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Madeleine McCann: The Theories

It’s been 13 years since Madeleine McCann vanished. Such is the infamy of the case that its core details have achieved almost folkloric permanence in the public imagination. The holiday apartment in Portugal; the fateful dinner in the tapas restaurant; the discovery that Madeleine was missing; the immense media fallout.

We may never know what really became of three-year-old Madeleine on 3 May 2007. But certain competing theories have developed and persisted over the years.

Praia de Luz

1 She was snatched by a lone paedophile

An unfortunately inevitable theory is that the young girl was abducted by a paedophile. This could have been a purely spontaneous and opportunistic attack: someone near the apartment complex could have noticed the adults coming back from the restaurant to check on the kids every so often, deduced the kids were unsupervised, and then struck when the coast was clear. 

The area is a magnet for paedophiles

Alternatively, a lone paedophile may have planned the abduction in advance, having observed the daily habits of the family in the apartment complex. In the early aftermath of the disappearance, it was widely reported in the press that, according to a source close to the investigation, 'The area is a magnet for paedophiles. There have been seven sexual assaults involving the children of tourists in the Algarve in the last four years.'

2 She was taken by human traffickers

Some have argued that, if a lone paedophile had indeed stolen Madeleine, she would have likely been eventually murdered, and the body discovered. The lack of any trace of the missing girl therefore raises the possibility she was taken by human traffickers – a scenario that, though deeply unpleasant and distressing to contemplate, at least leaves room for the possibility of her still being alive.

In the words of private investigator Julian Peribanez, 'The value that Madeleine had was really high. If they took her, it’s because they were going to get a lot of money.'

Portugal’s geographical position has been emphasised by those believing in the trafficking theory, who point out how easy it would be to transport the girl across the border into Spain, and then taken by boat to Morocco. A number of alleged sightings of Madeleine have been reported in Morocco since her disappearance, and – though nothing concrete has been established – it’s still a favourite theory among those who follow the case.

3 She was killed in a burglary gone wrong

Could thieves have broken into the McCanns’ apartment, then either accidentally or deliberately killed Madeleine when she woke up to catch them in the act?  

This may seem like a rather unlikely scenario, but Scotland Yard detectives have taken it seriously. In 2011, when reviewing the investigation, detectives did highlight a number of burglaries in Algarve apartments, noting a four-fold increase in the months immediately preceding Madeleine’s disappearance. 

A group of local men were even questioned in connection to this theory in 2014, with one – Paulo Ribeiro – later telling the BBC of his shock at being accused of Madeleine’s disappearance. It seems that Portuguese detectives disagreed with British cops about the notion of burglars being behind it, with one local policeman, Carlos Anjos, later saying 'This burglary theory is absurd. Not even a wallet disappeared, no television disappeared, nothing else disappeared. A child disappeared.'

4 Her parents were responsible

This is the most controversial of all the possible explanations and one that has dogged Kate and Gerry McCann from the beginning of their ordeal. The main iteration of this theory is that Madeleine accidentally died when she was sedated by her parents. They then – perhaps with help from fellow holidaymakers dubbed the 'Tapas 7' – hid her body and claimed she’d been abducted. At some point afterwards, despite the full glare of the media falling on them, the McCanns returned to dispose of the body without anybody noticing.

Advocates of the theory point to alleged inconsistencies in statements given by the McCanns on the events of the evening. They’ve also made much of the fact that forensic sniffer dogs indicated that a corpse had been inside a car the McCanns had rented several weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance. The obvious counterargument here is that sniffer dogs can be very unreliable and that other DNA traces recovered from the car and apartment has been entirely inconclusive. 

Despite the lack of any evidence implicating the McCanns, and the sheer improbability of a holidaying couple covering up their daughter’s death in a popular resort without any trace left behind, the fact that Kate and Gerry were once considered official suspects by Portuguese police is enough to have permanently condemned them in the eyes of many.

5 Madeleine simply wandered off

It’s an idea that gets the least attention, perhaps because it’s the least sensationalist, but could Madeleine have simply woken up, wandered out of the apartment in search of her parents, and come to a sad end?

Some, including ex-cop and investigative journalist Mark Williams-Thomas, have claimed this is a strong possibility. 

'I think Maddie was aware they were in the tapas bar in the resort,' he said in an interview. 'In order to get to the bar you have to come out of the premises, walk on a public road and go back in again. The concern I have, I believe she woke up and went looking for them, she left the apartment and came out.'

It’s been speculated that the 'wandering Madeleine' may have fallen into a deep trench dug by road workers, or run over by a local driver who then panicked and buried her body somewhere.

6 Sinister occult forces took her

The McCann case has become so mythic that it’s inspired increasingly baroque conspiracy theories. Depending on which corner of the Internet you look at, everyone from the Freemasons to the Illuminati (or both) have been implicated in her disappearance. Certainly, the 'Pizzagate' conspiracy theory has only bolstered these allegations. 

Pizzagate emerged in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, with online activists alleging that members of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle were involved in Satanic child sex rituals, with a Washington pizza restaurant the secret epicentre of a trafficking operation. Among the political operatives demonised by Pizzagate were John and Tony Podesta, who were subsequently accused of being the McCann kidnappers when a resemblance was noted between the Podestas and a pair of e-fit sketches.

However, what many conspiracy theorists don’t realise is these two sketches are both actually of a single suspect – a man who was spotted carrying a child in his arms close to the resort that fateful night. But, once again, the lack of any evidence of secret, occult, VIP sex traffickers hasn’t dampened some people’s certainty that they are definitely behind the disappearance.