The Hunt for Madeleine McCann’s Grave

The little English girl who disappeared in Portugal seven years ago would be turning 11 today. While her parents mark the occasion at home, cops are starting a new search for body.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty

As Madeleine McCann’s parents marked another sad birthday for their missing daughter on Monday, Portuguese police prepared to break ground in a vacant field across the street from the resort where the young girl disappeared seven years ago.

The move to excavate the abandoned field where Irish investors had once planned to build a holiday resort (before the economic crisis and the stigma of McCann’s disappearance lured them elsewhere), brings the investigation full circle back to Portugal.

McCann disappeared on May 3, 2007, from her parent’s vacation apartment in Praia da Luz in the Algarve while they dined with friends at a tapas bar nearby. Kate and Gerry McCann and their dinner companions took turns checking on sleeping Madeleine and her young twin siblings at half hour intervals. Several people reported seeing a man carrying a child in a blanket that night, but because Portuguese police immediately suspected McCann’s parents, none of the leads were pursued adequately.

Instead, the Portuguese police focused on the young girl’s parents who were their prime suspects until they quit pursuing the case in July 2008. The chief investigator in the case Giancolo Amaral has been sued for libel by the McCanns for his book The Truth Of The Lie which outlined his suspicions. He was released from the case in 2007 for “showing bias against the McCanns” according to the court dossier.

Scotland Yard then reopened the case in 2011 under the investigative name Operation Grange. Portuguese police reluctantly followed suit in 2013 and also reopened the case in Portugal.

Though the British and Portuguese investigations remain separate, their efforts have produced a list of 38 potential suspects and nearly 200 leads missed in the early investigations, which are being used as a guide by both teams. Most recently, British police identified a man who may have been involved in as many as 18 attempted kidnappings and “near misses” in the same area around the time McCann disappeared. They have also interrogated a number of known sex offenders, including 68-year-old Anthony Woodhouse, who was on the run in Portugal at the time, who was questioned last week. Woodhouse turned himself in and is serving a 17-and-a-half-year jail term in England for raping a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant from the attack. Scotland Yard has not commented on the questioning.

The search for McCann’s grave in the abandoned field could begin this week. Portuguese police will lead the dig, which is being funded under Operation Grange. They will start by using ground penetrating radar equipment and helicopters to map out the area, which is the size of three football fields. They are searching for abnormalities in the soil, replanted vegetation and other signs of a rogue grave. It has angered many local business owners who say piles of fresh dirt in the search for a missing child will not be good for tourism. Local pub owner Nancy Thompson told the BBC that she feared it would ruin the summer season. “Why now? Why didn’t they do it at the time?” she said. “It will be like a circus town.”

Portuguese police have also warned that if the dig becomes a media extravaganza they will cease operations. They also threatened British police that if they give press conferences or leak information during the digs, the operation will be stopped. According to Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the media must not behave as they did when McCann first disappeared. In an open letter to British newspapers, he warned reporters to stay away. “If we provide any briefings or information on the work they are undertaking on our behalf, or if reporters cause any disruption to their work in Portugal, activity will cease.”

British police have also expressed concern that Portuguese police may have information from other criminal investigations that could provide clues in the McCann case, but because the Portuguese cops, known as the policia judiciaria, have been so strongly criticized for their initial handling of the case, the British police have to tread lightly. According to Andy Redwood, who is leading the Operation Grange operation, they won’t give up.

"Sitting in police exhibits stores somewhere on the Algarve could be forensic material which we and our senior colleagues in the policia judiciaria are not aware of,” Redwood told reporters last month. “We're keen to find out about that. We're not going to stop asking questions until we are satisfied we have everything that is available."

Meanwhile in Rothley, Leicestershire, McCann’s parents spent a somber day following a birthday ritual they know all too well. They ate birthday cake and placed birthday gifts befitting an 11-year-old girl in Madeleine’s pink bedroom, which has not been changed since she disappeared. The gifts marking the last seven birthdays are there waiting for her to come home to open. “It’s a long time,” Kate McCann told the BBC in a heartbreaking interview ahead of the birthday. “The room’s absolutely the same but she might want to change it a bit now she’s a bit older. You think, 11 – she’s due to start big school in ­September.”