World News

05.20.13

Madeleine McCann’s Parents Get Fresh Hope as Operation Grange IDs 20

Buoyed by the escape of three Cleveland women held for a decade, Madeleine McCann’s parents now have a new lead: 20 ‘persons of interest’ who may have details of her 2007 disappearance.

It is hard to imagine the roller-coaster nightmare that Madeleine McCann’s parents must be going through. Six years have passed since Madeleine, then just shy of her 4th birthday, disappeared from a vacation apartment in the Algarve, Portugal, where she and her younger twin siblings were asleep. Her parents, Kate and Gerry, were considered primary suspects early on in the investigation by haphazard Portuguese police who focused erroneously on the couple from the moment the young girl disappeared, likely letting the real suspects escape justice. They also have been chastised in the court of public opinion for leaving their young children unattended in the gated community while they dined with friends at a tapas bar about 50 yards away, even though the adults took turns checking on the sleeping children every half-hour. They have endured a nasty Internet hate campaign, with Kate receiving regular death threats. Their hopes have been raised by numerous sightings of their daughter on German airplanes, Spanish campgrounds, and New Zealand supermarkets, only to be dashed as each lookalike child proves not to be young Madeleine.

Now the McCanns have been given a new reason to be optimistic. They were bolstered earlier this month by news of the Cleveland trio of kidnapping victims who escaped alive after a decade in captivity. “Their recovery is also further evidence that children are sometimes abducted and kept for long periods,” the McCanns said in a statement after the Ohio case came to light. “So we ask the public to remain vigilant in the ongoing search for Madeleine. Our thoughts are with the women in America and their families.”

Over the weekend, they were given even more fresh hope after Scotland Yard investigators, reviewing the work of the Portuguese police under a multimillion-dollar shadow investigation called Operation Grange, said they had pinpointed more than 20 “persons of interest” who may have vital information about Madeleine’s disappearance. The list includes many previously known characters, including a troupe of British freelance cleaners whose white van was spotted in the area when she disappeared. But there are also plenty of new names on the list, including a middle-aged mystery couple who supposedly rented a flat near the McCanns during the same period in 2007. The couple, whose names have not been released, told Pamela Fenn, who lived above the McCann rental apartment, that they had opened the unlocked door to the McCanns’ apartment the night before Madeleine disappeared to comfort the young child, whose cries were allegedly audible from their own apartment.

According to Fenn’s statement, it was well known that the McCanns had made it a habit to dine nearby after they put their children to bed, but it was also a common practice by other holidaymakers in the secure gated resort. It also was reportedly common knowledge that the young child’s cries were heard on more than one occasion when her parents were out, according to Fenn’s statement, which is in the Portuguese dossier and thus subject to Scotland Yard’s review. Fenn, who died two years ago, told Portuguese police about the couple, but because police were so focused on the McCanns as suspects, they apparently did not find the mystery couple’s alleged interference with the missing child relevant. Now Scotland Yard officials reportedly are urging the Portuguese police to reopen the case and find both the mystery couple and the British cleaners. Because of jurisdiction issues, only the Portuguese police can make arrests in the case, which has been officially closed in Portugal since 2008, making it vitally important that they reopen the case to pursue any new evidence laid bare by the Operation Grange detectives.

The British detectives also have pointed to a number of undocumented laborers worth checking out, from clandestine maintenance workers to seasonal gardeners who were working in the black-market economy and who may not have been sufficiently vetted to work in a family resort. And there were reportedly a number of apartments in the resort that were rented out under the radar to avoid taxes. Those renters would not have had to register their passports to stay on the premises.

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A computer-generated "age processed" image of what police believe Madeline McCann may look like at age 9. (Teri Blythe/London Metropolitan Police)
The McCanns are ‘greatly encouraged that police have drawn up a short list of people who they believe are of interest to the inquiry.’

The McCanns have not given an official statement on the news of the new suspects in the case, but according to British press reports, their spokesperson said they were optimistic about the news: “They have been encouraged from the moment the review started and are now greatly encouraged that police have drawn up a short list of people who they believe are of interest to the inquiry.”

But like so many of the false starts and abrupt twists and turns of this six-year saga, not even the best new leads will mean anything until the McCanns have their daughter back—or at least find out the truth about what really happened to her the night she disappeared.