McCanns were insignificant to anybody but relatives, colleagues and patients. The case served as a stark reminder that even in the day of mass surveillance, phone tracking and CCTV, individuals can vanish into thin air.
The Crime Of The Century
The unfolding Madeleine McCann mystery occurred at the time of a lightning moment in history: social media coming into its own. At the time, online hangouts had begun to play a very important role in the cultural fabric of our lives. Hair-trigger opinions could now be fired off on Twitter, or Facebook statuses and group rooms updated with the very latest gossip and news. One family’s personal tragedy turned into a mass spectacle.
A police investigation and trial by media became a maelstrom of lies and grasping at straws. Portuguese papers and magazines, bereft of proper briefings by the police, began to make things up. Their sense of national pride was at stake, too. The British media fared no better, and rewrote the nonsense printed by Portuguese reporters. A three-year-old was cast as an unlikely international icon and her name shortened to ‘Maddie’. The distinct blemish on her right eye somehow made her photogenic quality more captivating and heart-rending to the public. But not all of the coverage was supportive. As time wore on, the tide of popular opinion began to turn against the McCanns and the blame game erupted. The holidaymakers – there was a group – became the ‘Tapas Seven’, an unearned and unhelpfully salacious sobriquet, as if the McCanns and their pals were Brits abroad giving it large. Anglo-Portuguese translator and Praia da Luz resident, Robert Murat, was pegged as a prime suspect based on nothing more than a journalist’s suspicions. Apparently, he was being too helpful and liked the attention a bit too much.
The parents of Madeleine were portrayed as fiends or victims, depending on which side you took on the matter. In class-obsessed Britain, the kidnapping provoked think pieces and strong words about the intensity of the coverage and campaigning. The distraught McCanns began to see that the media storm they whipped up was not as benign and controllable as assumed. Commentators asked a salient enough question: If Maddie wasn’t a white middle-class girl from a nice middle-class family, would she have received as much press attention? Children go missing every year, so what made Maddie so special and deserving of our constant attention?
Making it a class issue was not helpful to the cause. Few took into account both Kate and Gerry hailed from humble backgrounds and did well in life because they had worked hard. Their religious convictions (both are devout Roman Catholics) served as a source of inner strength. But their beliefs were also seen as sly and deluded, even obnoxious. Why didn’t Kate cry enough? Why did Gerry seem so calm and collected? That’s not right, surely? Did they have something to hide? Why wasn’t their public grieving convincing enough? Was their stoicism a mask for some deeper involvement in their daughter’s abduction? None of these questions banded around the kangaroo court of public disgrace reflected fact or reality. The press was never going to see Kate and Gerry rendered almost catatonic by the consuming guilt. Hacks would never be privy to them breaking down completely and wailing, literally prostrate, on the floor.
The McCanns’ determination to right a wrong they’d committed (leaving their three children alone in an unlocked apartment, which led to their eldest daughter’s disappearance) was deemed either suspicious or unworthy of sympathy. Yet the appeal of Maddie and her plight somehow overrode all that. Her parents, a media-savvy couple, remained bullish and rightly so – bringing home their daughter was the sole priority. Mud-slinging was just exactly that and could be dealt with, if and when it got out of hand and into outright slander, in the courts.
The Holiday That Became A Nightmare
It was a springtime holiday like millions of others. The McCanns (Kate, Gerry, Madeleine and twins Amelie and Sean) travelled to Praia da Luz, a beachside resort in the Algarve, once a quaint fishing village and then predominantly home to British expats who rented out their apartments to tourists. The booking at the Ocean Club, a series of self-contained flats and holiday homes offering a feast of sporting activities – the McCanns were very sports-orientated people – along with the usual pubs and restaurants, was made through independent operator Mark Warner Ltd. The last thing on anybody’s mind in such a relatively quiet and respectable-looking resort is child abduction and scandal.
The first days went by as smoothly as family holidays abroad typically go. Everybody was having fun. The parents were keen for some ‘me time’ – and this would damage their public image somewhat. The resort’s child-friendly facilities meant they could drop the children off at a club/crèche for a few hours and take tennis lessons or do other activities. The Ocean Club also had an evening activities crèche, where adults could drop off their kids for the night and pick them up later. The McCanns did not opt to use the service for their own reasons, one being they didn’t think the children would settle among strangers. Along with the other parents in the group, they decided to leave them at the apartment and routinely – and very strictly – check in on them at regular intervals. It has been stated this occurred every 30 minutes. Were the McCanns lulled into a false sense of security by their charming surroundings? Apartment 5A was just across the swimming pool area from the Tapas restaurant, too, where they dined each evening from around 8.30pm. There was no heavy drinking or swinging sex orgies (as the Portuguese tabloids insinuated).
Just before 10pm, Kate McCann walked the 50 or so metres from the Tapas restaurant back to Apartment 5A. Every step in a walk lasting a mere 60 seconds was an unknowing approach to a life-changing and earth-shattering event.
As Kate entered the ground-floor flat via an unlocked patio sliding door, she saw something amiss: the door to the children’s bedroom was wide open and, upon inspection, the window open and the outside shutter raised. As the parents had left for their evening meal, it was procedure to leave the bedroom door slightly ajar. This would enable them to check up on the kids without disturbing them. Gerry McCann had made a call to the property at 9.05pm and found everything normal, the kids fast asleep. There is nothing at all to suggest they were lying about the regularity of the checks. Their claims were backed up by staff at the tapas restaurant.
Between 9.05pm and just before 10pm, the McCanns did not see their children. Matt Oldfield made the check at 9.25pm. He was going to see his own kids and thought he’d save a friend the trouble. Yet somewhere lurking nearby, making a note of the comings and goings of the McCann party, was Madeleine’s abductor, or abductors. It is feasible she was taken after Gerry left, because Matt Oldfield’s check was not at all thorough.
Kate walked into the children’s room and saw the bed in which Madeleine slept, immediately visible from the doorway, empty. The blue-checked duvet had been folded back. The younger twins were eerily sound asleep in their travel cots placed in the centre of the room. Later on, the McCanns and the Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) would recall the twins slept right through the night, despite the hullaballoo raised by frantic voices yelling and crying. Were they drugged? Ultimately, this idea led to the rumour the McCanns had taken to doping their own kids, to ensure they slept deeply until morning. There is no evidence at all for this claim.
After a quick search for Madeleine, lasting about 20 seconds, the mother realised something was very wrong. Sat with his friends, eating dinner and conversing, Gerry and friends were suddenly startled by the sight of Kate running hell for leather across the pool area screaming and shouting. What she yelled has been subject to several slightly differing versions: “Madeleine’s gone”, “the fucking bastard’s taken her” and “the fucking bastards have taken her.”
The search for Madeleine McCann by the Portuguese police would prove contentious with the family
To declare the relationship between the McCanns and the Portuguese authorities, first with the GNR and then the Polícia Judiciária (PJ), as complicated and fused by distrust would be a gross understatement. A big problem was the media frenzy and how it clashed with Portuguese law and the police’s way of working a case. It is not their custom or procedure to provide a running commentary to the press or share information. That the McCanns did not consult the PJ before readily talking to newspaper outlets and appearing on global television to give interviews, sometimes daily, got on their nerves. The McCanns’ lack of respect for the PJ was evident from their initial accusations about them taking their sweet time when their daughter first went missing. Later on, Kate and Gerry were made ‘arguidos’ (formal suspects, in the language of the Portuguese legal system), and the PJ developed a theory that the pair killed Madeleine and conspired to lead the police on a merry dance.
The McCanns, traumatised by their daughter’s abduction, were baffled by what they felt was a lackadaisical attitude. They claimed the GNR and the PJ treated the vanishing as if, in the words of Gerry McCann, their dog had gone missing. The parents were extremely demanding from the very start. The couple expected SWAT teams, checkpoints on all roads and highways, and every stone unturned before it was even established Madeleine was definitely and unquestionably abducted by a person or persons unknown. The police initially thought the girl may have woken up, got out of bed and wandered off into the night searching for her mum and dad, who had left her alone. For them, it was the most likely scenario.
The first police officers on the scene were from the GNR. The GNR, whose primary function as a policing unit is very small fry stuff – traffic offences and dealing with public disorder issues – responded to calls made from the Ocean Club reception desk at 10.41pm and 10.52pm. They arrived there at 11pm. That is hardly a dillydallying response. Nelson Costa and José Roque were not ace detectives, but average constabulary officers working their beat. They made a routine search of the apartment and confirmed the girl was not present. They spoke very little English and their unrushed demeanour irked the McCanns and their friends massively. They failed to secure the scene and allowed various people to come and go. It potentially wrecked vital evidence.
Realising that a crime had been committed, or at least potentially, the PJ was called at their station in Portimão. The PJ later theorised the kidnapper(s) accessed the apartment by either the front door (with a dupe key) or the
patio. This line of thinking also suggested the McCanns were deliberately targeted and the place staked out for their comings and goings. Why go through the children’s window, making a racket lifting the shutter and clambering over furniture, when the unlocked patio door could have been readily accessed?
By 1.15am, the GNR deployed sniffer dogs, two German Shepherds, for a search of the area. They were not specifically trained for this line of work, but it was worth a try. Using a blanket from Madeleine’s bed, they went out into the night and walked several blocks and the wider vicinity. At the same time, friends of the McCanns and workers from the Ocean Club were out in the streets, calling out Madeleine’s name. It rang through the tranquil streets until the dawn light.
The Portuguese police made a huge effort to track down Madeleine McCann, but for the parents it was just not good or quick enough. Unfamiliarity bred contempt. Add to the fact there were so few clues to go on. The Ocean Club manager, John Hill, sympathised with the McCanns and their stance. “If there were 100 police here, I’d want more,” he said.
The Man With The Child
A retired business executive on a break with his family in Praia da Luz, Martin Smith saw something on the night of Madeleine McCann’s vanishing that played on his mind. Once back home in Ireland, and the world’s media glare firmly on the resort, he contacted the Polícia Judiciária via the Irish Guarda on 26 May. Clearly, the Smith family debated whether what they saw was pertinent or not.
On the last night of the holiday, Smith was walking back from dinner with his wife, son, daughter, daughter-in-law and four children, toward their apartment not far from the Ocean Club. At a point between Rua de Escola Primária and Rua 25 de Abril, he and others saw a man carrying a child.
The man with the child was described as white, mid-30s, average build and short hair. The girl looked asleep, had blonde or fair hair and several witnesses mentioned she was barefooted. She was in pyjamas – which they stated were either white or pink – and the Smith family described the scene as not unusual but also odd. The man passed them quickly – though there was conflicting statements about the speed of this night-time encounter – and did not respond to a casual friendly comment about the sleeping girl, and held the child as if he were not use to doing so. They described it as awkward. The man with the child walked off. The Smiths put the time of their encounter as around or just after 10pm.
Had the Smith family by pure chance witnessed Madeleine McCann and her abductor on the streets of Praia da Luz? There were CCTV cameras located at properties in the area, but by the time the PJ searched for potential footage, it had been erased. There is another crippler: CCTV is banned in public places under Portuguese law. It was always a slim hope, anyway. But such lack of traceable information hindered the search and investigation in ways it would not in the UK. The Smiths may or may not have seen Madeleine McCann and her abductor. We may never know.
The Dark Side Of Light Beach
Scotland Yard’s case review uncovered disturbing accounts of sex crimes against young British holidaymakers
89 kilometres west of Faro is the seaside village and resort of Praia da Luz. The name means Light Beach, in Portuguese. It is situated at the very western corner of the Algarve, close to where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean Sea and is very popular with British tourists.
The tourist board website for the area is full of information about the beaches, amenities and local culture, but it’s as if the Madeleine McCann episode, which brought international infamy to the place, never happened. After a couple of years, locals were fed up with the whole thing and wished it would go away. It was not representative of the area, they argued. They were wrong.
Praia da Luz and the Algarve was not a place associated with sex crimes and sinister goings on, but underneath the benign veneer of sun, sea and sand, there was another story to be told. Reports emerged during Scotland Yard’s case review, Operation Grange, launched by the Home Office in 2011, that painted a disturbing picture, one far from the Algarve’s tourist brochure images of palm tree-lined roads, Moorish-inspired architecture and the allure of carefree times abroad.
Between 2004 and 2006, there were nine sexual assaults and episodes categorised as ‘near misses’ against young British girls aged between 6 and 12 in the Algarve region. All targets were tourists. One of these events actually took place in Praia da Luz in 2005. A suspect described as a ‘tanned, dark-haired man who spoke English slowly’ entered apartments and, in several instances, was scared off before he could attack. Witnesses described an ‘unkempt’ appearance, slurred speech and several reported that he ‘smelled strange’. Yet differently to the McCann case, there was no seeming intention to kidnap. As well as these attacks, there was a spate of burglaries in Praia da Luz prior to the Madeleine McCann incident. The town’s reputation as a crime-free, joy-filled haven began to look a bit more complex.
Several weeks before the McCanns took over Apartment 5A as their accommodation for the holiday, two British families had been visited by supposed charity collectors. On 20 April, Gail Cooper was minding her grandchildren at an apartment just 365 metres from apartment 5A when there was a knock at the door. A tall man, described as between six and six foot two tall and speaking English with an accent, who Cooper did not believe was Portuguese, informed the tourist he was collecting for a local charity from the village of Epiche. He gave her a leaflet and photo ID. Well, he flashed the identification and put it away before Cooper got a good look at it. She found him “intimidating” and “pushy”.
A few days later, on either 25 or 26 April, just a few days before the McCanns arrived in the Algarve, Paul Gordon and his family were occupying Apartment 5A when he too received a knock at the door from charity collectors. The guy at the door, though physically dissimilar from the man in Gail Cooper’s encounter, spoke with an accent Gordon described as “not Portuguese” and spun a yarn about how he was out collecting for a hospice. Interestingly, on the day Madeleine disappeared, four such charity collection calls made to residents or tourists were reported. There were also eyewitness accounts made by locals of men scoping out Apartment 5A in the days leading up to the abduction.
And here’s the thing: there is no hostel, hospice or orphanage in the tiny village of Epiche, two miles outside Praia da Luz, or any such charitable organisation or establishment in the surrounding towns or hamlets. These men were fraudsters and burglars casing out joints at best, or sex offenders and kidnappers involved in the abduction and/or murder of Madeleine McCann, at worst. So far, these mystery charity collectors have evaded questioning by the police and like so many other threads in the case, they are left hanging.
A major case review uncovered more facts, but no answers
As the years passed, resentments brewed. Lawsuits were launched and out-of-court settlements reached. Websites were created slandering the McCanns, twisting things to fit mad conspiracy theories. Books were published by those directly involved in the tragic affair or by journalists, offering their take on the story.
After the 2010 British general election, which saw a coalition government formed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Madeleine McCann’s disappearance became a thorny political issue.
Prime Minister David Cameron was prepared to throw his weight behind a review, but the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, rightly worried about the cost and whether it would yield fresh clues and lead to the discovery of Madeleine McCann – alive or dead. She dithered and dallied over the proposal. The Sun newspaper, cynically exploiting the case for years, demanded action and attempted to ‘persuade’ the new government because the paper had ‘supported’ Cameron during the election campaign. Genuine concerns were raised about what amounted to millions of pounds worth of public money being fritted away in times of austerity. Not to mention, once the Metropolitan Police got involved, the politicisation of the force as an arm to do the government’s bidding – hectored into it as a PR exercise or not.
In October 2015, the Met announced it was scaling back the investigation. 29 officers had been cut down to four. The cost of proceedings was revealed to be in excess of £10 million. 650 suspects were pegged with 60 of those considered ‘serious’ and warranting a comprehensive looking into. Fresh searches of areas in Praia da Luz were made with ground-penetrating radar, dogs and a digital image was released to the public showing Madeleine as a 12-year-old.
In a statement released to the press on 28 October 2015, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said: “The Met investigation has been painstaking and thorough and has for the first time brought together in one place what was disparate information across the world.”
As from the moments they knew she was gone, the McCanns have remained resolute and steadfast in finding their daughter. The case is open still; the search for Madeleine goes on.
This feature was part of Issue 9 of Real Crime magazine: you can read more cold cases and other true crime stories in the latest issue of Real Crime magazine.