World News

04.23.14

Was Madeleine McCann One of Many?

A new development in the formerly closed case finds detectives scrambling to uncover new leads after a revelation that a suspect in 18 other nearby break-ins fit the same description.

Would you take your young family on a vacation to a place where there had been 18 incidents of attempted kidnapping, sexual assault and “near misses” against children made by perpetrators who broke into resort hotel rooms?  Probably not. That is, if you knew about it. 

But that is exactly what was happening in the Western Algarve around the time Briton Madeleine McCann disappeared from her family’s rented apartment at the Ocean Club holiday resort in 2007, according to the latest update from Scotland Yard.

According to the new report, detectives in both the UK and Portugal are now focusing on 18 incidents during which male intruders allegedly broke into hotel rooms housed by families in the same area of the Algarve where the McCann family believed they were safe. Nine of the incidents involved British families. Three of the incidents took place in Praia de Luz, the area where the McCanns were vacationing, and one incident took place in the very same resort where young Madeleine disappeared. Five incidents took place in nearby Carvoeiro between 2004 and 2006 and the others took place just a few miles away in coastal resort towns. “Sufficient characteristics between the cases lead them to now believe that 18 matters in total concerning children may be potentially linked,” the Scotland Yard statement says. 

McCann was nearly 4 years old when she disappeared from a holiday apartment as her parents dined with friends at a nearby Tapas bar. She and her younger twin siblings had been left unattended as they slept in the protected compound while the adults took turns listening at the door for crying children at half-hour intervals, a practice that is all-too-common in protected resorts.  

Portuguese police faced criticism that they overlooked essential leads in the hours and days after McCann disappeared because they were focused on her parents, Gerry and Kate. The McCanns were the only suspects in the disappearance, but Portuguese police released them from suspicion in 2008 when they closed the case. 

Scotland Yard reopened their own shadow investigation into the case under the investigative name Operation Grange in 2011, reportedly under pressure from British Prime Minister David Cameron. In the first few months, investigators turned up nearly 200 leads and identified dozens of persons of interest the Portuguese police apparently missed during their initial investigation. 

“Clearly the fact that we’ve now got an assault that is in the heart of Praia da Luz, very close to where a previous matter had been reported, means that we are even more interested in this as part of the inquiry.”

Portuguese police reluctantly reopened their own case in Portugal in 2013, but they remain separate investigations. Portuguese police have refused to enter a joint operative with Scotland Yard, not surprisingly, since all but one of the 18 break-ins now under investigation had been reported to them, calling into question the integrity of Portuguese police work. They had somehow failed to make a connection—or they chose not to make a connection—to the McCann disappearance.

The latest twist in the case began last year, when Scotland Yard detectives identified a dozen reports of holiday home break-ins that Portuguese police previously overlooked. On March 19 of this year, Scotland Yard went around Portuguese police and put out a Europe-wide call for information about potential break-ins, inviting anyone with similar experiences who had been staying in the area at the time to contact them. They received more than 500 calls in just one month, which led them to their comprehensive list of 18 confirmed break-ins. 

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Tourists relax at the beach of Praia da Luz in southern Portugal May 2, 2008. (Hugo Correia/Reuters)

Detectives close to the case say they have had multiple reports that the suspect in several of the 18 break-ins fit the same description. He is reportedly a non-English-mother-tongue, olive-skinned, dark-haired, tubby man with distinctively bad body odor who was wearing a burgundy-colored long-sleeved top with a white “O” on the back.  Some witnesses reported that he was unshaven and had slurred speech.

Police are especially interested in a 2005 sexual assault against a 10-year-old girl in the very resort in Praia de Luz where McCann disappeared two years later.  The perpetrator had never been caught, but the girl had given a clear description of the attacker to police. “In this new tranche of information we have got one crime which is very clearly in the heart of Praia da Luz in 2005, on a young, white, 10-year-old girl,” chief detective Andy Redwood told reporters on Wednesday. “Clearly the fact that we’ve now got an assault that is in the heart of Praia da Luz, very close to where a previous matter had been reported, means that we are even more interested in this as part of the inquiry.”

Scotland Yard detectives are now waiting for the go-ahead to begin on-the-ground work in Portugal as part of the new lead in the investigation. Currently, they do not have jurisdiction to conduct interviews or make arrests in Portugal and instead must work through the Portuguese police, but Redwood said they remained “cautiously optimistic” they would be given approval to start working on the ground in Portugal.

The latest twist follows a number of false leads in recent months, including the search for a trio of British cleaners, the release of e-fit composite photos of a Caucasian man and the Portuguese police naming a dead heroin addict from the Ivory Coast as their main suspect. 

The McCann family has not officially commented on the latest Scotland Yard update, but like in previous leads, they undoubtedly view it as just one more step toward finding the truth about what happened to their daughter.