Is She Alive?

07.05.13

Madeleine McCann Case: The Hunt Is On for 38 Potential Suspects

Six years after the young girl disappeared, British police have finally done what the Portuguese wouldn’t—come up with an exhaustive list of potential suspects. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the new cause for hope.

There are 38 people in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Italy who British detectives believe know something about what really happened to Madeleine McCann, the 4-year-old Briton who disappeared in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in May 2007. And the cops in charge are now searching for each and every person they think might be harboring secret information about the case. 

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Kate and Gerry McCann hold an artist's impression of how their missing daughter Madeleine McCann might look at the age of 9, during a press conference in London on May 2, 2012, five years after Madeleine's disappearance while on a family holiday in Portugal. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

“The reality is that any one—or none—could have been involved,” Ian Horrocks, a retired Met homicide detective, told The Daily Beast. “These are people who have been identified by the enquiry team as ‘persons of interest.’” 

The new leads are the product of a two-year investigative review of McCann’s mysterious disappearance six years ago from her parent’s holiday apartment. Madeleine and her young twin siblings were asleep in the apartment while her parents dined with friends just a few hundred yards away. The adults took turns checking on the children at regular intervals, which is a common practice in guarded family resort communities. On one of the checks, the adults discovered that the twins were still asleep but Madeleine was missing.

The Portuguese police focused their initial investigation on the young child’s parents, apparently ignoring credible leads that could have led to her recovery. The first three hours after a disappearance are the most crucial, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Portuguese police in charge of the investigation squandered precious time chasing the wrong lead. They closed their case in 2008 after clearing Madeleine’s parents of involvement and have refused to reopen it.  

The U.K.-led investigative review into the case, called Operation Grange, has turned up nearly 200 new leads that Portuguese prosecutors apparently ignored. A team of 37 specialized investigators reviewed over 30,500 documents, including reports from seven different private investigators that have been searching for the truth about what happened to the young girl. Nearly 4,000 actions by investigators, including subpoenaing telephone records, reviewing video from surveillance cameras, and double-checking employment records for those working in the holiday resort when McCann disappeared led to the identification of the 38 potential suspects.

“I still genuinely believe that there is a possibility that she is alive.”

“Our review has sought to prioritize the material, ensuring we are doing everything possible to understand what happened to Madeleine,” the Met police said in a statement on Thursday. “In the absence of any clear evidence to the contrary, we maintain our belief that Madeleine may still be alive.” 

Now that the Met police have formally opened their own inquiry into the case, they have wider jurisdiction in searching for suspects. In announcing the decision to move the review to a formal investigation, detective chief inspector Andy Redwood said that the reluctance by the Portuguese authorities to reopen the case led them to take the matter into their own hands. “Over the last two years what the review has told me is that there is no clear, definitive proof that Madeleine McCann is dead,” Redwood told reporters when he announced the official inquiry. “On that basis, I still genuinely believe that there is a possibility that she is alive.” 

Redwood and his team say they will now find all 38 of the persons of interest, 12 of whom are U.K. citizens who were in Portugal at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance. Among those on the list is a troupe of British cleaners who were seen by a number of witnesses in a mysterious white van the day after Madeleine disappeared. 

The Met police can arrest each person on their list and take them into custody, and they can ask cooperation from other countries to help find them, even if only to eventually eliminate them as suspects. “I do not believe all can be 100 percent described as 'suspects,' but they all need to be eliminated,” says Horrocks, who conducted his own review of the case last year and also concluded that there is a strong possibility that Madeleine is alive and living with another family.  

A spokesperson for Kate and Gerry McCann, who are not on the Met’s list of names, said they are encouraged by the new phase of the search for their daughter. “Kate and Gerry warmly welcome the shift in the Met's emphasis from review to investigation. It is clearly a big step forward in establishing what happened and, hopefully, towards bringing whoever is responsible for Madeleine's abduction to justice.” 

Kate McCann recently ran in the Virgin London Marathon to raise 21,000 pounds for the charity Missing People in her daughter’s name. She and her husband have maintained hope that their daughter is alive—and have been targets of an Internet hate campaign that has included death threats. They were encouraged after three kidnapping victims recovered nearly a decade after their abductions in Cleveland, Ohio, this spring, saying at the time, “Their recovery is also further evidence that children are sometimes abducted and kept for long periods. So we ask the public to remain vigilant in the ongoing search for Madeleine.”  

A team of Met police will now set up a small investigative unit in Portugal to launch the formal investigation. “Our working relationship with the Portuguese police is positive and now that we have moved to investigation we are requesting further specific assistance through normal judicial routes,” said Redwood. But whether the British investigation into what really happened will help focus the Portuguese police to be more open-minded about her disappearance may be the real key to finding Madeleine.