04.26.12

Scotland Yard Says Madeleine McCann May Still Be Alive

U.K. cops are reopening the case of a toddler who vanished five years ago from a villa in Portugal. Barbie Latza Nadeau on how the Portuguese police may have flubbed the initial investigation.

Is Madeleine McCann still alive? Scotland Yard says she could be living with her abductor. After five years, the cold case into the British toddler who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal is heating up.

Madeleine McCann, the cherubic three-year-old, was last seen when her parents Kate and Gerry put her to bed with her twin siblings in their holiday villa in Praia de Luz in the Algarve, Portugal, on May 3, 2007.   Once the kids were asleep, the McCanns then joined friends at a nearby tapas bar for dinner.  The children were left unattended, but the grounds were protected and the compound relatively secure.  The tapas bar was only 130 yards from the McCann’s suite and they and their dinner companions took turns checking on the children every half hour or so. At around 10pm, Kate McCann took her turn and found the bedroom window open and Madeleine missing.  The twins were still sleeping soundly.

The ensuing investigation conducted by the Portuguese police took many twists and turns in the days after the toddler’s disappearance. The police initially treated the incident as abduction, focusing on a number of unseemly characters living in the area who may have been involved.  Distracted by a relentless media frenzy, the police at times looked hapless and confused, contradicting each other and often ignoring what seemed to be obvious leads. 

Within a few weeks, the McCanns themselves became chief suspects in what was then termed an abandonment and homicide investigation after the police leaked to the press that they found traces of human remains in the couples’ rental car.  That claim was never substantiated with hard evidence, but the McCanns remained primary suspects until July 21, 2008, when they were finally cleared due to lack of evidence.  The only other formal suspect in the case, British-Portuguese dual national Robert Murat, was also cleared at the same time. The case was officially closed in July 2008 amid accusations of shoddy police work by the Portuguese cops. 

The McCanns, who are both medical doctors, have always believed that Madeleine is still alive and they have been relentless in the search for their daughter, offering lucrative rewards to anyone with information. Frustrated by the Portuguese authorities, they hired their own private detective to follow up on countless sightings and leads. A number of famous celebrities, including JK Rowling and Oprah Winfrey have taken up their cause.  A few weeks after her disappearance, they even took their case to the Vatican for a special appeal to Pope Benedict XVI for papal prayers.  They became tabloid fodder and were the subjects of many books outlining a number of conspiracy theories against them.  Kate McCann wrote her own book called “Madeleine chronicling their experience at the hands of the police.

Still, the case was cold.  Then, last year, the McCanns made a written plea to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who vowed to help them.  

Now Scotland Yard is reopening the case after having translated and reviewed the 100,000-plus-page investigative dossier in which they say they found 195 new opportunities for further investigation.   Many of these leads were never thoroughly investigated by the Portuguese police—who have so far said they will not follow suit unless new evidence is brought forward—and include witnesses who had claimed they saw a man carrying a child from the grounds the night of Madeleine’s disappearance.  The new points of inquiry also include first-time interviews with other guests who were holidaying in the Algarve resort the week Madeleine disappeared.  They will also be analyzing cellphone records to determine who was in the area the evening Madeleine disappeared.

Distracted by a relentless media frenzy, the police at times looked hapless and confused, contradicting each other and often ignoring what seemed to be obvious leads.

To aid in their investigation, the British detectives have also released a computer-generated photo of what Madeleine would look like now if she is alive. Her ninth birthday would be May 12.  “We are working on the basis of two possibilities here. One is that Madeleine is still alive, and the second that she is sadly dead,” said Chief Inspector Andy Redwood in a statement.  “Based on the former we are releasing the age-progression image today with a specific appeal. If you know where Madeleine McCann is now, or you have new direct information or evidence about what has happened to her, then please contact us.”

A spokeswoman for the McCanns says they are encouraged by renewed efforts to find their daughter.  Several high profile kidnapping cases in recent years, including Jaycee Dugard to Elizabeth Smart who were both found alive after being kidnapped, have given them justifiable hope.