Madeleine McCann: is there hope at last after raid on gypsy camp?
FOR anyone who has followed the story of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the scenario may sound tantalisingly plausible.
During a raid on a run-down gipsy site, police find a young girl whose blonde features stand out among her dark-skinned siblings. A DNA test proves she is not related to the couple who claim to be her parents and, as they are arrested for abduction, police reveal the girl is of "Northern European" origins.
The end of Kate and Gerry McCann’s six-year ordeal? Sadly not. "Maria", the girl found in last Wednesday’s raid at a gipsy site in Greece, turned out to be just four, while Madeleine — if she is still alive — will be 10 by now. None the less, for her parents, the mere possibility that another couple’s child could disappear and be found again was a source of inspiration. "Whenever a child is recovered in this kind of situation it gives them a sense of hope," their spokesman told The Sunday Telegraph last night.
Abduction by gipsies is just one of the many theories that have been aired about Madeleine’s disappearance since she vanished from a holiday apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz one May evening in 2007. Others are that she was stolen to order by a paedophile gang, or that she was sold into child slavery. The fact is that nobody knows. Yet as Greek police were trying to trace Maria’s parents last week, their counterparts at Scotland Yard were announcing what could prove to be a significant breakthrough in Madeleine’s case.
On Monday night, during a fresh appeal on Crimewatch watched by seven million people, they issued new e-fits of a man seen carrying a child from the resort the night that Madeleine disappeared. At first glance, the e-fit looks like a like a wanted poster for Mr Ordinary: the suspect is described as being white, clean shaven, of medium height and medium build, aged between 20 and 40 and with short brown hair. Such a description could arguably apply to a large section of the male population in Praia da Luz that night, and indeed much of the rest of Europe.
But since the e-fit was issued, along with a new reconstruction of events which placed Madeleine’s abduction 45 minutes later than previously thought, Crimewatch has had what it says is an "unprecedented" number of responses. Many of them are from Britons who were in the resort at the time but had not previously come forward. And crucially, several claim to have identified the man in the e-fit, with two of them independently giving the same name.
"We have now had over 730 calls and 212 emails as a direct result of the specific lines of inquiry we issued," said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, who is leading a squad of 35 detectives based at London’s Belgravia police station and set up to review the case two years ago. "Detectives are now trawling through and prioritising that material. This will take time."
As of this weekend, there was no indication as to whether the Crimewatch appeal would lead anywhere: police have declined to comment on whether any of those named by callers could be potential suspects. But the appeal is still a welcome change in direction for what had otherwise seemed in danger of becoming a media soap opera, mired in conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and lawsuits, in which the very real tragedy of a girl’s disappearance had been forgotten.
Only last month, Kate McCann, now 45, was in court in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where she and her husband are seeking libel damages of £1 million from a man accused of spreading "poisonous lies" about them. He was none other than the detective who led the initial inquiry into their daughter’s death, Goncalo Amaral, whose book, The Truth of the Lie, accused them of faking their daughter’s abduction to cover up the fact that she had a fatal accident in the apartment.
Similar claims led to the McCanns successfully suing British newspapers for more than half a million pounds, and while few believe the word of Mr Amaral, who was subsequently removed from the case, the mud has stuck to some extent. To this day, anti-McCann "trolls" persist in voicing malevolent conspiracy theories on the internet. As of this weekend, some were even threatening to scupper the latest Crimewatch appeal by flooding Scotland Yard with false information.
Indeed, the sheer volume of information in the case has been one of the problems. During their past six years of relentless campaigning, the McCanns have met everyone from the Pope to Oprah Winfrey, and cooperated with documentary makers and previous Crimewatch appeals. Pictures of Madeleine have appeared in newspapers from Brazil to Burma. When Scotland Yard decided to review the inquiry in 2011, three years after the Portuguese had declared the case closed, they had some 30,000 pages of files to sift through, and no shortage of spurious "Maddie" sightings generated by the media frenzy.
She was the sad little girl standing at a petrol station in Marrakesh in Morocco with a man in his 30s. She was the girl seen with a "tall swarthy man" in the south of France in 2008. She was with a Portuguese couple seen by retired civil servant in Dorset. She was with a man in Sydney, half a dozen different people in Brazil and others in Holland, Sweden and New Zealand.
So for the benefit of those who instantly change channels or turn the page whenever the case is mentioned, it is perhaps worth pointing out that last Monday’s Crimewatch appeal provided a graphic reminder of just how chilling the original abduction was, turning what should have been a pleasant holiday evening into something from a horror film.
As they had done every night of their holiday, it began with the McCanns reading bedtime stories to their three children — Madeleine, then three, and her baby twin siblings, Sean and Amelie. They then put the three of them to bed in the way that any parent will recognise – the window curtained and shuttered to stop morning light waking the children up early, the door left slightly open for reassurance.
After that, Kate and Gerry left apartment G5a and headed down to join their friends, also parents, for dinner at restaurant on the resort complex just 50 yards walk away. As Kate told the Crimewatch programme on Monday, both parents were actually nursing slightly guilty consciences: Madeleine had complained to them that the night before, she and her brother had woken up while her parents were dining, and wondered where they were. So that night there was regular checks, including one around 10pm just after Kate had finished eating.
The first thing she noticed was that the door to Madeleine’s bedroom was rather more ajar than it had been. Then, as she approached, it slammed shut as if by a ghost. When Kate peered in, she saw Madeleine’s empty bed in the half darkness. "I wondered if she’d clambered into our own bed, but she hadn’t, and at that point panic kicked in," she said, describing how she then rushed back into the children’s room to look again. "It was literally at that point that the curtains that were closed suddenly blew open, and I realised that the window had been pushed right open," she added, forcing back tears. "I knew straight away then that Madeleine had been taken."
Ever since, the key to the inquiry has been establishing what happened during the time from around 9pm, when Gerry McCann had previously gone to check on the children and seen Madeleine fast asleep. Until this week, the key sighting was by one of the McCanns’ dining companions, Jane Tanner, who went to check on her own children at 9.15pm and saw a man just yards from the McCanns’ apartment. He was wearing beige trousers and a brown jumper, and was carrying young child.
After much painstaking analysis, however, the Scotland Yard team has concluded that this man – later depicted in an artist’s impression – was actually nothing to do with the abduction. They noticed that on the evening in question, there was a "night creche" in operation near the apartment block, and after tracking down the families who were using it, found a man whose clothes were "uncannily similar" to the man seen by Ms Tanner. "We are almost certain now that this sighting was not the abductor," said DCI Redwood, who described it as a "revelation moment" for the inquiry.
Instead, detectives are now focusing their efforts on a second man seen carrying a child towards the beach just minutes before Kate McCann went to check on Madeleine. An Irishman, Martin Smith, and his wife reported seeing him at the time. Their e-fits, which have only now been released, were originally produced by a private detective agency which was hired by the McCanns in 2008 when they became dissatisfied with the Portuguese police inquiry.
At the time, though, it was not published, partly because Portuguese detectives thought the other theory more viable, and partly because Mr Smith himself said he thought the man he had seen looked like Gerry McCann, whom several other witnesses had already said had been at the restaurant table at that point.
Now the later sighting is being taken seriously. While DCI Redwood stressed that it could be a yet another innocent holidaymaker carrying his child, it is the key public line of inquiry, if only because of the absence of anything else. Yet it also means that what could be the key e-fit lay under wraps for several years. "It was passed to the Portuguese police at the time and for whatever reason they decided to nothing whatsoever with it," said one source close to the McCann investigation. "It was then handed to the Met two years ago, and they have now deemed it worthy of publication, but frankly it should have been out there a long time ago."
Will it lead to anything? Privately, those close in the case concede that this is not so much a compelling new theory, so much as an older one that now seems more relevant in the light of other theories being discredited. And if the e-fit looks vague, so too do the other appeals for information in the Crimewatch programme: namely two men seen on the balcony of a nearby apartment around the time of Madeleine’s abduction, a man who was collecting for charity and some fair-haired men seen lurking around the holiday apartments who could be German, or possibly Dutch. Or, as some might point out, simply the kind of middle-aged men who tend to be associated in the public mind with child abductions.
DCI Redwood is not to be deterred, however. "On one reading of the evidence, this case does have the hallmarks of a pre-planned abduction," he said. "That would undoubtedly have involved reconnaissance, so we are really keen to find out who these people so that we can eliminate them."
Not only that, it would probably have involved drugging Madeleine in some way. As any parent will know, most three year olds would never willingly allow themselves to be taken from bed by anyone they did not know well.
One theory that DCI Redwood has not ruled out is that Madeleine disturbed a burglar, given that there had been a spate of properties in the area at the time. It is possible, then, that she could have been knocked unconscious before being removed from the property.
Whatever the case, one place where last week’s Crimewatch appeal has caused little excitement is in Portugal itself. While the show was repeated again in Holland and Germany last week, it was not aired in Portugal, where public resentment remains high over criticisms made of the police handling of the inquiry. Technically, a small number of Portuguese officers remain on hand to assist Scotland Yard, but that is all, and the response from the Portuguese last week to the Crimewatch inquiry suggested that they did not expect to be called in.
One officer, speaking anonymously to a Portuguese newspaper, said: ‘Basically they just publicised pre-existing information, such as the witness statements from the Irish."
For the McCanns, meanwhile, there is the added task of bringing up their twins, who are now both eight, without being overprotective. In a recent interview, Mr McCann said that even briefly letting them out of their sight on holidays was still hard. In the meantime, Madeleine’s face, be it on wanted posters or cherished family videos, still haunts them.
As Mr McCann said last week: "When it’s a special occasion, and you should be your happiest, and Madeleine’s not there, that’s when it hits home."