The disappearance of Madeleine McCann led to an unprecedented media frenzy, significant searches and multiple questions, all to no avail – with her disappearance still unsolved. English-born Madeleine McCann was just three years old when she disappeared, while on holiday with her parents in Portugal in 2007. Several years on, the search for Madeleine goes on, though with hope fading day-by-day. In this article, we take a look at the disappearance, and some of the theories surrounding it.
Kate and Gerry McCann were on holiday with their three children in Portugal in April 2007. They stayed at the Ocean Club Resort in Praia da Luz. Maddie was the eldest of the three children, and had her own room within their apartment. The McCann’s were also joined at the resort by several friends, each of which had children too. The friends would eventually become known as the ‘Tapas Seven’. The group were all situated within a small radius at the hotel. The McCann’s apartment was situated at the edge of the complex, making it accessible to the public via a small staircase.
The disappearance of Maddie came on Thursday 3rd May 2007. The McCann’s put their children to sleep at around 7pm, before going out to dine with friends at the Ocean Club’s restaurant. The apartment was around 150 feet from the restaurant, though the front door was obscured by walls, and there was no direct access from the restaurant. Instead, reaching the apartment involved leaving the complex and walking across the public road. The patio doors of the apartment could only be locked from the inside, therefore they were left closed, albeit unlocked. This was done to make it easy to check on the children, with their friends following the same system.
The group devised a system which would see them check on their children once every half an hour. Gerry made the first check, where he noticed the door into Maddie’s room was in a different position to how he had left it. Yet Maddie was still there, so he returned to the friends. Half an hour later, a member of the ‘Tapas Seven’ checked on the children. They would later recall how they noticed the door leading to Maddie’s room was wide open – unlike how Gerry had left it.
It is unknown whether or not Maddie was still in the apartment at this time, as the man didn’t look far enough into her room. At 10pm, Kate went to check on the trio. She noticed there was a draught emanating from Maddie’s room. When she went to investigate, she found the bedroom window wide open, with no sign of Maddie. Kate quickly rose the alarm, and a search swiftly began.
Over the course of the next few hours, dozens of people helped search the surrounding area. The Police made it to the resort, eventually coordinating a search. However, they made the potentially crucial error of failing to notify borders of a girl’s disappearance. The first few hours of the disappearance – when hopes of finding Madeleine were at their highest – featured significant time wasting. Interviews with key personnel weren’t undertaken, with potentially-important surveillance not being requested. Worst of all, the apartment wasn’t secured, with countless people coming and going from the apartment, ruining any chance of forensic evidence being done.
The search continued, though no trace of Maddie was ever found. Back in the United Kingdom, a ‘media circus’ ensued, with unprecedented coverage given to the search. British Police set up their own investigation, and headed out to Portugal. The two investigation teams struggled to work alongside one another however, with a lack of communication and differing systems proving culpable.
It took Portuguese investigators just 12 days to name their first suspect. Robert Murat – a British expatriate living near the apartment, was suspected. He had been seen on the evening of the disappearance near the apartment. Police trawled through his possessions, and analysed his computers, phones and other electronic devices. Yet there was nothing to link Murat with the disappearance. He would have his status as an ‘arguido’ (suspect) revoked months later. He would later receive £600,000 in compensation.
The McCann’s were also controversially made suspects. Several inconsistencies in accounts from the McCann’s were noted by Portuguese tabloids, who pointed the finger at the McCann’s, along with casting suspicion on other members of the ‘Tapas Seven’. The McCann’s met the Pope in the days following Maddie’s disappearance. The Portuguese police had questioned Kate as to why she had left her other two children in the apartment when raising the alarm about Maddie’s disappearance. Moreover, questions were asked as to how the shutter (next to the open window), had been opened from the outside – when investigators suggested it was impossible given the lack of signs pertaining to a forced entry. Kate refused to answer questions.
The McCann’s returned to the United Kingdom within 72 hours of being made suspects. A report by a faction of Portuguese investigators concluded that Maddie had died in the apartment, before her death was covered up by parents and the ‘Tapas Seven’. Over a year after the abduction, the McCann’s status as ‘arguidos’ was lifted. The case was eventually closed by Portuguese investigators, following a year of investigations.
Yet the McCann’s didn’t give up in their search. They set up a fund which raised millions of pounds to be used to help search for Maddie. Huge donations from thousands of backers, including some celebrities, were secured. The McCann’s used the money to fund private investigators. Meanwhile the British Police continued their investigation, though to little avail, with no leads turning up anything useful.
Other lines of inquiry included a surge in burglaries in the area around the time of Maddie’s disappearance. There were also reports of several bogus ‘charity collectors’, who were collecting money for what turned out to be a fictional orphanage. Various accounts of suspicious activity, including loiterers around the McCann’s apartment and an individual who was ostensibly seen to be spying on the apartment, were all investigated. Yet nothing was ever found.
This case was renowned for providing investigators with very few answers. One of the few positive pieces of evidence came from an Irish couple, who noted how they saw a man at around 10pm carrying a child – just 500 yards from the McCann’s apartment. The couple’s description of the child he was carrying matched a description of Maddie from that day. Investigators believe this to be the only concrete sighting of Maddie, but of course it is impossible to know if it truly was her.
- Planned Abduction: With Maddie left unsupervised in an apartment close to a public road, the most commonly accepted theory is that she was abducted. What happened after remains a mystery, but it is likely given the huge media interest, that her abductor killed her before disposing of her body.
- A Burglary Gone Wrong: It was noted by investigators that there was a rise in burglaries in the area at the time of Maddie’s disappearance. It is possible that during an attempted burglary, that Maddie disturbed the thief, who in a panic killed or took Maddie.
- Maddie Wandered Off To An Uncertain Fate: Some suggested she might have wandered away from the apartment in a bid to find her parents. She might have perished at a nearby construction site, or an opportunistic criminal might have taken her. But this theory has its limitations, due to the state the apartment was left in.
- Child Trafficking: Another popular theory is that Maddie was trafficked out of Portugal, likely to Morocco or Mauritania. The fact that borders weren’t notified means she could’ve easily been smuggled out of the country. This would leave her current status as uncertain.
- Parent Involvement: Some suggest the parents or members of the ‘Tapas Seven’ were responsible for Maddie’s death. There were suggestions she died in an accident, before her body was disposed of, leading to a considerable cover-up. While some of the actions of Gerry and Kate are suspicious, there is little evidence to support this theory.
This is a very, very thought-provoking mysterious disappearance. As time continues to pass by, it looks unlikely that we will ever know what happened to Maddie. Given the profound level of media coverage around the world, it looks unlikely that she could possibly still be alive, but there is always a chance. The cruel decision of the McCann’s to leave their children unsupervised while dining has been severely criticised – and that was a key element in Maddie’s disappearance.