What Happened to Madeleine McCann: A Child Goes Missing, Precious Time Is Wasted and the Nightmare Begins

Madeleine McCann, 3, vanished from her family's apartment at a beachfront resort in Portugal on the night of May 3, 2007, and her parents have been holding out hope for answers ever since.

By Natalie Finn Jun 05, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Madeleine McCann: A Never-Ending Search 14 Years Later

Gerry McCann checked on the sleeping children at 9:05 p.m., and they were snug in their beds.

The Glasgow native returned to dinner with his wife, Kate McCann, and five fellow vacationers, the group from England in the middle of a 10-day holiday at the seaside resort town of Praia da Luz—"beach of light"—in southern Portugal. The various members of the party, enjoying wine and food at the Ocean Club's poolside tapas restaurant, would get up periodically to make the 100-yard walk to look in on their kids back in their respective apartments. 

It was Kate's turn to go at 9:30 p.m., but Dr. Matthew Oldfield, rising at the same time to check on his daughter Grace, offered to look in on the McCann children. He reported back to the group that all was well.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Kate, a general practitioner who had worked part-time since becoming a mother of three, entered apartment 5A through the open back patio door and headed toward the bedroom where she and Gerry had left 3-year-old Madeleine in her Eeyore pajamas and 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie fast asleep. As she has remembered in her multiple retellings of that night, Kate felt that the bedroom door she'd left slightly ajar was more open than before. Pulling the door toward her, it slammed, propelled by a breeze coming through the bedroom window that wasn't supposed to be open. 

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A closer look revealed that Sean and Amelie were snoozing away in their cots, but the bed where she had tucked in Madeleine with her pink blanket and Cuddle Cat barely two hours beforehand was empty.

"I couldn't quite make her out in the dark," Kate wrote in her 2011 book Madeleine (all proceeds from which went to Madeleine's Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned, which has financed search efforts). "I remember looking at it and looking at it for what was probably only a few seconds, though it felt like much longer."

Kate frantically searched the rest of the apartment, including in the closets and under the beds, calling for Madeleine, then ran to the restaurant. She recalled yelling, "Madeleine's gone! Someone's taken her!"

According to journalist Danny Collins' 2008 book Vanished: The Truth About the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a hotel babysitter named Charlotte Pennington (the resort offered complimentary child care night and day) who was watching another family's kids in a nearby room heard the cries and went over to 5A. Pennington remembered the distraught mom screaming, "They've taken her! They've taken her!"

Within minutes the dinner party spread out all over the resort to look for the child, who was due to turn 4 on May 12, and resort management was alerted of the situation. In her book, Kate recalled the staff enacting "missing child search protocol" by 10:30 p.m. When police still hadn't arrived five minutes later, Gerry asked Matt if he would go to the reception desk to make sure that they'd called authorities.

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Though it would seem as if a missing child would be a 10-alarm fire, two officers from the Guarda Nacional Republicana—a military force, but they serve as the equivalent of a U.S. city police force or highway patrol—didn't show up until around 11:10 p.m. And their guess was that Madeleine had wandered off, perhaps in search of her parents, into the streets crisscrossing the resort. 

The GNR did not immediately cordon off the area around 5A, as protocol often dictates for a crime scene, according to multiple witness accounts. So as word got around that a little girl was missing, guests and curious looky-loos flocked outside (and inside) apartment 5A—the back of which faced the pool and the tapas restaurant—smoking cigarettes and walking right up to the bedroom window, which soon became a hotbed of fingerprints and random DNA.

According to Collins (who in his book thanked police and media contacts, as well as Interpol for aiding in his investigation), as one man ran his fingers over the sill, declaring, "Nothing to be seen here," a British freelance reporter overheard and fired back, "Well, there bloody well wouldn't be now, would there?" 

Fellow vacationers did, however, help search for Madeleine until dawn, small groups walking the streets, combing the beach and peering into rubbish bins and anywhere else a small child could have ended up, on her own or by force.

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Two more cops, these from the Polícia Judiciária (the lead crime investigation agency in Portugal, akin to the FBI), arrived on the scene about two hours after the GNR. Kate also felt that they were skeptical of her insistence that her daughter had been taken, though she did note that, unlike the GNR, they put up a piece of police tape across the bedroom door and one brushed the room for fingerprints.

Still, a British forensics expert who arrived in Praia da Luz the following week later described it to the Evening Standard as the "worst preserved" crime scene he'd ever observed.

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Per transcripts of police interviews posted online, in his first statement to the PJ, given May 4, Matthew Oldfield said that, right before Gerry went to look in on his kids at 9:05 p.m., he himself had done a listening check outside the back windows, all of which were closed, of three apartments, including the McCanns'. He heard nothing amiss. When he went to check on the children again at 9:30, he entered 5A through the closed but unlocked patio door (left unlocked by Kate to make it easier for whomever from their party was making the rounds) and saw the bedroom door half-open.

He didn't go into the kids' room but said he could see the twins asleep by the light he assumed was coming in through open shutters. He acknowledged not actually seeing if Madeleine was in bed or not. In any case, he said, all was quiet, which to him was an indication that all three were sleeping.

Talking to police again on May 10, Matthew affirmed that he did not mention to the McCanns that the bedroom door had been half-open or that it looked lighter in the room than it did the first time he checked. He admittedly didn't think anything of it.

His was one of many witness accounts that contributed to a Rashomon-worthy collection of perspectives from law enforcement, hotel staff, other guests and the group the tabloids would dub "the Tapas Seven."

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According to PJ files reviewed by Kate, the Polícia Judiciária brought tracker dogs—the kind that search for live people—to Praia da Luz at 8 a.m. the next day, May 4, but they weren't deployed until 11 p.m. Meanwhile, road blocks went up at about 10 a.m. as the PJ set out alerting border and port authorities about the missing girl. A forensics team from Lisbon showed up during the day as well.

In the 2017 Netflix docu-series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCannGonçalo Amaral, former chief investigating coordinator of the Polícia Judiciária and a 30-year veteran of the force when the child went missing, called the measures taken to search for Madeleine "inadequate." He said that the first hours of the investigation garnered "what you might call the most 'minimal' inspection in terms of detail."

And in a case when the first few hours are crucial, investigators were relatively late to the scene, Amaral recalled, and "the lateness triggered a delay to the sequence of events."

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During those first pivotal hours, however, Gerry called his sister and brother-in-law, Trisha and Sandy, back in England, and they called the Foreign Office in London, the British Consulate in the Algarve and the British Embassy in Lisbon—a guarantee that within hours Madeleine's disappearance would be front-page news back in the U.K.

"He said, 'Madeleine's been abducted, she's been abducted!'" Trisha, also her niece's godmother, relayed to the Press Association on May 4, noting that she was headed to Portugal with their mother, Eileen McCann. "The door was lying open, the window in the bedroom and the shutters had been jemmied open. Nothing had been touched in the apartment, no valuables taken, no passports. They think someone must have come in the window and gone out the door with her."

(Per Collins, investigators determined that the shutters—a metal variety that were over all the back windows of the apartment building and could be raised and lowered from the inside—didn't show signs of tampering, indicating no one had entered the apartment through the window.)

Kate's parents, Brian and Susan Healy, also flew down to Praia da Luz right away.

Metropolitan Police

Asked about Madeleine and her siblings having been left alone in the apartment while their parents went to dinner, Brian Healy told The Guardian, "It is not right to say that they just left them. They could see the chalet from where they were sitting in the restaurant, they were a hundred yards away. They went back every half hour to check on the children. When they returned at the end of their meal she was gone. My daughter can hardly speak. She is distraught, she is crying and in shock."

After being up most of the night, Gerry and Kate headed out at about 6 a.m. on May 4 to keep looking, feeling increasingly on their own despite the dozens of people who'd shown up to aid the search. Fliers with Madeleine's picture had been put up all over the resort and at local businesses in the area.

Later that day, Gerry and Kate sat down for separate interviews at the police station, after which they returned to the Ocean Club at around 8:30 p.m. to find the road outside jammed with reporters, photographers and TV crews. The couple drafted a statement and approached the cameras, Kate holding Madeleine's Cuddle Cat.

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"Words cannot describe the anguish and despair that we are feeling as the parents of our beautiful daughter Madeleine," Gerry, a consulting cardiologist at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, said to the crowd. "We request that anyone with any information relating to Madeleine's disappearance, no matter how trivial, contact the Portuguese police and help us get her back safely."

"Please, if you have Madeleine," he continued, "let her come home to her Mummy, Daddy, brother and sister. As everyone can understand how distressing the current situation is, we ask that our privacy is respected to allow us to continue assisting the police in their current investigation." 

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Police followed up by announcing to the press that they weren't "100 percent sure" that there had been a kidnapping.

The Polícia Judiciária, however, maintained their suspicion that Kate and Gerry—and their friends—were hiding something. (All of them fervently denied keeping anything from police, collectively or individually.) At the same time, the rampant finger-pointing continued over leaving their children alone to go to dinner, the media happy to report on every single theory—and there were many—as well as question the McCanns' parenting choices.

Though the rest of their party had to return to their lives in England, Kate and Gerry remained in Portugal for what proved to be the summer from hell, giving interviews and pleading for information. They said they didn't want to leave the country without Madeleine.

This is Part 1 in a three-part series. Part 2 will be published Saturday, June 12.

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