'Maddie McCann police took our baby because we gave her Calpol' - Belfast couple's Portugal holiday hell
Published 22/06/2014 | 07:00
A Belfast couple whose daughter was seized by cops in Portugal because they gave her Calpol have opened up about their holiday hell after being told by police: “We don’t want another Madeleine McCann.”
Lee-Anne O’Donoghue, her partner James Moreland and their 18-month-old baby Eireann should have been making happy memories on their first family holiday together.
But today they reveal how their dreams turned to a nightmare when hotel staff reported them to police for giving little Eireann, who was teething, some Calpol — the popular infants’ medicine sold in supermarkets across the UK.
Suddenly James and Lee-Anne found themselves headline news in Portugal and the UK, wrongly accused of drugging their daughter and being too drunk to care for her. Cops even alleged that the couple had thrown the tot from an eighth floor balcony into a swimming pool.
In their first full interview since returning home the couple spoke to Sunday Life to tell the story of their horrific ordeal.
Lee-Anne explained her family had been staying at the Hotel Paraiso in Albufeira — 40 miles from Praia da Luz where Madeleine vanished in 2007 — as part of a week-long package trip.
Following a day out with friends, they returned to their hotel when Lee-Anne noticed Eireann was having teething pain and gave her some Calpol, which is commonly used for pain relief and to soothe fever.
After seeing her give the medicine to her child, hotel staff called the police, telling her that “Calpol was illegal in Portugal”.
Lee-Anne said: “I didn’t know what was going on but next thing the police were there and they had seized the Calpol. They said I was drugging Eireann.
“They said they didn’t want another tragedy like Madeleine McCann.
“More people started to arrive but no-one spoke English, we had no idea what was happening and all I wanted was to put Eireann into her wee cot to sleep.”
Portuguese police made Lee-Anne go with them to hospital with Eireann because they wanted to have her drugs tested.
“I was hysterical,” she said.
“On the way to the hospital in the ambulance I just sat holding her, crying my eyes out the whole time.
“A police car was behind us, one was in front of us, but I still thought everything would be fine because I knew I had done nothing wrong.
“I know we’re good parents and we love Eireann so much.”
But once they arrived at hospital, things took a sinister turn.
“As soon as I went in they were stripping and checking her, she learned to walk while we were away and she had a red mark on her knee from crawling.
“The doctor asked me, ‘You smack your daughter? You scrab your daughter?’
“That child is my world, I couldn’t believe what I was being accused of.”
When doctors arrived with needles to take blood, Lee-Anne became frantic.
“I was squealing because when she was three-months-old Eireann had suspected meningitis and they couldn’t get a vein, we had a terrible experience with needles and I didn’t want her to go through that again,” she said.
“But they trailed me away from my daughter into a room and handcuffed me.
“When I went to get up they would put their hands on my forehead and fling me back to the ground.
“I was so frantic, Eireann didn’t know anybody and no-one spoke English.
“They had me in a room for an hour and I have no idea what they were doing to her.
“I gave no permission to inject her but apparently you don’t have to in Portugal — they can do what they want to your child.”
Meanwhile, James had arrived at the hospital to find an armed police guard outside who refused to let him enter.
“I got angry so they got me down on the ground and were punching and kicking me,” he said.
“They handcuffed me, lifted me by my hands and threw me into the back of the police car — not on the seat, in the footwell.”
James was left with cuts and bruises in the struggle.
Lee-Anne was called to go outside to calm James down, but in the chaos police had taken his mobile phone and wallet.
The pair were told they had to leave Eireann in hospital overnight because her test results weren't back yet and go back to the hotel, but police left them to make the 40 minute journey themselves.
“We went to pay for the taxi, James got his wallet out and there wasn’t a penny in it.
“€745 was gone — it was all the holiday money we had left,” Lee-Anne said.
“At the hotel we called the police to report the money stolen, they did come out but they wouldn’t take a statement and denied they had taken it.”
Lee-Anne broke down as she told how a kind fellow Northern Ireland holiday maker lent them enough cash to pay for their taxi to the hospital the next day.
“She was our angel,” she said.
The next day at the hospital, James and Lee-Anne were told by Portuguese social services that Eireann’s test results showed she had not been drugged.
Lee-Anne thought the nightmare was coming to an end, but then police submitted a surreal report claiming that both Lee-Anne and James had been too intoxicated to look after their baby.
She said: “When they said I was drunk I’d had three cocktails.
“I don’t usually drink at home but we were on holiday, I’d had three drinks the entire day.”
They also alleged that Lee-Anne had thrown Eireann from an eighth floor balcony into a pool, even though their room was nowhere near the pool and looked out onto a carpark.
“When the hospital said we hadn’t drugged her police had to change their story about why they had taken Eireann off us — they had to justify themselves,” she said.
“If I threw Eireann from eight floors anywhere she would be dead.
“It was just unreal, totally mad.”
As investigations continued the family had to spend another night in hospital but after they were finally cleared to leave the next day they realised dozens of reporters had set up camp outside.
Lee-Anne said: “We were all over the Portuguese papers, on every TV channel and in every story we were linked to Madeleine McCann.
“But every story was different, in one they even said I had hit Eireann’s head against a wall.
“It was horrific.”
For their own safety, the family was held at the hospital which went into lockdown.
But determined to leave with baby Eireann, they were smuggled out with blankets over their heads.
Lee-Anne said: “We’re sure the police tipped off the press.
“One police officer who was nice, and he was the only one, told us they had been so heavy-handed because of Madeleine McCann.
“He said they had to be seen to have a zero-tolerance approach when it came to British holiday makers, he said it was political policing.”
After battling through another media frenzy at the airport, James, Lee-Anne, and Eireann were finally able to board a flight back to Belfast.
“When the flight took off it was like someone was giving me my child all over again,” Lee-Anne said.
But while they’re both delighted to be home with their daughter, they are still dealing with their Portuguese nightmare and can’t even look at their holiday snaps because of the bad memories.
Social services have visited the couple but have said they have absolutely no concerns about Eireann’s wellbeing.
Despite that relief, both James and Lee-Anne have suffered nightmares and James has collapsed after developing heart palpitations.
His GP has attributed this to the stress he’s suffered in the past few weeks.
James is so scarred by their experience that he says he’ll never get on an aeroplane to travel again.
Lee-Anne added: “Eireann is such a good child and we just wanted to give her a great holiday but it really was the holiday from hell.
“I can’t wait until it’s a distant memory.”