Person of Interest

Did He Steal Madeleine McCann?

Scotland Yard has new leads on the missing child—and many point to a pedophile with alleged ties to a gypsy trafficking ring. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the case’s sordid new character.

11.28.12 9:45 AM ET

Did Portuguese police ignore countless tips that Madeleine McCann may have been nabbed by a registered child molester living in the Algarve region of Portugal in May 2007? Now the pedophile is dead, but the investigation is heating up.

More than half a dozen witnesses reported seeing a strange man prowling around the holiday estate in the Algarve the night four-year-old McCann disappeared from her family’s suite as her parents dined with friends at a nearby tapas bar. But it appears that the Portuguese police were too focused on Madeleine’s parents Kate and Gerry as primary suspects in their daughter’s disappearance to pay any attention to other potentially credible leads.

It wasn’t police, but the McCann’s own private investigators Dave Edgar and Arthur Cowley who were the first to make a connection between the man described by witnesses and Raymond Hewlett, a former British soldier and convicted child molester who lived about 30 miles from where young Madeleine disappeared. Hewlett died in 2010 at the age of 64 from throat cancer, but when McCann’s investigators approached him before his death, they saw Hewlett told them he believed “gypsies” had taken the young girl. Now, thanks to a comprehensive review of the Portuguese investigation by British detectives, Hewlett is finally being investigated—albeit posthumously. 

In 2007 Hewlett, who served three separate sentences in the U.K. for molesting young girls dating back to the 1970s, was living under the radar at a Portuguese campsite with his wife and six children he claimed were his own. He befriended Britons Alan and Cindy Thompson, who were on a brief vacation in the Algarve in the summer of 2007. Hewlett told the Thompsons that wandering gypsies had offered him cash for one of his daughters, but that he had refused their offer. The Thompsons remained disturbed by the conversation after they returned to the U.K.—especially in light of Madeleine’s disappearance. They investigated Hewlett’s background and then contacted police in Portugal to relay what the strange man said. Their witness statement was recently discovered in Scotland Yard’s translation of the Portuguese criminal dossier. 

Based on the lack of evidence to support the Thompsons’ claims, they were all but ignored by the Portuguese authorities. In fact, the couple felt so much that the police were unhelpful and unwilling to listen to their story that they took matters into their own hands, trying on multiple occasions to reach out to Hewlett directly to clarify what he had told them. Now, five and a half years later, the Thompsons say they have finally been summoned by Scotland Yard to answer further questions about what the convicted criminal told them.

There is also evidence in the Portuguese file that Hewlett told another man a similar story, claiming that gypsies were in the Algarve buying children “to order” for child traffickers in Morocco. Peter Verran told police that he met Hewlett on a Moroccan campsite during the summer of 2007, shortly after Madeleine disappeared, and the convicted pedophile told him that there was a booming business in blonde children. “He told me gypsies wanted to pay good money for his daughter,” Verran told The Mirror, a British newspaper. “And he’d met some who traded in children and sold them to pedophiles.” At the time, Verran says, he did not know of Hewlett’s murky past. And his claims, like those of the Thompsons, were never followed up on by police in charge of the investigation.

AP Photo (3)

At least a dozen people reported “Madeleine spottings” in Morocco in 2007 and 2008, either to the Portuguese police or Scotland Yard, which had been running their own shadow investigation of the case, but like so many tips at the time, none of the sightings were ever investigated. 

On his deathbed in 2010, Hewlett allegedly told his son in a “letter of confession” that he had seen the young McCann at least twice after May 2007, but that he had nothing to do with her disappearance, implying that he had seen her on a child-trafficking circuit and got “so close” he could see the now-famous birthmark on Madeleine’s right eye. There is scant information on Hewlett in the actual criminal file, but he had made similar claims to friends before his death, according to several accounts from British newspapers. Hewlett also reportedly told McCann’s investigators in the days before he died that he would only share the circumstances surrounding the sightings for a sizable cash payout. The McCanns refused to bow to the demands and Hewlett succumbed to his cancer before they could learn more about what he may or may not have known. 

The Portuguese police officially closed their case in July 2008. But last year, Scotland Yard detectives suggested that McCann might still be alive and living with her abductor  They even produced a time-lapse photo of what she would look like now, at the age of 9.  

Scotland Yard then opened its own investigation into the case in 2012, translating more than 100,000 pages of police records on the case and pinpointing nearly 200 leads the Portuguese cops missed that they plan to follow up on.  

There is no evidence among the documents that Portuguese police ever questioned Hewlett about the young child’s disappearance, even though he was a known pedophile living near the scene of the young girl’s disappearance, and that he matched the description given by witnesses the night of the disappearance. Now it’s up to British detectives to find out what, if anything, he knew about what really happened to Madeleine McCann, or if the dead pedophile took those secrets to his grave.