At first, the story seems simple. On May 3, 2007, an abductor breaks into a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal in the middle of the night. The intruder snatches three-year-old English girl Madeleine McCann. She is never seen again.
Or at least those are the main beats in Kate and Gerry McCann's version of events. They've stuck to the same story since their daughter's abduction over ten years ago, even when they were declared suspects in September 2007.
The case may be over a decade old, but its murky open ending still has the power to captivate the public. Theories proliferate on reddit, in documentaries, and in radio shows about what really happened to Madeleine McCann. Was Maddie abducted by a trafficking ring? Was she the casualty of a burglary?
In March 2019, two works are delving back into one of the most perplexing disappearances in recent history: The Australian podcast Maddie, and an eight-part Netflix series called The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann, out March 15. There will be no definitive answers here — but we can go over the main theories clinging to this crime.
On April 28, 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann flew from England to the Algarve region of southwestern Portugal with their children, 3-year-old Madeleine and 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie. The McCanns, both physicians, were meeting their friends for the holiday: David and Fiona Payne, Fiona's mother Dianne, Matthew and Rachael Oldfield, and Russell O'Brien and his girlfriend Jane Tanner.
During the day, the group's eight kids played in the resort's day care while their adults pursued their own activities. Then, each evening at 8 p.m., the friends — now branded the "Tapas Seven" — ate dinner at a tapas restaurant of the Ocean Club resort, while their eight children were left unattended in a hotel 80 meters away. Compared to the other resorts' far-flung restaurant offerings, the tapas restaurant was close. Every half-hour, one of the friends would return to check on the kids.
A first-hand account of the night Maddie disappeared, given by a waiter who worked at the Ocean Club, recalled the scene that erupted when Kate returned to the table and announced Maddie wasn't in the apartment. "It was chaos. People were running around the resort shouting for Madeleine, and we all started to help looking for her. I've never seen anything like it," the waiter, who chose to remain anonymous, told The Daily Mail.
Immediately, police were contacted and a massive search effort began, eventually stretching into Spain. Tips soon come in about potential Maddie sightings in other resorts, supermarkets in central Portugal, gypsy camps, and a gas station in Lagos, Nigeria. Further tips came in throughout the summer. In June 2007, a tourist said she was in Morocco; another, in Malta. These global sightings continued for years. The story became an international phenomenon and a fixture in international news.
Amid all this, investigators went back to what happened at the hotel the evening of Maddie's disappearance, and what the McCanns really knew. In September 2007, the McCanns were declared suspects ("arguidos") by the Portuguese police.
Members of the so-called "Tapas Seven" have stuck by their friends' account of that evening. After the McCanns were named suspects, their friends issued a statement denying that they had banded together to support the McCanns in what they called a "pact of silence."
"I was there on the night. I spent time with Gerry and Kate during the week before 3 May and after. Their emotions and their reactions were just agonizing. There's just no way they were involved in anything to do with Madeleine's disappearance," Rachael Oldfield told BBC Radio 4's Searching for Madeleine program in 2012.
Oldfield also criticised the Policia Judiciaria, Portugal's police service, for not letting the Tapas 7 set the record straight as the drama was unfolding. Apparently, they were told they could face two years in prison for speaking to the press.
In addition to the McCanns, Portuguese police also named British expat Robert Murat, who lived next to the resort, an "arguido" in the case. In the trailer for the Netflix series, Murat says he felt like he was being framed.
In 2008, after a year of media speculation, the "arguido" status of Murat and the McCanns were overturned. The three individuals collected hundreds of thousands in libel damage from British newspapers.
Obviously, though, the case wasn't solved. Following a request by then Home Secretary Theresa May, Scotland Yard started its own investigation, called "Operation Grange," in May 2011. Their efforts were exhaustive. According to The Sun, “by 2015 they had taken 1,338 statements, collected 1,027 exhibits and investigated 60 persons of interest, as well as 650 sex offenders.”
The British police pursued many theories. Was Maddie abducted by someone who had been watching the McCanns’ movements? Was she the casualty of a burglary gone awry? Was she taken by child traffickers?
Saunokonoko also indicated he believes that new forensic technology will open up investigative possibilities, and he's not alone. Jim Gamble, a child protection cop in Maddie's investigation, thinks that the case will be solved soon.
“There’s huge hope to be had with the advances in technology. Year on year DNA is getting better. Year on year other techniques, including facial recognition, are getting better. And as we use that technology to revisit and review that which we captured in the past, there’s every likelihood that something we already know will slip into position," Gamble told The Sun.
Apparently, the Netflix documentary series makes the case that Maddie was abducted by child traffickers, a line of questioning that was not pursued heavily by Portuguese police.
But it's very much unsolved. The McCanns aren't sure if their daughter is still alive. And the disappearance hangs over the town of Praia de Luz. In a particularly grim turn of events, an elderly British man actually started a tour company that visits the main locations of the McCann disappearance, including the tapas restaurant (now closed) and Apartment 5A.
Catch the Netflix show, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, on March 15 for a more in-depth look at the case.