Wednesday 21 August 2019

The litany of police bungling that allowed Madeleine trail to go cold

Portuguese focus on Maddie's parents and their friends has hindered search for the missing child, writes Geraldine Niland

Maddie pictured on the day she
disappeared in Praia da Luz in Portugal
Maddie pictured on the day she disappeared in Praia da Luz in Portugal

Geraldine Niland

NOW it's official. The Portuguese police inquiry into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann has failed utterly.

The case has been shelved pending any new credible evidence and all the investigation files have been made public.

The fall-out from the police investigation into the disappearance of a then-three-year-old Madeleine McCann on May 3, 2007, from her parents' holiday apartment at the Ocean Club in Praia da Luz in Portugal was made public last Monday. A 14-month inquiry has failed to deliver any conclusive evidence about the circumstances of the child's disappearance and it has also failed to establish whether Madeleine McCann is alive or dead.

This is the verdict of two Portuguese prosecutors delivered in a damning 58-page report, which was based on a full review of all police files relating to the investigation. This investigation was conducted by regional officers stationed at Portimao in the Algarve, seven kilometres from Praia da Luz.

The report, which was written on July 21 last, stated that the investigating officers failed in "the formulation of any lucid, sensible, serious and honest conclusion about the circumstances of the girl going missing. This includes the most dramatic thing, ascertaining whether she is still alive or dead -- which seems the most probable". The report goes on to state that the investigators are fully conscious that their work is not exempt from imperfections.

"They worked with an enormous margin of error and they achieved very little in terms of conclusive results especially about the fate of the unfortunate child."

The prosecutors go on to comment that "this is not unfortunately a detective novel, a crime scenario fit for the investigative efforts of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot guided by the illusion that the forces of law and justice can always re-establish order".

With regard to the decision by Gerry and Kate McCann to leave their children alone in the holiday apartment that fateful evening while they dined with friends at the tapas bar 50 metres away, the prosecutors noted that Madeleine's parents did not act with intent.

"They could not predict that in the resort they chose to spend their holidays, they could place the life of any of their children in danger."

However, the report adds that "we must also recognise that the parents are paying a heavy penalty -- the disappearance of their daughter -- for their carelessness in monitoring and protecting their children."

The report goes on to state that while it is a fact that Madeleine disappeared, the circumstances of how that happened are not known.

"Even if, as a hypothesis, Gerald and Kate could have been responsible for the death of the child, it would always be left to explain how, where, when and with what means and with whose help they disposed of the body."

The report highlights "their normal behaviour adopted before and after the disappearance", and concludes that "in reality, none of the suspicions which led to their being made arguidos (suspects) came to be confirmed later."

Thus the scene was set for Gerry and Kate McCann to have their arguidos status lifted after 10 months of being labelled suspects in their daughter's disappearance.

From the 30,000 pages of police documents, it now emerges that the shift from co-operation with the McCanns in the first two months of the inquiry to suspicion and finally confrontation by the Portuguese police on September 7 last was largely based on the alleged findings of samples of blood on the wall of the family's apartment by a sniffer dog weeks after the apartment had been released back to its owner.

A further sample was taken from the boot of a hired Renault Megane, which the McCann's rented five weeks after Madeleine's disappearance to move their belongings from their apartment to a house nearby.

Despite warnings from the director of the Birmingham laboratory where the tests were carried out -- in an email sent to police on September 3 last -- about their inconclusiveness, the couple were officially named as suspects and questioned over two days. It was suggested that Kate had accidentally killed Madeleine, perhaps through an accidental overdose.

Police leaks to the Portuguese press suggested that under questioning Kate McCann refused to answer 48 out of 49 questions posed by investigating officers. There was little mention of the fact that to be questioned officially Kate and Gerry had to be named arguidos to activate their statutory right to silence under questioning.

Clearly, the status of suspects in their daughter's disappearance had a devastating and detrimental effect on the inquiry in that it fractured public opinion and shifted the focus away from the search for Madeleine.

From a personal point of view Kate McCann has already described the devastation of being named a suspect in her daughter's disappearance and worse. Last March, the couple won a libel action against the Express newspaper group for false allegations.

Now the couple and their lawyers have 20 days to review the police documents and decide whether to sue Portuguese police.

Meanwhile, it now emerges from the files that two e-fits compiled by police just days after Madeleine disappeared and given by two independent witnesses were never shown to the McCanns or released to the public.

Both independent witnesses describe a young white male with deep-set eyes and dark hair behaving suspiciously near the McCann apartment days before Madeleine disappeared.

"It is frustrating beyond words," the couple's spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, said. "And the worst thing is that all this time Madeleine has been let down by the lack of co-ordination. It is one of the mysteries of the whole thing and it is tragic that it should come this late on."

For the McCanns, apart from a reported sighting by a Belgian bank guard last week, which is now being investigated by the West Brussels police department, other alleged sightings in Holland and Belgium not followed up by the investigating officers may offer also some hope of a possible break in tracing Madeleine.

A Dutch shop assistant, Anna Stam, reported a sighting of a young girl in her shop in Amsterdam a month after

Madeleine went missing. She reported that she had a conversation with the girl, who told her that she had been taken from her mother while on holiday and that the couple who were with her were not her parents.

Descriptions of the couple given by Ms Stam detail a dark-featured man with a moustache in his late 30s who spoke Portuguese, and a dark-haired woman in her 40s who spoke French. The party shop worker who offered the little girl a balloon made a report to police in Amsterdam one month after the sighting. The delay she claimed was because she was unaware of the girl's disappearance up until that time and when she reported to Dutch police she was told that it was unlikely as the parents were prime suspects. After filing her report she had no further contact with either the Dutch or Portuguese police.

Police files also reveal a confidential email from the Metropolitian police vice squad in London.

The intelligence report details how a Belgian paedophile ring had ordered Madeleine to be snatched after they had received photos of the toddler taken three days before she went missing. The vice unit's chief, John Shord, sent the note to Leicesteshire police. "Intelligence suggests that a paedophile ring in Belgium made an order for a young girl three days before MM went missing," the unit chief said.

"Somebody connected to this group saw Maddie, took a photograph of her and sent it to Belgium. The purchaser agreed that the girl was suitable and Maddie was taken."

From the files, this information was then sent to Portuguese police. They then sent a fax to Interpol in Lisbon requesting this information get urgent attention. Then the trail goes cold.

With this information, it is possible that the two e-fits compiled three days after Madeleine disappeared by two independent witnesses which were never circulated may be of relevance.

As media organisations trawl through the masses of documents, which include witness statements, sightings, interviews, crucial lines of inquiry remain unchecked by investigating officers.

Portuguese police focused consistently on the movements of the McCanns and their seven friends on the night Madeleine disappeared as they took turns to check the children. They claimed through press leaks that there were inconsistencies in the statements made by the group who became known as the Tapas Nine. Once again, the Portuguese police attempted to undermine the credibility of the group while the group were bound by Portuguese law to silence as witnesses.

One fact which rested in the shadows throughout was the fact the Ocean Club in Praia da Luz did not offer a babysitting service, but rather a baby-listening service which involved staff members checking children by listening at the door every half hour.

Full care meant that the children had to be taken to the creche. So in fact, the McCanns had initiated their own monitoring system based on that operated by the Ocean Club. Fourteen months on, all that remains is a litany of police mismanagement, which has rendered innocence its casualty.

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