The psychics are the worst.” Former RUC detective Dave Edgar muttered those words as he stood flicking through a file of leads in one of scores of filing cabinets packing his dreary office.
And the rows of black folders lining the grey shelves summed up the enormity of the project he was tackling.
Edgar was months into what would become a three-year search for Madeleine McCann when he bemoaned being inundated by “nonsense” so-called “leads” from psychics.
At the beginning of 2009, Edgar was employed by Kate and Gerry McCann to find their golden-haired daughter with the smudge in her right eye.
Weeks later, his office was filled with maps of the world, E-fits of suspects from around the world and spreadsheets of suspected sightings of Maddie from Africa to America.
Edgar’s meticulously kept filling cabinets heaved with neatly labelled lever arch files and boxes marked with the dates, times and places of leads.
An entire cabinet was dedicated to one word: “Psychics”. And it was the one Edgar most dreaded updating.
He invited me to the headquarters of his Maddie hunt offices in September 2009 for his first and only in-depth media interview about the progress of his search for Maddie, who went missing in 2007.
At the time, I was an investigative reporter for Sunday Life. As a former RUC detective, Edgar wanted a Northern Irish paper to tell the story of how his hunt for the world’s most famous missing child was progressing.
His search was easily financed by the Madeleine’s Fund charity set up by Kate and Gerry.
By 2009, it had been flooded with millions of pounds in donations from the public, and household names, including J K Rowling and Richard Branson.
But Edgar hadn’t funnelled any of the cash into a plush office. From the outside, his HQ looked like just another drab building in an industrial estate.
Edgar had chosen the dreary grey block in Cheshire as the hub of the world’s biggest missing person hunt, because he wanted to keep a low profile.
There was no gaudy sign advertising it as the headquarters of the Alpha Investigations Group, which he had set up since retiring from his post as a murder detective.
One of the first things Edgar said when I arrived was: “We like to stay in the background. My investigations group only came out of the woodwork in early 2009 to do a reconstruction for TV on how we felt Maddie may have been abducted.
“We knew as soon as we exposed ourselves we would be open for all sorts of amateur sleuths contacting us.”
Psychics who thought they had information on Maddie’s whereabouts still found a way to contact him.
For years, tabloids carried mystics’ claims about Maddie under headlines such as, “She speaks to me and this is how to find her”, or even, “She is dead.”
Edgar said: “There have been so many psychics and cranks who say the most ridiculous things without knowing the ins and outs of the case.
“But you know the funniest thing about psychics? They all come up with different theories.”
Yet Edgar diligently filed all their reports of Maddie “sightings”.
Among the E-fits and drawings of alleged abductors, one poignant photo showed dozens of pupils grouped together to spell the word “Maddie” at the primary school where she should have been passing exams.
Edgar and his Alpha Investigations partner, Arthur Cowley, were enlisted by the McCanns after being recommended by the head of Manchester’s Serious Crime Squad.
By the time east Belfast-born Edgar started searching for Maddie, he was no stranger to cracking hard cases.
During his time with the Cheshire police force, which he joined after leaving the RUC in 1986, he nailed a series of killers in Britain’s most high-profile murder cases.
They included the three feral youths convicted of kicking to death have-a-go hero dad Gary Newlove (47) outside his Cheshire home in 2007 after he confronted them over loutish behaviour and vandalism.
Dave became hardened to murder during his time in the RUC, with two of his best friends in the force killed in the 1983 IRA bombing of the Ulster Polytechnic at Jordanstown.
Sergeant Stephen Fyffe (28) was hit in the explosion and died later that day from horrendous injuries and Sergeant William McDonald, a 29-year-old dad-of-two, died nine months after he sustained injuries in the November 4 blast.
Edgar and his private investigations partner’s three-year search for Maddie, who disappeared, aged three, on May 3, 2007, took in Barcelona, Germany and Portugal.
But, by 2011, they felt their investigation had run its course.
Edgar knew when he stepped away he would be continued to be haunted by the case.
The father-of-two is now fully retired and lives in England.
But Maddie is the case that never goes away.
If alive and with her parents, she would now be a doted-on teenager, looking forward to another family holiday on a Mediterranean beach post-Covid-19.
Next year she’d have gone to university — perhaps to follow her high-achieving doctor parents into a medical degree.
Instead, she is frozen in time: the picture of her in a red dress, mouth parted to reveal gappy milk teeth, printed almost every time another lead shows up.
The image released by the McCanns in 2007 has been re-run thousands of times in the last few weeks after the emergence of Christian Bruckner as the latest prime suspect in Maddie’s disappearance.
Circumstantial evidence has placed convicted paedophile Bruckner — currently in prison for drug trafficking — in the Portugal town of Praia de Luz on the day Maddie disappeared.
The 43-year-old also has a conviction for the rape of a 72-year-old American woman at her villa in Praia da Luz in 2005 and is said to have used a camper van to trawl for female sex victims.
Despite his emergence as a prime suspect, when we spoke last week, Edgar was sticking to his original theory — that Maddie may still be alive. But he caveats that hope with a theory that will bring no comfort to Maddie’s anguished parents.
Edgar still believes the girl with the strange imperfection in her eye is most likely being held as a sex slave.
And he holds firm to his belief she is being held somewhere in a 15-mile radius of where she was snatched; languishing somewhere in the sprawl of barren scrubland stretching for miles beyond the orderly white buildings that make up the resort where Maddie went missing.
Edgar said: “There’s one reason I’m sure Madeleine is alive — a body hasn’t been found. In my experience, when strangers kill children, or if strangers kill anyone for that matter, they do one thing very quickly and almost automatically: they dump the body of their victim, so they’re not caught with it.
“So, without a body, somebody must have taken Maddie away and be keeping her alive.”
And Edgar urges caution in convicting Bruckner before he is proven guilty, warning: “I’ve been there so many times with prime suspects in this case. If I had been aware of Bruckner and his movements when I was on the case, he would have been a person of interest.
“But we all need to stop jumping to conclusions about his guilt and need to take the view we need to wait and see how the case develops.”