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16 years on: The Madeleine McCann investigation

Madeleine McCann
Image Credit: Collect/Handout / Alamy Stock Photo | Background: | Above: A police handout photograph of Madeleine McCann who went missing on the 3rd May 2007

It was 3rd May 2007, when three-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished from her bed in an apartment at the Ocean Club holiday resort in Praia da Luz, Portugal. The Scotland Yard investigation into her disappearance cost approximately £12.5 million, but what became of Madeleine still remains a lingering mystery.

Praia de Luz is a seaside village located in southwest Portugal. In 2007, Gerry and Kate McCann and their three children – three-year-old Madeleine and two-year-old twins, Sean and Amelie – travelled to the popular resort for a vacation. The family, from Rothley in Leicestershire, were staying at the Ocean Club, a holiday resort that consisted of purpose-built apartments.

At around 8:30pm on 3rd May, Gerry and Kate left their young children sleeping in the ground-floor apartment while they dined at a nearby tapas restaurant with some friends. The resort offered a creche service, but the couple opted against using it. Most nights, Gerry and Kate dined with their small group of friends, all of whom left their children alone at the apartments. Jill Renwick, a member of that group, said: “They were just watching the hotel room and going back every half-hour.” (Birmingham Mail, 4 May 2007 – ‘Nightmare as Girl Abducted’)

Kate went back to the apartment to check on the children at about 10pm. She found that the shutter had been slid up and the bedroom window was open. The bed where Madeleine should have been sleeping was empty. She ran from the apartment screaming that somebody had abducted her daughter. (Coventry Times, 5 May 2007 – ‘Parents Pray for Missing Madeleine’)

Portuguese detectives were brought to the apartment complex, where they searched for the missing girl. (UPI, 4 May 2007 – ‘British Child Missing in Portugal’) Meanwhile, border police and airports were notified of the disappearance, and potential kidnapping, as the search was extended further afield. One tip came in from Jane Tanner, a friend who had been dining with Gerry and Kate that night. She said that she had seen a man carrying a child away from the resort around 45 minutes before it was discovered Madeleine was missing.

Fears were immediately roused that Madeleine had been abducted, and Gerry and Kate quickly accused the Portuguese police of not doing enough to find their daughter. They made a tearful plea on television for the safe return of Madeleine. Gerry read from a prepared statement, as Kate stood by his side clutching a child’s toy. “We cannot describe the anguish and despair we are feeling as parents of our beautiful daughter Madeleine. We request that anyone with any information relating to Madeleine's disappearance, no matter how trivial, contact the police and help us get her back safely." (The Daily Record, 6 May 2007 – ‘Please Let Maddie Come Home to us’)

Despite an exhaustive and extensive search that spanned several countries, Madeleine has never been found, and 14 months after she vanished, the Portuguese investigation was prematurely closed.

There was widespread criticism of the Portuguese police, and accusations of incompetence in how the investigation was handled. Early on, the police claimed to have a suspect but failed to share an e-fit sketch for several days. They also didn’t post pictures of Madeleine across Portugal in the immediate wake of her disappearance. (The Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2007 – ‘Muddle and Failure in Hunt for Madeleine’) Under Portuguese law, police could not disclose details of their investigation, but with mounting criticisms, the police accused Gerry and Kate of somehow being involved, something that much of the media across the world latched onto. In 2008, the couple was formally cleared of suspicion after Portuguese police submitted their final report into the investigation. (The Guardian, 22 April 2022 – ‘What Does Christian Brückner Arguido Status Mean?’)

Over the ensuing years, theories as to what happened to Madeleine have been rampant. In fact, her disappearance was referred to by The Daily Telegraph as “the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history”. Gerry and Kate launched their own investigation and Scotland Yard opened an inquiry, ‘Operation Grange’, in 2011. They collected a massive stockpile of evidence and took thousands of statements.

In 2020, a new person of interest in the disappearance of Madeleine was publicly identified: Christian Brückner, a convicted child sex offender, drug dealer, and burglar from Germany. Three years before that, Scotland Yard had been tipped off about his potential links to the disappearance.

Brückner had sex offence convictions dating back to 1994 and was serving time in prison after being convicted of rape in Praia da Luz in 2005. In 1994, he was convicted in Germany of sexual abuse of a child, attempted sexual abuse of a child, and carrying out sexual acts in front of a child. The following year, he fled to Praia da Luz to escape the youth custody sentence he had received. Between 1995 and 2007, he lived in Portugal, holding down various casual jobs, including some in the hotel and catering industry.

To further increase his income, Brückner was involved in criminal activity. He dealt drugs alongside breaking into hotel rooms and holiday apartments to steal any valuables. He moved between Portugal and Germany to escape the number of criminal proceedings against him.

In September 2005, he raped a 72-year-old American woman in Praia da Luz. He had entered the woman’s apartment through an open door, tied her up, beat her with a scimitar, and raped her. He was finally convicted of the attack in 2019 after a friend discovered a video Brückner had taken. (The Guardian, 4 June 2020 – ‘Madeleine McCann Suspect Christian Brückner Fled Police in 1995’) By this point, he was already a person of interest in the disappearance of Madeleine.

He first came to the attention of Scotland Yard around the tenth anniversary of the disappearance. Brückner was in a bar when a report about the case came on the television. He commented to a friend that he knew what had happened to Madeleine. The friend contacted police in Germany who then contacted the Scotland Yard.

German authorities also told Portuguese police and asked them to provide any evidence they had on Brückner, including a saliva sample. Police were wanting to compare Brückner’s DNA to a DNA sample that was found in the apartment that Madeleine had vanished from. However, Portuguese police responded by telling them that the DNA sample collected had “little identification value.” (International Business Times, 17 June 2020 – ‘Madeleine McCann Update’)

The apartment had been contaminated when Portuguese police failed to seal it off and declare it a crime scene. Around 50 people were allowed to come and go from the apartment, contaminating any potential evidence that could have been collected. Moreover, the Portuguese police had failed to wear protective clothing, and even smoked at the crime scene, flicking their ash onto the floor. (The Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2020 – ‘Prime Suspect was Discounted by Portuguese Police’)

Portuguese police responded to the new development by stating that Brückner had been investigated at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance but was ruled out as a suspect. However, that was when they had considered Gerry and Kate to be their main suspects.

With Brückner identified as a person of interest, German prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters announced that they were now treating Madeleine’s disappearance as a homicide. He stated: "We think that Madeleine McCann is dead and are appealing for witnesses. The 43-year-old suspect is a multiple sexual predator already convicted of crimes against little girls." British police, however, said they were still treating the case as a missing person investigation.

The night before the disappearance, Brückner had told an ex-girlfriend that he had a “horrible job to do in Praia da Luz”, before adding, “It’s something I have to do, and it will change my life. You won’t be seeing me for a while.” (The Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2020 – ‘Satellite Shots “Show Madeleine Suspect’s Van Near Resort”’)

The investigation uncovered a mobile phone used in the immediate area shortly before the disappearance was linked to Brückner and he re-registered his Jaguar car to a friend the following day. (The Guardian, 4 June 2020 – ‘German Prisoner is “Strongest Madeleine McCann Suspect Yet”’

In April 2022, Portuguese police announced that Brückner was now a “formal suspect” in the disappearance of Madeleine. It was the first time they had officially identified a suspect in the case since Gerry and Kate all those years earlier. (The Guardian, 22 April 2022 – ‘German Investigation Could Last Until Next Year’)

The investigation into Christian Brückner and his potential involvement in the case is still ongoing. As Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who had worked on the investigation, said: “Well, this breakthrough could mean everything or it could mean nothing.” (The Guardian, 22 April 2022 – ‘False Leads, Multiple Suspects’)