Portuguese police have given an extraordinary apology to the parents of Madeleine McCann for their handling of the infamous disappearance - and for dragging their name through the mud for years.
The BBC’s Panorama programme revealed that a delegation of senior officers travelled to London earlier this year to meet with Gerry McCann and say sorry for the way they conducted their investigation and treated the family.
Their daughter Madeleine went missing from a holiday complex in the Algarve in May 2007 but by September the Portuguese cops had decided that Kate and Gerry McCann were “arguidos” or suspects.
They were quizzed by cops who thought they had faked an abduction and hidden her body.
Kate McCann said she was even offered a deal by officers who promised a shorter sentence if she admitted covering up the death.
Despite their status as suspects being lifted the following year, the couple remained under suspicion for years in Portugal and a former senior detective on the case even wrote a book accusing the McCanns of being involved.
Kate and Gerry McCann pose for the media with a missing poster depicting an age progression computer generated image of their still missing daughter Madeleine during a news conference in 2012. Photo / AP
Goncalo Amaral said he was defending his reputation after he was removed from the investigation and, despite repeated legal attempts, the McCanns have been unable to bring a libel case against him.
Aspersions cast by cops in Portugal have fuelled an online campaign that painted Gerry and Kate McCann as prime suspects in the mystery disappearance.
Now police say their initial investigation was improperly handled, Panorama reported, saying they did not place enough importance on missing children at the time and did not take the McCann’s position as foreigners dealing with an unfamiliar system into account.
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Telling the BBC they had briefed the McCanns on the latest on their investigation, Portuguese cops also said they backed the German probe into 46-year-old Christian Brueckner, a German national widely linked to Maddie’s disappearance.
Detective Hans Christian Wolters told the BBC it was a “good sign” and said his team hopes to complete their investigation into Brueckner next year.
German prosecutors also told the BBC they were sure Maddie was killed, believing she died in Portugal and even suggesting they might know the location of her death.
Madeleine McCann went missing from an apartment resort in Portugal in 2007.
Timeline: The day the McCanns’ lives changed forever
On May 3, 2007, the McCann family, from Leicestershire, in England’s East Midlands, were on holiday at the Ocean Club in Praia da Luz in Portugal.
Kate and Gerry McCann were out for dinner with friends at a restaurant complex. Maddie and her younger twin siblings were put to bed in an apartment about 100m away and left unattended.
According to Kate, the adults - now dubbed the Tapas Nine - had a rota system to check on all the children about every hour that evening. Gerry had checked his children at 9.05pm. They were all accounted for. Eventually, it was Kate’s turn to check on the unaccompanied children to make sure they were safe and sound.
Their lives would turn upside down when she opened the apartment door about 10pm to find Maddie wasn’t there. Her cot was empty and all that was visible were a blanket and a cuddly toy. The police were immediately called while staff and guests searched the complex everywhere for any sign of the 3-year-old.
The bed Madeleine McCann slept in on holiday before she disappeared.
As the sun rose on May 4, there was still no sign of Maddie. Border police and airport staff were put on alert and hundreds of locals donated their time searching for Maddie in the coming days.
Nine days later, on May 12, 2007, police said they believed Maddie was abducted but was likely still alive in Portugal. But the truth was there were no leads.
Kate and Gerry McCann during a press conference on June 6, 2007, in Berlin, Germany. Photo / Miguel Villagran, Getty Images
“Please come forward, return Madeleine, leave her in a place of safety,” Gerry begged in a press conference just two days after his daughter disappeared.
By May 26, police issued a description of a man seen on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance, possibly carrying a child.
In June, a Portuguese police chief admits vital forensic clues may have been destroyed as the scene was not protected properly. A month later British police send sniffer dogs to assist and search the apartment and rental car the McCanns used. A hundred days after she disappeared, police admit she might not be alive.
On September 7, 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann were named as “arguidos”, or “official suspects”, in their daughter’s disappearance and were both interrogated by local police. Gerry responded to some questions, but Kate refused to answer any of the 48 questions she was asked over an intense 11-hour interrogation period.
By now, police were alleging that the couple had faked Maddie’s abduction and hidden her body. However, years later it was claimed detectives had manipulated DNA results to get the answers they wanted.
By November, Gerry released a video claiming his family believed a “predator” was watching days before Maddie’s disappearance.
In January 2008, the McCanns released sketches of a suspect now known as a “creepy man” seen at the resort.
Artist's impressions from 2008 of the man the McCann family believed could provide a link to Madeleine.
By July 2008, Portuguese police submitted their final report and shelved their investigation.
Fast forward to 2010 and the McCanns became critical of the Portuguese police’s decision to end the investigation.
After a book release in 2012, UK detectives announce in 2013 that they reviewed the case and identified “a number of persons of interest”. By July the same year, Scotland Yard claimed to have “new evidence and new witnesses”. It said it had identified 41 suspects.
In 2014, e-fit images emerged on a BBC Crimewatch appeal showing a man carrying a blonde-haired child in Praia da Luz around the time Maddie disappeared. This prompts Portuguese police to reopen their investigation.
E-fits of man the Smith family from Ireland said they saw on the night Madeleine McCann vanished. Photo / Nine News
British policemen dig the top soil with a shovel inside a cordoned-off area in Praia da Luz, southern Portugal, on Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Photo / AP
By June 2014, searches of scrubland were carried out near the Ocean Club complex. Nothing of note was found. A month later, four suspects were questioned but again nothing came of it.
In 2020, after millions of dollars were poured into finding Maddie, and with the help of German police, 43-year-old German paedophile and rapist Christian Brueckner was identified as a suspect. German authorities classed Maddie’s case as a murder inquiry, assuming she is dead.
Brueckner has maintained he had nothing to do with Maddie’s disappearance. Despite German police saying there were extremely close to having enough evidence to charge Brueckner, they have yet to do so.
New Zealand’s link to the Madeleine McCann case
Secret files released in 2010 revealed there was a potential sighting of Maddie in New Zealand.
A 2000-page dossier was published detailing secret information relating to the investigation, including discarded possible leads from the United States, Europe, Africa and New Zealand.
One of the reported sightings came seven months after her disappearance, when CCTV footage showed a man leading a young girl resembling Maddie into a Dunedin supermarket.
Although the girl said her name was Hailey, a security guard who approached her was convinced she was Madeleine and reported the incident to police.
Interpol in Wellington sent the images to police in Portugal, who deemed it irrelevant.
None of the files were given to private investigators working for the McCanns, who took legal action against Portuguese detective Goncalo Amaral to get the information released.
Then in 2013, a Queenstown worker reported seeing a young girl on New Year’s Eve who allegedly looked like Maddie.
About 70 police officers were instructed to look out for the girl after a retailer saw a young person who resembled Madeleine enter her store.
However, Detective Sergeant Brian Cameron said police identified the girl and were “absolutely satisfied” she was not Maddie.
Police said it was not the first occasion someone had contacted them remarking on the similarity between the two girls.
The woman who reported the sighting told the Southland Times a girl resembling Maddie entered her store with a dark-haired man late in the afternoon on December 31.
She said the girl had the same eye defect as Maddie - a coloboma of the iris - in the same eye. The woman contacted police and also a 24-hour Find Madeleine hotline.
“My only reason for alerting anybody is because, if my little girl was missing and if someone on the other side of the world was seen who bore any considerable resemblance, I would want it ruled out,” she told the paper.
A convicted paedophile wanted for questioning in relation to the disappearance of the British girl was also wanted on a number of charges in New Zealand.
Roderick Macdonald was reportedly living in the Algarve region of Portugal at the time of Maddie’s disappearance in 2007.
Police at the time confirmed he was the subject of active arrest warrants in New Zealand related to four child indecency offences alleged to have taken place in 2009.
He was known in New Zealand as Roderick Robinson, police said. He changed his name to Macdonald after being convicted of child sex offences in the UK, British newspaper The Telegraph said.
Madeleine McCann went missing from a Portuguese apartment on May 3, 2007. Suspect Christian Brueckner (top left), former Portuguese detective Goncalo Amaral (bottom left), and Madeleine's parents Gerry and Kate McCann.
What happened to Madeleine McCann? The alleged theories and suspects
Over the years, numerous suspects have been identified and investigated but none have led to any significant breakthroughs.
So who were the suspects and how did they become involved in the mystery of Maddie’s disappearance?
Prosecutors believe Christian Brueckner is responsible for Madeleine McCann's disappearance and death. Photo / Handout
Main suspect Christian Brueckner:
In 2020, about 13 years after Maddie disappeared, police identified Brueckner as the main suspect. He had been living in a campervan just kilometres away from the Ocean Club at the time she disappeared and has a history of sexually abusing children.
German police have claimed they have substantial evidence linking Brueckner to Maddie, including a confession he allegedly made to a friend while drinking at a bar.
He has repeatedly denied any involvement with her disappearance.
Prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters was interviewed on a show called Sabado in 2022, where he claimed investigators found fibres from Maddie’s pink pyjamas in Brueckner’s van.
“It’s not forensic evidence but evidence and because of our evidence, we are sure he is the murderer of Madeleine McCann. We are sure he killed Madeleine,” he said.
It surfaced that evidence had been found in the yellow and white VW driven by Brueckner at the time.
Christian Brueckner's VW T3 Westfalia campervan, used in and around Praia da Luz, Portugal. Photo / Metropolitan Police
A phone call made by Brueckner just 60 minutes before Maddie disappeared placed him within kilometres of the Ocean Club complex. Wolters said the phone call connected to the mast belonging to the club.
Brueckner has since sent a letter from his prison cell saying he has no connection to the case.
“I wasn’t kidnapping anybody and, of course, I wasn’t killing anybody,” he wrote.
“I’ll go further, I’ll tell you I wasn’t attacking anybody after I was 18. I made some silly mistakes when I was younger but who hasn’t?”
Brueckner noted there was “no proof” against him and that German authorities were leaking information to portray him in a poor light.
“I know of about five open cases against me, all of them including raping and abusing. They have manipulated the truth in such an unprofessional way that I am laughing.
“I still have not lost my sense of humour. Even in this critical situation. This is what keeps me alive.”
Kate and Gerry McCann in 2020 with a digitally manipulated photo of what Maddie might have looked like in her mid-teens.
Kate and Gerry McCann - Madeleine McCanns’s body allegedly disposed of after accidental death:
Portuguese police and lead detective Goncalo Amaral - who was in charge of Maddie’s case at the time - named her parents, Kate and Gerry, as the prime suspects in September 2007, four months after Maddie disappeared.
Amaral believed Maddie died in the family’s rented holiday apartment and that her parents covered up her death and disposed of her body.
Sniffer dogs were brought in three weeks after she went missing and took a keen interest in the complex and rental car the McCanns had rented. This heightened Amaral’s theory.
Amaral was taken off Maddie’s case in October 2007 and retired from police work in general in 2008, but he still maintained her parents were involved. In 2008, he went as far as writing a book called The Truth of the Lie, alleging Maddie died in an accident on May 3, 2007, and that her parents hid her body.
Former detective Goncalo Amaral poses with his book The Truth of the Lie during its launch in Lisbon in 2008. Photo / AP
The McCanns strongly maintained their innocence and successfully sued Amaral in 2015. He was ordered to pay the couple roughly NZ$850,000 in libel damages. He was also ordered to remove his book.
However, in 2017, the decision was overturned by Portuguese judges and the McCanns’ appeal through the European Court of Human Rights sided with Amaral.
In 2008, nearly 15 months after she disappeared, the Portuguese attorney-general ordered a halt to the investigation and cleared the child’s parents of any involvement in her disappearance.
Madeleine McCann taken by human traffickers:
In 2007, private detectives claimed they had uncovered evidence that human trafficking “spotters” could have been operating in Praia da Luz at the time of Maddie’s disappearance.
The theory claims that she may have been “hidden and handed over to a child trafficker two days after she went missing and taken to Morocco”.
In 90 minutes she could have been driven to the Spanish border or put on a boat in nearby Lagos marina and taken to Morocco before police even suspected she had been abducted.
It was an early theory explored by Portuguese investigators after a report that Maddie had been photographed on the beach by a stranger. It could have been part of a selection process.
Several witnesses reported possible sightings of Maddie in Morocco, a country on the trafficking route to Mauritania. Her parents went to Morocco to make appeals for help in the weeks after their daughter’s disappearance.
Brueckner’s name has since come up again in regard to human trafficking, with his ex-girlfriend Anastasia Mekesy telling the Sun she believes Bruecker knows more about Maddie’s disappearance.
“He said she was probably handed over to someone after being taken and, if she were still alive today, they would have found her by now,” she said.
However, in a new documentary, Madeleine McCann: Prime Suspect, Brueckner is said to claim he can prove he was elsewhere when she disappeared.
Euclides Monteiro, a convicted burglar and heroin addict, was sacked from the Ocean Club, where the McCanns were staying.
Euclides Monteiro - Burglary gone wrong:
Euclides Monteiro was identified as a potential suspect. Portuguese police suggested that Monteiro, who was previously employed at the resort where the McCanns were staying, may have kidnapped Maddie as part of a burglary gone wrong.
Monteiro, 40, was sacked shortly before Maddie disappeared for stealing from guests at the resort.
Portuguese investigators suspected him of being involved in the sexual abuse of five girls at holiday homes in the region between 2004 and 2006.
Police had lost crucial time to interview Monteiro because he was missing from a list of current and former Ocean Club employees given to police during the first investigation.
Detectives were set to question him after he was identified as a suspect following suspicious phone records.
However, they missed the chance to interview him after he died in a freak tractor accident in 2009.
Police said Monteiro may have wanted revenge against his former employers.
It was thought he may have stumbled across Maddie while attempting to burgle the McCanns’ room, according to The Telegraph.
Monteiro’s family dismissed the theory, with his sister saying: “It’s ridiculous. The e-fit is a white man and my brother was black.”
This theory was later discredited, and Monteiro was cleared of any involvement in the case with DNA evidence ruling out any involvement.
The apartment block in Praia da Luz in Portugal, where Madeleine McCann was last seen alive.
Portuguese predator took Madeleine McCann:
When Maddie went missing, police looked into the background of a local man who was linked to a string of sexual assaults on five young girls at Portuguese holiday resorts.
Described as a “lone intruder”, the man was said to have carried out two attacks in Praia de Luz, where Maddie and her family were staying.
Anthony Summers told the Netflix documentary The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann: “One startling element is the sheer number of sexual predators in the area at the time.”
A tragic accident - Madeleine McCann falls to her death:
Another theory is that Maddie woke up during the night and went looking for her parents. The suggestion is that she opened the unlocked patio doors and walked out of the apartment and down the hill before falling into a big roadworks pit where she died or was knocked unconscious.
She would not have been spotted when the hole was filled the next morning.
However, this is extremely unlikely given she was familiar with the route to the pool complex where her parents were eating. It was a route the family took a number of times during their stay. Also, this theory would assume the three-year-old would be able to open the curtains to the apartment, slide the patio door open, then shut the curtains and door behind her.
There were no reported sightings of Maddie near the roadwork site nearby.
Madeleine McCann’s abducted by childless couple:
One theory explored was that Maddie was taken by a couple who couldn’t have children on their own or had previously lost a child.
However, a kidnapper of this nature is likely to take a child who is younger - someone of Maddie’s siblings’ ages. Her twin siblings were just two years old and sleeping beside her when she went missing.
They would have been less likely to wake up and resist. They would also remember far less about any incident, or nothing at all, as their grew up.
To this day, it is not known how Maddie disappeared and whether she is alive or dead.
Madeleine McCann went missing in Portugal in 2007 aged three. Photo / Kate McCann
Why Madeleine McCann’s case gained such widespread global attention
It was the disappearance that captured global attention. Media from around the world flocked to Portugal in a bid to cover the case and help keep millions of people up to date in the search for Maddie.
Initially, every day Kate and Gerry fronted the packed media scrum who eagerly awaited the tiniest update. As the years rolled on, the media obsession remained.
There have been numerous documentaries, books, interviews, podcasts and series about her disappearance.
It’s worth noting that Maddie is one of millions of children missing across the planet right now. So why was there a global obsession surrounding her disappearance?
They were the perfect victims:
More than 10 million Brits flock to the beaches and resorts of Portugal every year, meaning local UK media show a keen interest every time something happens to a Brit while in a popular holiday destination.
It wasn’t that the circumstances around Maddie’s disappearance were different to others, but the family that changed the script by how they responded. That’s why the whole world knows her name.
But on top of that, the McCann family were not your typical victims. Kate and Gerry were both doctors.
They were working professionals, while their daughter was an innocent blonde white girl. They were the very people that Western media thought they were speaking to - white, middle-class families. It pulled at the heart-strings of millions of families around the world who can’t imagine their toddler could disappear into thin air.
There are also claims that the McCanns had contacts in the UK media and were able to use them to share the news with a wider audience.
The case played out like an unsolved crimes TV show:
Murder mysteries are gripping and compelling, and the Maddie case is no different.
An unsolved crime leads to multiple theories being established and gives the everyday person a chance to share their own belief on what may or may not have happened.
It is human nature to want to know the truth. With that, documentaries were created and former police and crime experts hoping to provide clues were willing to speak publicly. It only enhanced the mystery and raised further questions.
There wasn’t one specific working hypothesis, meaning numerous suspects and theories were on the table.
From Maddie’s parents to a German paedophile and child trafficking claims, the information vacuum was filled by media and documentary makers. And this allowed viewers to debate what theory was more plausible.
We have also seen strong interest in other murder mystery crimes, such as Chris Watts and the killing of American woman Gabby Petito.
Kate and Gerry McCann in a BBC TV interview in April 2017. They vowed to do "whatever it takes for as long as it takes" to find Maddie. Photo / Joe Giddens/Pool via AP
The parents were named as suspects:
To put it simply, humans view parents as protectors. So when the McCanns were named as prime suspects by Portuguese police just months after Maddie’s disappearance, it sent the media and the public into a spin.
Suddenly her protectors, who had already let her down by leaving her all alone in an apartment in a foreign country, had an even darker shadow cast over them.
Every time they spoke after the police’s decision to name them as suspects, their words were heavily scrutinised.
Kate also refused to answer the 48 questions put to her during her police interview.
However, in 2008, nearly 15 months after Maddie disappeared, the Portuguese attorney-general ordered a halt to the investigation and cleared the McCanns of any involvement in her disappearance.
It was actually a rare case:
In the UK, there are 353,000 missing person incidents reported annually. Almost 215,000 are related to children.
On the face of it, it appears the Maddie case is common.
But of those missing cases, 98 per cent are found within two days, while the other 2 per cent will remain missing for more than a week.
In Maddie’s case, she has been missing for 16 years.
A comparison between a photo of Wendell as a child and as an adult did provide a match, however.
Wendell has submitted samples for three different forensic examinations that will outline her DNA sequence, along with a 23andMe-style genetic test to establish her ancestry.
If Wendell’s ancestry comes from the same region as Madeleine’s parents, the DNA sequence will be sent immediately to Portuguese investigators for comparison.
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