A FORMER RUC detective who spent three years hunting for Madeleine McCann last night insisted she could still be alive - and urged the world: "Don't jump to conclusions about the guilt of the new suspect."
As German prosecutors stated they believe Maddie is dead after being abducted by paedophile Christian Brückner, ex-RUC detective Dave Edgar said there is still no "hard evidence" the youngster was murdered or that the convicted rapist and child abuser was involved.
But Dave admitted the identification of Brückner as a new prime suspect in Maddie's disappearance brought back chilling memories of his investigation into British paedophile Raymond Hewlett - once believed to hold the key to Maddie's disappearance - who lived in Northern Ireland for a period.
The retired murder detective (63) said: "I work on hard evidence and I have been here so many times with the Maddie case, faced with potential prime suspects in her disappearance.
"Certainly, if I had been aware of Brückner and his movements when I was on the case, he would have been a person of interest in the case.
"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.
"It's time to just put the brakes on the speculation, and step back. It's not a time for knee-jerk reactions.
"I have seen persons of interest come up so many times while investigating murder cases, and my record in solving them speaks for itself.
"A lot of the time, all is not as it seems, or all is not as clear-cut as it may first seem."
Dave - whose hunt for Maddie stretched from 2009 to 2011 after being employed as a private detective by the youngster's parents - spent 30 years as a detective inspector in the RUC and Cheshire police force, and was responsible for cracking some of the UK's most high-profile and grisly murder cases, including child killings.
He added: "I don't work on speculation. I'm not talking about some circumstantial evidence and speculation, I'm talking about evidence you would be confident taking into court.
"And at the moment, there is a huge way to go from Brückner being named as a suspect to him being prosecuted.
"Secondly, this case is still without a body. And without a body, there is no evidence Madeleine was murdered.
"Without a body, there is still a great deal of hope for the McCanns their daughter is still alive.
"And I don't believe the lack of a body fits the profile of a kidnapping by someone like Brückner.
"In my experience, when paedophiles kill children, they do one thing very quickly and they do it almost automatically - they dump the body of their victim so they're not caught with it. That's just the way it works.
"So, without a body, it is very likely somebody took Maddie away and is still keeping her alive."
Cops honed in on Brückner after he allegdly told a friend in a pub he had snatched her.
The rapist (43), who has a 22-year history of child sex offences, is suspected of having staked out the McCanns' holiday flat in Praia da Luz, Portugal, for days before three-year-old Maddie was snatched in May 2007.
He is in prison for raping a 72-year-old American woman in the Algarve resort in 2005. In that case he left forensic evidence at the scene, a hair.
His involvement only came to light much later, after a former diesel fuel theft accomplice, discovered a video Brückner had apparently filmed of the rape, and eventually went to police. Late last year, Brückner was sentenced to seven years in prison for the rape.
German public prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters announced that they are assuming Madeleine is dead.
He said: "The public prosecutor's office in Braunschweig is investigating a 43-year-old German national on suspicion of murder. From this you can see that we assume that the girl is dead."
However, Brückner has not been charged in relation to Maddie's disappearance or death.
Forensic tests on two vehicles he used in Portugal which police believe he may have used to spirit Maddie away - a VW campervan and a Jaguar - have found none of her DNA inside.
Dave Edgar did admit Brückner brought back memories of scouring Germany for Maddie. During his three-year hunt for the little girl across the world, he probed now-dead paedophile Raymond Hewlett's apparent links to Maddie's disappearance.
Like Brückner, Hewlett lived in a battered campervan in the Praia da Luz area and had committed a string of sexual offences against young girls.
The British former soldier had a German wife and in 2009, when named a suspect, was wanted by police in both Britain and Ireland, with detectives described him as "cunning" and a "danger to children".
Hewlett (64) was living just an hour's drive from where Maddie disappeared in the Algarve in May 2007.
Stories have circulated for years Hewlett - part of a network of paedophiles who hid out in Northern Ireland throughout the 1990s - boasted he sold the child to gypsies.
The pervert, who lived in a small apartment above a chip shop on Enniskillen's Belmore Street in 2002, is also said to have boasted of making a "good business trip" with his family to Morocco to make a sale, but would not elaborate on the nature of his trip.
But Hewlett died in 2010 of throat cancer after spending years refusing to talk about the theory.
When Dave (right) and his private investigator partner Arthur Cowley tried to confront him, he refused to talk or provide an alibi - unless he was paid thousands of pounds.
Dave said: "Hewlett was definitely a person of interest to us. He was someone capable of abducting a child as he had the background and profile to interfere with children.
"I tried my best to speak to him, but he wouldn't speak.I was out in Germany where he was being treated for cancer before he died and I kept being thwarted by a third party, who wanted money to let us speak to Hewlett.
"Yes, he was someone we were interested in, but in terms of real evidence, there wasn't any, unless the Portuguese are sitting on some that I don't know about."
Dave, whose hunt for Maddie also took in Barcelona and Portugal, also thinks it is "rubbish and a nonsense" that Maddie was sold to gypsies.
The east Belfast born ex-cop has previously said he believes Maddie could be being held just 10 or 15 miles from where she was snatched.
"When you get up 10 or 15 miles beyond Praia da Luz there are loads of very rural communities - farming communities. She could be being kept in one of those quite easily."
The investigator added: "At the minute the case remains what it is - probably the greatest whodunit that's ever been.
"If Bruckner was there (Praia da Luz) he was there but there's loads of sex offenders in Portugal - you've got British, Dutch and German.
"But of course we all hope it is brought to a conclusion for the family's sake."