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Madeleine McCann: The vanishing, the mystery, and the accusations

What really happened on the night Madeleine McCann disappeared? And during the days that followed?

David Randall separates the facts from the theories

The investigation has been beset by conflicting detail since the outset, in large part because of Portuguese law preventing the police and witnesses discussing details of the case.

Into the vacuum has come speculation. One suggestion yesterday was that there had been deliberate leaks to the Portuguese press in an attempt to force a reaction from the McCanns, with investigating detectives aware that, in the vast majority of cases like this, the parents are involved.

The day of 3 May

It was the day before the family – Gerry, Kate, Madeleine, three, and two-year-old twins Sean and Amelie – were due to return to Rothley in Leicestershire. Kate McCann said later that Madeleine called it "her best day ever". There are conflicting reports over the last confirmed sighting of Madeleine outside. One report yesterday suggested it was as early as 2.30pm. Another report said that no one has emerged publicly to say that they saw her after 6pm. Yet another said police were focusing on the time after 8pm. There are also conflicting reports over what the couple did. One report said they spent several hours together resting in the apartment. Another that Gerry McCann went to play tennis at 6.30pm.


Every night, say the McCanns, they would put the children down at 7pm-7.30pm, and at an unknown time leave them sleeping in the apartment. At 8.30pm on 3 May, they arrived for a meal at a nearby tapas bar with their friends. They chose not to use the resort's crèche or a babysitter. The apartment's French windows are believed to have been unlocked. There have been unsubstantiated suggestions that the McCanns sedated Madeleine, who was sometimes difficult at bedtime, and allegations that a syringe was found in the apartment. The family deny that. They say there was a dropper, used to give medicine to kids, and agree they sometimes gave the mild infant painkiller Calpol to the children. Reports, never denied, that the McCanns' younger children did not wake in all the commotion after the raising of the alarm has fed suspicions that they might have been sedated. One piece of circumstantial evidence is the claim of a barman in Lagos, five miles away, that he saw the McCanns in the town one night without their children. The McCanns deny this.

The tapas bar

This is about 70 yards from the apartment, further than the 40 yards claimed by the McCanns' relatives in the early days of the disappearance. The apartment's French windows may have been visible from the tapas bar, a crying child in the flat would have been out of earshot. The McCanns arrived at the bar at 8.30pm, earlier according to some reports, and there were seven others in their party: Russell O'Brien and his wife, Jane Tanner, who have two young children; Matthew Oldfield, a doctor, and his wife, Rachael; Dr Fiona Payne and her husband, David, a senior research fellow at University of Leicester; and Mrs Payne's mother, Dianne Webster. One report in Portugal suggested the group got through 14 bottles of wine. The party says it was no more than three shared by nine adults.

Checks on the children

Gerry McCann was the first parent to check on the children, at 9pm. Matthew Oldfield listened outside at about 9.30pm. Jane Tanner, late leaving her apartment for dinner because one of her children was ill, said she saw a man carrying a child in his arms in the vicinity of the McCann apartment at 9.15pm, but thought nothing of it at the time. Gerry McCann returned to the restaurant at 9.25pm, having stopped to talk to an acquaintance, who confirmed this. A woman in a nearby apartment said that she had heard Madeleine crying for her parents for long periods, but she was unable to say on which nights. The next person to check the children was Kate McCann, at 10pm. She found Madeleine missing and ran back to the tapas bar, screaming, according to Gerry McCann's sister Trish Cameron, "They've taken her! They've taken her!" The odd use of the plural pronoun, if accurately reported, has raised eyebrows, and has not been explained away. Police also want to know why she assumed Madeleine had been abducted rather than wandered off.

The crime scene

The McCanns believed the ground-floor apartment had been broken into. There were suggestions that a shutter on a window had been forced. The Mark Warner holiday group said there was no sign of a forced break-in. Madeleine was reportedly holding her favourite soft toy, her "cuddle cat", when she was sleeping. But it was found on a ledge beyond her reach, suggesting she had been abducted by an adult.

Raising the alarm

The McCanns said that the alarm was raised with the resort manager within 10 minutes. But a spokesman at Guarda Nacional Republicana headquarters said the first call to police was patched through to the GNR precinct at Lagos at 10.50pm. Two GNR officers went to the Ocean club and called CID HQ in Portimao just after 11pm. They assembled a team that was on the scene by 11.50pm. Another report said yesterday that a neighbour offered to call the police but Kate insisted she had already rung – then waited 40 minutes before making the first call. The McCanns reject this.

The first suspect

In a story that has consisted of unknowns and speculation, it is appropriate that it was a British tabloid reporter was first to draw the attention of police to Robert Murat, an expatriate Briton living 100 yards from the McCanns' apartment, in his mother's home. He had been involved in the search, had helped several reporters, and acted as a police interpreter. He was taken for questioning on 14 May, and on the following day was made an official suspect or arguido, as the somewhat contorted Portuguese legal procedures call it. Weeks of speculation, the digging up of his mother's garden, and more questioning followed before police lost interest in him.

The investigation

The lack of a swift and comprehensive search, and immediate sealing-off of the area, plus the failure to secure the scene, has been a problem. What in any jurisdiction would be a very difficult case was clouded by the inexperience of the Portuguese police, especially when local laws and customs of releasing little or no information were confronted by the 24-hour appetite of the rolling news industry. The tsunami of publicity, may have created some of the many red-herring sightings of Madeleine that have bedevilled the hunt. And, until the past few days, police have had virtually no concrete evidence to go on. What changed that was the belated forensics.

The forensics

Portuguese sniffer dogs had failed to find anything of significance, as far as we know, but British dogs – one a specialist in detecting traces of blood and body fluids, the other in detecting the scent of dead bodies – found material in a car that the McCanns rented. Samples were then sent to the Forensic Science Service laboratory in Birmingham, where, over several weeks, they were analysed. Traces of Madeleine's blood or body fluid – it is not known which – were found in the car being used by the McCanns, say their family. Unconfirmed reports say traces were found in the boot and on the key fob. What created an immediate sensation was that the the Renault Scenic was rented by the McCanns 25 days after their daughter disappeared.

The Renault Scenic

The McCanns did not have a car in Portugal before they rented this one. The police want to know why it was rented at that time, especially since it was the day before the couple left to go and see the Pope. They did not use it to go to the airport, but were driven there by an aide. The McCanns say they needed it to ferry friends and family about. They said they had ordered the car some time before and the day before the Rome trip was simply when it could be supplied. This car was – astonishingly – still being used by the McCanns last week.

The theories

* If the traces of Madeleine's body fluid or blood found in the car are proved to have come from direct contact with her body, then either she – dead or alive – must have been in that car, or something that was in direct contact with her body has been in that car.

* If the traces could have been left by indirect, or historic contact with Madeleine, then a more prosaic explanation will suffice.

* If the McCanns are telling the truth, then their daughter must either have left the apartment on her own between 9.05pm and 10pm or been taken by one or more abductors between these hours.

* If the McCanns have lied about the early evening, ghastly possibilities open up, including – at the extreme – the involvement of one or both of the parents in Madeleine's disappearance, and possible death. If that were the case, they would have to have been capable – throughout their appeals and the months-long search for their daughter – of a level of callous chutzpah unequalled in the history of crime.

Media onslaught

The news that Kate and Gerry McCann are suspects in the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine is a bittersweet moment for the Portuguese newspapers that have spent several weeks reporting a series of allegations against the couple.

Yesterday's 'Diario de Noticias' revealed that Kate McCann will not be allowed to leave Portugal until the investigation is complete, and that a relative has admitted that Madeleine may have been given medicine on the night she vanished.

Kate and Gerry McCann have endured increasingly hostile treatment by the Portuguese media in recent weeks, amid lurid allegations against them and their friends. These have ranged from claims about their "swinging" sex life, to alleged heavy drinking – and their choice of holiday companions.

Barely a week ago it emerged that the McCanns are launching a libel action against a Portuguese newspaper over reports stating police believed they had killed their daughter.

Jonathan Owen

Belfast Telegraph


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