The peaceful seaside village of Praia da Luz was the unlikely setting for what turned out to be the most reported and discussed missing person case in human history. The disappearance has also been one of the most mystifying, controversial and bitter cases of its kind in modern times. For me as a reporter it all started so quietly. On arrival in the village before 8.30am on Friday 4th May 2007, I expected to see some urgent activity. A young British girl, Madeleine McCann, had gone missing the previous night. At first I saw no movement at all. The village was silent and still. While driving around, I came across a single police vehicle parked on the roadside at a junction of minor roads towards the back of the village. I parked directly behind it. A few uniformed police officers were standing outside a block of holiday apartments. The only other people in sight were two women in conversation close to a corner ground floor apartment, 5A. As I approached, I noticed that one of them was clearly distressed, so much so I guessed she must be the missing girl's mother, Kate McCann. Later I learned that the other woman was a senior social worker on holiday from England. I overheard Mrs McCann tell her the police were "doing nothing" to find her daughter. She complained that they had not even questioned people staying in the same block of apartments. I understood the social worker to suggest that a description of the missing child should be circulated more widely. That prompted me to introduce myself as an Algarve-based reporter and say that I could use contacts to arrange alerts to be broadcast on an Algarve bilingual radio station. It had flashed through my mind that such alerts had been broadcast when Rachel Charles was reported missing in the Algarve 17 years earlier. The social worker then mentioned the British Consulate. I said I could help there too as I knew the staff at the Consulate and had just spoken to one of them on the phone. Perhaps my offer sounded disingenuous coming from a total stranger and a reporter to boot. Anyway, it was ignored. As I moved around the village on foot there was at least one obvious manifestation of police activity. Police officers with search dogs on leads were vigorously combing the vicinity of the apartments, the area around the village church, on down towards the seashore and along the full length of the long curving beach. It was all being done in silence.
The tranquillity outside apartment 5A gradually changed. As the morning and afternoon wore on, the number of people arriving on the scene steadily increased. Curious passers-by mingled with reporters, photographers, TV cameramen and staff manning outside broadcast vans. A mixture of Portuguese, British and other nationalities, we all stood around asking each other questions and wondering what had happened to the little girl. All these years later, we are none the wiser. In the days, weeks, months and years following Madeleine's disappearance, the few known facts have been drowned in an ocean of public confusion created by a combination of conjecture, conspiracy theories, distortions, misinformation and lies. Madeleine's parents have always been adamant she was abducted from the apartment. Others think she may have left the apartment of her own accord in search of her parents and was later abducted or met with harm in some other way. Some are convinced her body was secretly disposed of after she died inadvertently in the apartment. The trouble with all these theories is that while each can be shown to be a possible explanation, none is yet backed by solid evidence that elevates it to one of certainty. Upon publication of the latest edition of this book, police in both Portugal and Britain are re-investigating the case, giving fresh hope that the mystery may finally be solved and that Madeleine, if still alive, will be returned to her parents. A breakthrough could come at any moment. On the other hand it may always remain a mystery. Meanwhile, let us reflect in a little more detail on this complex saga so far.
For the McCann family from Rothley in Leicestershire the trauma began on the sixth day of a weeklong holiday. They were staying in a modest, ground-floor apartment in a tourist complex. During initial police questioning the day after the disappearance, Kate and Gerry McCann said they had settled Madeleine, aged three, and her younger twin siblings into their shared bedroom at 7.30pm. An hour later, with the children asleep and leaving the back patio door of apartment 5A closed but not locked, they joined seven holidaying friends for dinner. As on previous evenings, they dined in a poolside restaurant situated at the back of the apartment. It was a minute or two's walking distance, about 120 metres, away.
Like Kate and Gerry McCann, four of their seven friends were medical doctors and some had children of their own. In the course of a few parental checks, Gerry McCann said he went back to apartment 5A between 9.05pm and 9.10pm and saw all three of his children sound asleep. Kate McCann went to the apartment at 10pm. Madeleine was not there. Within half an hour of Kate McCann rushing back to the restaurant to raise the alarm, members of staff at the tourist complex where the McCanns and their friends were staying initiated a search of the neighbourhood. Holidaymakers and village residents joined in. The Guarda Nacional República (GNR) was alerted and soon had officers on the scene. Two police search dogs arrived. Police at first thought Madeleine may have wandered off, but Portugal's criminal investigation service, the Polícia Judiciáia, was informed after midnight. The neighbourhood search involved about 60 people on a calm and cloudless night with a full moon. It went on until about 4.30am.
Jane Tanner, a member of the group of friends, told police she saw a man with a child in his arms crossing the road in front of the McCanns' apartment at about 9.15pm, soon after Gerry McCann's check. For more than six years this sighting remained central to the McCanns' insistence that their daughter had been abducted. A family on holiday from Ireland also saw a man carrying a young child. This was much further away, closer to the centre of the village, at 10pm. From the earliest days of the Portuguese investigation, the McCanns received a great deal of moral and financial support. The British Foreign Office showed remarkable interest. A wealthy Scottish businessman, Stephen Winyard, offered a £1 million reward for information leading to Madeleine's return. English tycoon Richard Branson was among those who donated to the Find Madeleine fund that quickly reached more than £2.5 million. Football star David Beckham, then playing for Real Madrid, held up a Madeleine poster in a televised appeal in Spain. In seeking publicity on a grand scale, the McCanns met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome at the end of May and had a photograph of their missing daughter blessed by him. Gerry travelled to Washington courtesy of Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline and visited the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the Justice Department, Capitol Hill and the White House. By then, police had questioned and declared Robert Murat an arguido (suspect). Jane Tanner had claimed she was almost certain Murat was the man she saw carrying a child. Although insisting he had spent the evening with his mother in her house a short distance from apartment 5A, Murat became the subject of wild rumours and false newspaper speculation. International media coverage reached new heights four months later, in September, when Kate and Gerry McCann were also declared arguidos. Clarence Mitchell, who had earlier spent a month with the McCanns as a representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, relinquished his position as director of the media monitoring unit at the British government's Central Office of Information to become the McCanns' official spokesperson.
Five months into the investigation, Gonçalo Amaral's involvement suddenly ended when he was dismissed from the case for imprudently alleging that police in Britain were biased towards the McCanns. Then, in July 2008 after 14 months of probing with no conclusive breakthrough, the Polícia Judiciária wrapped up their final report. Portugal's attorney general lifted the arguido status on all three suspects and formally archived the case. In 2011 at the behest of the McCanns, Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May asked the Metropolitan Police Service to review the vast amount of documentation from the original Portuguese investigation, as well as the results of inquiries made by a succession of private investigators hired by the McCanns. After two years, the Met upgraded its review to a full-scale investigation. Five months later, in October 2013, the Portuguese authorities ordered a re-opening of their own investigation and went to work on new evidence they had uncovered. This occurred while a civil libel action was in progress in Lisbon in which the McCanns were suing Gonçalo Amaral over a book he had written, A Verdade de Mentira (The Truth of the Lie). The McCanns had accepted £550,000 in 2008 from Express Newspapers in compensation for scores of defamatory articles in the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday sister titles. Robert Murat was awarded £600,000 in libel damages from Express Newspapers, Associated Newspapers, the Mirror Group and News Group Newspapers. In compensation for Amaral’s book and a TV documentary based on it, the McCanns demanded €1.2 million.
The McCanns said the Portuguese police had been "very open" with them at the beginning of the original investigation. Three months down the line they still had "a very good working relationship." Things hit rock bottom in September 2007 on being declared official suspects. Faced not only with deep parental anguish over the loss of their daughter, Kate and Gerry McCann now had to cope with the humility of being publicly suspected of being the cause of her disappearance. Kate's mother Susan Healy was widely quoted as saying that the pressure on her daughter was so great, "I don't know how long she will hold on for... I don't know if any human can take such pressure." She added: "Kate is an only child. If it was me, I'd die. But she can't let herself get so low. She has to think of her family, of Gerry and the twins. Amaral sank to a low ebb as well. With pent up frustrations over what he regarded as bias by the UK authorities and non-cooperation by the McCanns, he resigned from the police service and became the target of insults in the British press. His marriage broke down, he moved away from his daughter in Lisbon, grieved over the death of both his mother and father, and lost weight through illness. Soon after the 2013 start of the Scotland Yard investigation, the Jane Tanner sighting of a man carrying a child outside the McCanns' apartment became irrelevant when the man was publicly identified as an innocent father carrying his own child home from a crèche on the complex. The other sighting by an Irish family took on much greater significance with the simultaneous publication of two e-fit images produced by a team of ex-MI5 private investigators employed by the McCann's Find Madeleine fund after the Portuguese authorities had shelved their investigation five years earlier. Publication of the e-fit images along with televised appeals for information resulted in thousands of phone calls and emails. With international public interest in the case elevated to its 2007 heights, the Portuguese police re-opened their investigation to run both alongside and in conjunction with the British police.