The disappearance of Madeleine McCann led to an unprecedented media frenzy, significant searches and multiple questions. However, these efforts were unable to locate Maddie, with her disappearance still unsolved.
English-born Maddie was just three years of age when she vanished. She had been holidaying with her parents at the time. The case made worldwide headlines. Several years on, the search for Maddie continues, though hope continues to fade.
This article reviews this case. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we hope you partake in. We will all be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened.
Kate and Gerry McCann were on holiday with their three children in Portugal in April 2007. They stayed in Room 5A at the Ocean Club Resort in Praia da Luz, which is located in the south of Portugal.
Maddie was the eldest of the three children, and had her own room within their apartment. Maddie’s younger siblings were twins. The McCann’s were joined at the resort by several friends, each of which had children too.
The group were all situated within a small radius of one another at the hotel complex. The McCann’s apartment was situated at the edge of the complex, making it accessible to the public via a small staircase.
Most evenings, the group would dine out at the Ocean Club’s restaurant. The McCann’s apartment was around 150 feet from the restaurant, though the front door was obscured by walls. To get to their apartment, they had to leave the complex and then walk across the public road.
Within the apartment, the patio doors could only be locked from the inside. As a result, while the group dined, the patio doors of the McCann’s apartment were closed, albeit unlocked.
This allowed easy access for their friends. Individuals in the group would go and check on all of the children, taking it turns, approximately twice an hour.
On the face of it, it looked as if it would be a dream holiday for the group. However, the friends that joined Kate and Gerry would soon ominously become known as “the Tapas Seven”.
On Thursday 3rd May 2007, the McCann’s put their children to sleep around 7pm, before going out to meet their friends at the Ocean Club’s restaurant at 8:30pm, as they often did.
Gerry made the first check at around 9pm, where he noticed that the door into Maddie’s room was in a different position to how he had left it. He checked to see if Maddie was there, and she was. Therefore, Gerry returned.
At approximately 9:30pm, Matthew Oldfield, a member of the “Tapas Seven” checked on the children. He would later recall that the door leading to Maddie’s room was wide open – unlike how Gerry had left it.
Crucially, it is unknown whether or not Maddie was still in the apartment at this time, as Oldfield did not go into the apartment far enough to see if Maddie was there.
At 10pm, Kate went to check on the children. Upon entering the apartment, she noticed there was a draught coming from Maddie’s room. When she went into Maddie’s room, the bedroom window and its shutter were wide open, with no sign of Maddie.
Kate immediately rose the alarm, and a search began. The friends were alerted. The resort’s reception desk contacted the Police at approximately 9:10pm. For several hours, hundreds of people around Luz took part in a search for Maddie.
One of the biggest issues in this disappearance was the actions of the Portuguese Police. They were called shortly after the disappearance, but were slow to react.
They made it to the resort almost two hours after being called, despite being situated just 5 miles away. They attempted to coordinate a search. However, they made the potentially crucial error of failing to notify the Portuguese-Spanish border of the disappearance of a young girl.
In the first few hours of the search – when hopes of finding Maddie were at their highest – there was 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. This ruined any chance of forensic evidence being done. As the first few days passed, searches continued, but there was no sign of Maddie.
The McCann’s tried to raise awareness wherever possible. They engaged in numerous international appeals, with their belief that Maddie could have been taken out of Portugal. Within days of Maddie’s disappearance, the McCann’s – as practicing Catholics – met with the Pope.
Meanwhile, back in the United Kingdom, a “media circus” ensued. There was unprecedented coverage of the disappearance, with the case heavily covered on the news, radio, and internet.
The British Police set up their own investigation, and headed out to Portugal. The British and Portuguese detectives struggled to work alongside one another however, with a lack of communication and differing systems hindering their cooperation.
It took Portuguese investigators just 12 days to name their first suspect. Robert Murat – a British expatriate living near the apartment – became a suspect. He had been seen on the evening of the disappearance near the apartment.
Portuguese investigators trawled through his possessions, analysed his electronic devices and led the media to scrutinise his every move. Yet there was nothing to link Murat with Maddie’s disappearance. He would have his status as an “arguido” (suspect) revoked months later. He would later receive £600,000 in compensation.
The biggest controversy came a couple of months later, when Kate and Gerry McCann were made suspects. Portuguese investigators noted that there were several inconsistencies in the accounts of the event made by the McCann’s and their friends.
The Portuguese Police had questioned Kate on 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 any questions.
Within 72 hours of being made suspects, the McCann’s returned to the United Kingdom. A report released by a faction of Portuguese investigators concluded that Maddie had died in the apartment, before her death was covered up by Kate and Gerry McCann and the “Tapas Seven”.
The McCann’s refused to engage with the Portuguese police. Over a year after the abduction, the McCann’s status as suspects was withdrawn. The case was declared closed by the Portuguese investigators, following a year of investigations.
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 and numerous newspapers, were secured, amounting to millions of pounds.
The McCann’s used the money in part to fund private investigators. An original agency named Metodo 3, were hired, at a cost of £300,000 for 6 months. Unfortunately, this intervention failed to yield any results. The director of the company, Francisco Marco, was criticised for supposed over-confidence in finding Maddie, potentially giving Maddie’s parents false hopes.
In 2008, £500,000 was spent on hiring another agency of private investigators – Oakley International. The group went to significant lengths to try and find out information, including various undercover operations. The company, led by a man named Kevin Halligen, was accused of wasting the money on first-class travel costs, chauffeurs and five-star hotels. Halligen was later jailed in the United States for his part in a con. Halligen died in 2020.
The British Police continued to investigate Maddie’s disappearance. They set up Operation Grange in 2011, which was a taskforce designed to find Maddie. Despite their efforts, they were unable to make progress. While some leads were found, there were no concrete results.
Lines of enquiry included a surge in burglaries in the area around the time of Maddie’s disappearance, suggesting a robbery-gone-wrong could have resulted in Maddie vanishing.
There were also reports of bogus “charity collectors”, who were collecting money for a fictional orphanage. The last tourist to rent out apartment 5A said that a man had appeared on his balcony, asking for money for a supposed orphanage. There were many similar cases in the area reported.
Loiterers and someone ostensibly seen to be spying on the apartment, were all investigated. Specific individuals that were suspected included a blonde-haired man that was seen near Apartment 5A frequently ahead of Madeleine’s disappearance.
The case was renowned for providing investigators with very few answers. One of the main pieces of evidence came from an Irish couple named Martin and Mary Smith – who were on holiday in the area. They noted that they had seen a man at around 10pm carrying a child just 500 yards from the McCann’s apartment.
The Smith’s said that the child was a girl aged 3-4, had blonde hair, did not have shoes or socks on, and was wearing light-coloured pyjamas. The man carrying her was approximately 5ft 7-8in, and was not believed to be a local, according to the Smiths. He was walking in the direction away from the hotel. Many investigators believe this was the kidnapper. It is unknown if this was a true sighting of Maddie or not.
Another key sighting came from Jane Tanner – a member of the “Tapas Seven”. She said that when on her way to check on her child, that she passed a man carrying a child that seemed to be wearing similar clothes to Maddie’s pyjamas. British investigators suggested the person involved in the sighting was not involved in Maddie’s disappearance. Nonetheless, initially, this sighting was a key part of the investigation.
As the years passed, the investigation into Maddie’s disappearance were afforded less and less resources. Hope continued to fade.
The searches for Maddie have continued. She is often still reported on by the media, and her disappearance continues to result in intense discussion all these years later. There have been some developments.
Goncalo Amaral was the Chief Inspector of the Portuguese Policia Judiciaria. He had been in charge of the Portuguese investigation originally, before being taken off the case after the McCann’s had been accused as being suspects.
Amaral eventually left law enforcement, and published a book named Maddie: The Truth of the Lie. The book sold in very high numbers. The McCann’s subsequently sued Amaral and his publisher, eventually being awarded libel damages. But this was overturned in 2016. However, the McCann’s appealed the 2016 order. The case went all the way to the Portuguese Supreme Court, where the court ruled in favour of Amaral.
In 2019, an 8-episode documentary called The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, was released by Netflix. While the show proved popular, the documentary failed to provide any new information, instead providing an overview of the case, albeit with comments from some of those involved. The McCann’s refused to take part.
However, arguably the biggest update came in 2020. Seemingly out of nowhere, German prosecutors announced that they were “100%” sure that a convicted paedophile and rapist named Christian Brueckner abducted and then murdered Maddie.
Head prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters, didn’t reveal the exact evidence they had, but claimed they were very confident in their belief. They did however state that they had “circumstantial evidence”, rather than “scientific evidence”. They also said that their evidence meant there was “no hope” that Maddie is alive.
Brueckner, a German national, has a litany of crimes against his name. He is currently imprisoned in Germany, after being found guilty of the rape of a 72-year old woman in Portugal in 2005. Moreover, prosecutors hope to charge him with several other crimes, including sex attacks and rape.
Brueckner was known to live in the area for 10 years, including at the time Maddie vanished. He was 43 years old at the time. Brueckner has disputed the allegations, and is due to be released from prison unless further charges are brought against him, which is expected to happen.
Due to the nature of this case, there have been no shortage of theories.
We now analyse five different theories, and examine the evidence and rational behind their inclusion.
Theory One: Planned Abduction and death
The most commonly accepted theory is that Maddie’s abduction had been planned, and that she was kidnapped. Any observer would have clearly seen a pattern of Maddie only being checked on once every half hour.
There were multiple reports of suspicious individuals around the resort at the time, including the bogus charity collectors, some people apparently spying, and others acting strangely.
Given the easy access to the apartment, the fact it was left unlocked, and no one being around to protect Maddie, it would surely have been rather easy to take her.
What happened after her supposed abduction remains a mystery. However, a “too hot to handle” scenario may have developed, where – due to the media’s involvement – the kidnapper had to kill Maddie and dispose of her body.
The German theory of Christian Bruckner’s involvement would also fit within this theory. Bruckner was known to be in the area at the time of Maddie’s disappearance. Bruckner remains the main suspect.
Theory Two: Planned Abduction, but still alive
Another theory is that Maddie’s abduction was planned, but that she remains alive to this day. The most likely explanation for thi theory is that Maddie was a victim of child trafficking.
As the borders didn’t close, Maddie could have been trafficked out of Portugal, with her most likely destinations being either Morocco or Mauritania. She may still be alive as a result. But given her distinctive appearance, it is unlikely this is the case.
Maddie may also be living with her abductor. While this is a rather sickening thought, if the abductor was to have held Maddie captive, she could still be alive. But these events are rare, thankfully.
Theory Three: Burglary gone wrong and death
One line of enquiry that investigators noted were the increase in burglaries in the area in the build-up to the disappearance. It is possible that an attempted burglary went wrong, with Maddie potentially disturbing the thief, who in a panic took or killed Maddie.
This may explain why no trace of Maddie has ever been found. However, the area around the apartment has been searched extensively, meaning that a burglar would have had to dispose of the body away from Luz – which is feasible.
Theory Four: Maddie wandered off to an uncertain fate
It is possible that Maddie woke up during the night, and wandered off trying to find her parents. When doing so, a number of things could have happened. She could have fell down a hole in a nearby construction site.
Or, an opportunistic criminal could have taken her. This theory does have its limitations though, as if she was to walk off under her own volition, then the chances of her coming into contact with a predator is highly unlikely.
Moreover, Madeleine would have had to open the patio doors, close the curtains, then open and close the two gates leading to the street. This is not the behaviour associated with a 3-year old, especially not one who has just woke up and is looking for her parents. Yet it is a possibility that can’t be ignored.
Theory Five: Parent Involvement
Many have theorised that Maddie was killed in the days or hours leading up to her disappearance, and that her death was covered up by the McCann’s. There are suggestions that a freak accident, or the McCann’s accidentally sedating Maddie to a toxic level, could have taken place.
The Portuguese Police were, and many investigators remain, convinced that Maddie’s parents were involved in Madeleine’s disappearance. This is largely due to inconsistencies in the accounts of Kate, Gerry and the Tapas Seven.
The Portuguese Police’s use of sniffer dogs was part of the reason for this belief. Two sniffer dogs trained at identifying the scent of human cadavers were used. They were both alerted to the area behind the sofa of apartment 5A. Moreover, the dogs were taken to an underground car park, where 10 cars were parked around 20 feet apart. A car hired by the McCann’s three weeks after Maddie’s disappearance was among the cars. Alarmingly, the dogs both identified a scent in the hire car.
It was also apparent that on the day of Maddie’s disappearance, that Maddie had asked Kate and Gerry – “where were you when Sean (her brother) and I cried last night?”. Some construed this as poor parenting, while others suggested that someone may have tried a “dress rehearsal” ahead of taking Maddie the next evening.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
The disappearance of Madeleine McCann is one of the most notorious disappearances in history. There are so many questions regarding her disappearance. Unfortunately though, there are few answers.
Many criticised the McCann’s for leaving their children unsupervised while dining. This was, without doubt, a key element in Maddie’s disappearance. But the pain they have endured since is truly horrific.
It remains to be seen if there will ever be justice for Madeleine McCann. While this case is far from over, answers to our questions look less and less likely by the day.