Madeleine McCann: the 3-year old English girl who vanished from her bedroom without a trace in Portugal, 2007. Nearly 12 years on, we still don’t know know anymore about what happened than we did back then. There are few (if any) missing child cases in history marked by as much media attention, and longevity in the short attention span of the public as that of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. We’re talking about potentially the most enduring news story of the century. With all of the controversy surrounding the new Netflix documentary series about the case, we figured Nexus should give the investigation a crack in a bid to help out Scotland Yard and the Portuguese police, who really just can’t seem to work it out. We’ve been digging through the facts to assess each possible theory and conclude on the most likely scenario to explain how she went missing - pour through the investigation and see what you think.
Facts of the case:
- Kate and Gerry McCann, a GP and cardiologist from the UK, were on holiday in Portugal with with their 3-year old daughter Madeleine and 2-year old twins, Sean and Amelie. The McCanns stayed in apartment 5A at the Ocean Club Resort in the small beach town of Praia da Luz. They were accompanied by seven friends. There were 8 young children of similar ages between the group, including Madeleine and her siblings.
- The McCanns left their three children sleeping in their two-bedroom, ground-floor resort apartment at 20:30 on May 3, 2007, while they ate at a Tapas restaurant in the resort with their friends – who did the same with their own children – as they had done for four evenings prior. The restaurant was approx. 77 metres away from the McCann’s apartment. The group of parents had a system of taking turns checking on their own children every 20-30 minutes, and occasionally checking on the children of the other parents.
- The McCann’s apartment was right beside a public road. Walking from the restaurant to the apartment required walking along this road. The patio back door was closed but unlocked so the McCanns could run their checks. Gerry checked the room at around 9pm and confirmed all of his children were sleeping in their bedroom.
- Kate intended to check the room at 9:30pm, but Matthew Oldfield – one of their friends – offered to do it as he was going to check on his own children. Oldfield saw the twins breathing but did not look far enough to see if Madeleine was there. He observed that the McCann’s door was wide open. He recalls hearing a noise which sounded like a child turning over in bed.
- At about 10pm, Kate returned to the apartment. Kate entered the bedroom and discovered Madeleine was missing, with her Cuddle Cat toy and blanket still on her bed. She claims the window was open. After a brief search, Kate ran back to the restaurant, screaming “They’ve taken her!”
- At a later date, sniffer dogs detected the scent of human cadaver (corpse) and blood in the apartment behind the sofa, in the wardrobe of the parent’s bedroom, on several items of Kate’s clothing, and in the boot of the McCann’s rental car, which was hired 25 days after Madeleine vanished.
- Nearly 13 years later, after about 12 million pounds spent on the investigation and over 8,000 potential sightings of Madeleine, the case (Operation Grange) remains unsolved and we still do not know what happened to Madeleine that night, or whether she is still alive. Madeleine would be turning 16 on May 12 of this year. Madeleine’s parents have vowed to search for her for the rest of their lives.
Theories on Madeleine’s disappearance
Madeleine was targeted, abducted and taken for sex trafficking. Portugal has been a big target for trafficking, as abducted children can be shipped overseas with ease to North Africa or Spain in a matter
Jane Tanner, a friend of the McCanns, saw a man carrying a sleeping child near the apartment on the night in question, and this became a major focus of the initial investigation as it was hypothesised to be Madeleine and her abductor. However, in 2013, this sighting was dismissed - a British tourist carrying his child back from the night creche at the resort identified as the man Tanner had seen, and his daughter’s pyjamas matched those described in Tanner’s report. Martin and Mary Smith saw a man carrying a child towards the beach at around 10pm, which they thought could’ve been Madeleine. Speculations arose as illustrations of the man they saw bore likeness with Gerry, but too many witnesses place him at the resort, so it could not have been him. Additionally, it seems unlikely that an abductor would have walked with Madeleine for such a distance where they could’ve been spotted. Numerous other reports of sketchy characters hanging around the resort have been filed, but none have amounted to any substantial evidence.
Another one of the more well-known sightings occurred in Morocco six days after Madeleine’s disappearance. A British couple, Ray Pollard and Mari Olli - who did not know of the case at the time - claimed they saw a sad looking young blonde girl in blue pyjamas who asked a man ‘Can we see mummy now?’ at a petrol station. When the couple watched a tv news report that night, they recognised Madeleine as the girl they saw that day; however, the CCTV tapes from the petrol station had already been taped over, so the sighting was never ratified.
If she was taken by traffickers, why her, and why – as pointed out by former Scotland Yard detective Colin Sutton – not her younger sister or brother who would have no memory of a previous life? Investigative crime profiler Pat Brown believed it was “extremely unlikely” that a sex trafficking ring would have abducted Madeleine, as children could more easily be taken from poor areas or drug addicted parents. “They’re not going to steal a British tourist from a holiday resort because they know that will prompt a major investigation into them."
Madeleine was abducted and possibly killed by a local paedophile. The Daily Telegraph reported that there had been an unusually high number of assaults on young girls in Praia da Luz and many known sex offenders in the Algarve around the time of Madeleine’s disappearance. Clarence Mitchell - who represented the McCanns in the media - believes Madeleine’s disappearance is due to a rare case of stranger abduction.
A note was left at the Tapas restaurant showing that the McCanns’ group had block-booked at the tapas restaurant for the week, citing this was because the families were leaving the children to sleep in the apartments. This note could have been seen by a perpetrator. Some investigators have pointed out that paedophiles rarely risk breaking in to a building to get a child. Sutton maintains that the abduction was unlikely to be a random snatch by a predatory paedophile, as he has never heard of “any other other opportunistic abduction of a girl so young.” He speculates it was more likely a pre-planned abduction by a trafficking ring or theorised that Madeleine was paid for and stolen by a couple who wanted to replace a young daughter who had passed away.
Kate and Gerry accidentally killed Madeleine by giving her an overdose of sedatives, most likely Calpol, to help her sleep while they had dinner at the restaurant. The abduction story was a façade and the parents hid her corpse in a freezer before transporting it in the car boot three weeks later and concealing it in a secret location. It struck as odd that Kate yelled “They’ve taken her” as she left the apartment. In her shock it’s understandable that she assumed Madeleine was abducted right away, but who are “they,” when it could have been one person? The next day, Kate told child protection services worker Yvonne Martin that Madeleine had been abducted by a couple. With no leads, how would she know? Kate was videoed demonstrating her check of the children on the night in question. She claims that she noticed the children’s bedroom door was wide open, went to close it further, and then it slammed shut as if from a draught of air, which made her think to look in the room. So if that hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have actually checked on her children at all? It seems abnormal behaviour for a parent who would instinctively want to confirm that their children are in bed; but then, perhaps she’s not the maternal type.
While the search was happening, McCanns told their friends back in the UK that an intruder had "broken" "smashed" and "jemmied" the shutters in the children bedroom before taking Madeleine out through the window. However, there were clearly no signs of forced entry or damage to the windows. Veteran investigative journalist Danny Collins asserted that the metal shutters were “impossible to lever upwards more than 1-2cm”. Either the McCanns were outright lying to blame somebody else, or perhaps they made a assumption - which is fair enough - that someone had broken in and slightly exaggerated the details. Furthermore, the twins dozed for 6 hours straight following Madeleine’s disappearance, despite the number of people yelling, screaming and walking through the apartment. This led people to speculate that the children had been sedated, either by the McCanns or by an intruder.
Brown said that upon analysing Madeleine’s case, the “evidence does not support an abduction” and Madeleine most likely died in an acceded “occurring through neglect and possible medication”. The ex-police chief initially in charge of the investigation, Gonçalo Amaral, (sacked for criticising British detectives) even published a book called The Truth of the Lie in which he alleged that Madeleine died in the apartment. Amaral told a Portuguese magazine that “they belong to the upper-middle class and the British do not like their doctors to mess up abroad and get convicted for it.” He believes that Madeleine’s body was cremated in a church nearby by her parents. However, his personal bias may have been in defending his reputation after being sacked from the case, not to mention his interest in the hundreds and thousands of pounds in book sales. While he is one of the most prominent figures condemning the McCanns, Amaral was later convicted for falsifying evidence on a different case, so his word may no be the most reliable. Plus, there are suspicions the Portuguese Polícia Judiciária were biased with their desire to blame the McCanns; after all, the whole scenario was a bad look for tourism in the area.
Kate only answered 1 out of 49 questions from the police, declining to answer the rest after she was made an ‘arguido’ (formal suspect). Kate believed being treated as a suspect was distracting them from the search for Madeleine and invoked her right to remain silent.
Out of the 49 questions Kate McCann refused to answer, here are some of the most thought-provoking:
- Why did you say Madeleine had been abducted?
- Assuming Madeleine was abducted, why did you leave the twins to go to the ‘Tapas’ and raise the alarm? The supposed abductor could still be in the apartment.
- Why did the twins not wake up during that search or when they were taken upstairs?
- Did you know the danger of calling the media, because it could influence the abductor?
The Portuguese police believed the parents were guilty because the sniffer dogs detected the scent of blood and death in the apartment, which could be explained by the McCanns attempting to conceal Madeleine’s body. However, the dogs are not entirely accurate, and their sensitive noses could’ve been picking up on scents from before the McCanns stayed at the apartment; the dog handler himself, Martin Grimes, said that dog alerts cannot stand alone as proof if there is no evidence to corroborate them. The McCanns rented the car 3 weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance, so they couldn’t have concealed Madeleine’s body there straight away unless they had stored her body before putting it in the car. In the warmth of Portugal, the body would’ve needed to be stored in some kind of refrigerator to stop it decomposing and beginning to smell. The pungency of human decomposition surely would have been noticed. Plus, the McCanns were watched by journalists and locals all day, every day in their hundreds as the case soared in media attention. How could they possibly have stored and hidden a corpse without being noticed?
It would be incredibly brazen of the McCanns to have pressed the investigation so strongly in the media and for so long if they were guilty. If you were in the wrong, wouldn’t you feel quite happy to let the case slide out of the public eye rather than press it so actively in the media, given the infamously short attention span of the media?
The McCanns sold their daughter for trafficking and organised for her abduction. The friends may have been in on it. Martin, who was at the resort, recognised one of the McCann’s friends, David Payne, from her work in child services. She wrote to the British police expressing her concern that the parents were involved in Madeleine’s disappearance.
All the families on the vacation had young children, they were friends from university, 6 of the 7 were doctors, and it must have been difficult to get the same holidays. The organisation must have been horrific. They would have the budget to go anywhere – why this random small Portuguese town, which isn’t a particularly well-known tourist destination? John Stalker, former British detective, shares his gut instinct is that “some big secret is probably being covered up”.
Madeleine left the apartment in search of her parents and was abducted or killed while walking along the road in order to reach the Tapas restaurant. On the morning of her disappearance, Madeleine asked her parents where they were the night previously and why they didn’t come when she cried. Just under the age of 4, Madeleine would have been capable of opening and closing doors and gates on her way to find her parents, and she was aware of the location of the restaurant which was beside the resort’s pool complex.
Collins believes that Madeleine had been found on the street, abducted and then used to extract a ransom. When the case skyrocketed in the media, Madeleine may have even been sold to Romany gypsies. However, the chances of a predator being present at the very moment Madeleine was walking alongside the public road to get to her parents (which was, after all, a fairly short walk), who just so happened to be attracted to a girl of her age, seems improbable. There are theories about Madeleine falling down a well or being run over, however veering off course into the dark rather than towards the resort complex would seem unusual for a little girl searching for her parents.
Criticisms related to the case:
- It took 24 hours for the police to notify border guards that a child was missing. In this time, Madeleine could have been driven across the Portuguese border.
- British police observed the apartment to be the “worst preserved” crime scene ever. Portuguese police did not cordon off the scene early enough, allowing journalists and locals to wander the apartment in the days following Madeleine’s disappearance.
- A CCTV camera in the resort complex was not working, and another camera covering the road was never examined. These cameras could have provided the answers.
- The DNA specimens gathered from the apartment and the car analysed by the UK’s Forensic Science Service proved inconclusive; technology was not advanced enough at the time to decode the samples. Of the 3 DNA specimens found, each were complex, and may have been a mixture of DNA from as many as 3 different people. While the DNA from the car boot was similar to Madeleine’s, high genetic similarity within families means the DNA could have come from any of the McCanns.
- The McCanns were heavily criticised for their stoic appearance in public. Although they always ‘looked sad’, they were never seen breaking down and crying, and the way Kate always clung to Madeleine’s toy seemed exaggerated. The public accused the couple of being cold, rigid and emotionless – however, Mitchell says they were instructed to appear this way by the police, to stop the potential abductors from getting a ‘thrill’ from seeing the family upset. Their controlled appearance was in an effort to communicate effectively to the media, but trolls in the early days of social media ripped into them for it. As for the media ‘roadshow’; they were advised that the best thing they could do was to keep their case in the public eye if they hoped to find their daughter.
- Police liaison office Ricardo Paiva suspected the McCanns, as they disobeyed police requests to keep details of Madeleine’s appearance confidential while the investigation continued. Instead, they produced a “media circus” which arose some suspicions. Investigators wanted to keep the rare colobama defect in her right eye confidential as it is a distinctive mark which could’ve led kidnappers to kill her.
- Investigators wanted to keep the rare defect in her right eye confidential as it is a distinctive mark which could’ve led kidnappers to kill her. The McCanns disregarded this and released the photos of her with her colobama clearly visible.
- Debate continues on whether or not the McCanns’ behaviour was neglectful. The McCanns insist they’re good parents and were checking their children regularly. However, there were babysitting services available at the resort if needed, and also, is it really responsible parenting to leave your three children unsupervised in an apartment room with an unlocked patio door in a strange foreign place which is not exactly known to be safe? Is it okay to leave your three children under the age of four in an apartment by themselves full stop?
- On May 29th, the McCanns went on a tour of Europe to spread the message about Madeleine. They left their twins in the same town where Madeleine was abducted from, despite Kate telling the Daily Mirror the day prior that she couldn’t bear sleeping away from the twins. Would you really leave your children in the same place less than 3 weeks later and entrust their care to strangers?
- There are inconsistencies in the McCanns’ story. Gerry claims he was away from the table for a few minutes, but one of the friends at the table claims Kate was moaning he’d been gone for a long time watching football. It could be taken that everybody was lying, which would be no small feat among 7 people, or it could be taken that people recall events in different ways, which may actually make the account more reputable.
- Matthew Oldfield checked the room and recalls that he saw the twins breathing but did not see Madeleine, which is strange considering her bed was the closest to the door. Oldfield heard a noise that he assumed was the sound of a child turning over in bed. Could he have been there at the moment the abduction took place, without knowing it?
What does Nexus think happened?
The most plausible theory seems to be that Madeleine was observed and targeted days in advance. Anybody could have watched Madeleine at the resort and taken a creepy liking to her as a pretty, blonde, vulnerable young child. The abductor(s) would have seen the McCanns dining away from the apartment each night without their children, observed their 20-30 minute checking routine, noticed the unlocked patio door was used to access the apartment, and collected this knowledge to plan their attack. Furthermore, goings on in the resort could be watched from the road beside the complex, so the abductor did not have to be a guest of the resort itself.
The abduction and escape route were planned in accordance with observation of this routine. On the night of Madeleine’s disappearance, having watched the parents at dinner and waited until an adult had been into the apartment, the abductor would have known there would be at least 20 minutes where the children were unsupervised before the apartment was checked again. The abductor then entered the apartment by the unlocked patio door and entered the children’s bedroom. The children were administered a sedative, most likely chloroform, to ensure they did not wake. The window and shutter were possibly opened and the child was passed through the window to a second person involved in the abduction, or the abductor took Madeleine via the door heading towards the car park. A car would have been parked near the apartment for a quick escape - from there, Madeleine could have been taken anywhere.
The well-crafted abduction, which occurred without a trace of evidence left behind, shows a level of control and planning rather than an impulsive predatory crime. It seems that, with the amount of risk involved, Madeleine would have been exchanged for a high price.
So where is Madeleine now? If Madeleine was taken for a purpose such as replacing another child for a wealthy couple, it’s possible she is still alive. With her captors being cognisant of her international recognisability. Madeleine’s hair could be changed, her appearance could be altered, and she may be speaking a different language, all to prevent identification. Like kidnapping stories before her, it’s plausible that she has never been seen due to being hidden in a basement or similar, somewhere in the world. Otherwise, she could be living a fairly normal life, with no idea that she is Madeleine. Until a body or other concrete evidence is found, the hope she is alive must remain. After all, somebody knows what happened to Madeleine McCann.