What Happened to Madeleine McCann: Hope Persists as Months Turn into Years and Police Find a New Suspect

Undeterred by dueling theories about their daughter Madeleine's disappearance, Kate and Gerry McCann refused to give up on finding answers—and years later, a suspect emerged.

By Natalie Finn May 02, 2022 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Madeleine McCann: A Never-Ending Search 14 Years Later

This is the final installment of a three-part series. Read parts one and two here.

When Kate and Gerry McCann went home on Sept. 9, 2007, they told the reporters crowded around to witness their departure from Portugal that their decision to leave in no way meant that they had given up searching for their daughter Madeleine, who had been missing for four months.

They were reluctant to go, Kate recalled in her 2011 book Madeleine, but going back to their lives in England was "what was right and fair" for their twins, Sean and Amelie, who at 2 years old were still unaware that something so devastating had happened. Their big sister's fourth birthday had solemnly passed on May 12, nine days after she disappeared. 

The McCanns and three other families had arrived on April 28 for a sunny holiday at the kid-friendly Ocean Club in Praia da Luz. They were all supposed to go home on May 5.

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Instead, when Gerry, a cardiology specialist, and Kate, a GP who practiced part-time, returned to the Leicestershire village of Rothley, Portugal's Polícia Judiciària had just officially named them suspects in their daughter's disappearance, suggesting that Kate at the very least had hid Madeleine's body after a fatal accident in their apartment.

The McCanns adamantly maintained their innocence (then and ever since) and vowed never to stop looking, remaining hopeful that answers would be forthcoming—even if they weren't the ones they wanted.

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The PJ also still had questions for the friends the McCanns had been vacationing with. None of them were ever considered suspects, but that didn't stop them from feeling as if they'd been accused of something.

Matthew and Rachael Oldfield, David and Fiona Payne, Dianne Webster (Fiona's mother), and Russell O'Brien and Jane Tanner—the group Kate and Gerry were having dinner with the night Madeleine disappeared, dubbed the "Tapas Seven" in media reports—had been asked by police not to discuss the case with the press. But fed up with tabloid speculation and insinuations, as well as leaks that seemed to becoming from the cops who warned them to stay silent, they released a statement in October 2007 flatly denying that they had done anything other than try to help the investigation. 

"We wish to state that there is categorically no 'pact of silence' or indeed anything secretive between us—just the desire to assist the search for Madeleine," they said. "From day one, the police in Portugal told us not to discuss our statements. It is incredibly frustrating for us that the fact we have done as we were asked to by the Portuguese police is still being looked upon as suspicious. Everything we have done, and continue to do, has been to help with the search for Madeleine and to end this nightmare for Gerry and Kate."

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Talking to the BBC in April 2008, Rachael recalled, "We were made to understand we could face two years prison for speaking out, so as a group we've not said anything from day one...We would have loved to have put the record straight."

Portuguese police re-interviewed all seven that month (in the U.K.) and once again the common memory from the night of May 3, 2007, was that Kate was hysterical and Gerry was equally devastated.

"I've never heard a man make the noises he made, and Kate, Kate was just...you just can't put into words how they were," Dianne Webster told police.

As Madeleine's fifth birthday approached, Kate guessed that if she had known a year prior that her daughter would still be missing after 12 months, "I'm sure I'd have gone under," she wrote.

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But while she shared that it took her years to be able to glean much pleasure from anything, unable to even go to dinner or concentrate on a movie or soccer game, and Gerry too had good days as well as horrible ones, they had to press on sooner than they might have otherwise because Sean and Amelie needed them. 

In her book, Kate called the twins, then 6 years old, "remarkably well-adjusted, well-rounded and emotionally in tune."

"Unfortunately for us, a new normality is a family of four," Gerry told the BBC in 2017. "But we have adapted and that's important. The last five years, in particular, has allowed us to really properly devote time to looking after the twins and ourselves and of course carrying on with our work. At some point you've got to realize that time is not frozen, and I think both of us realize that we owed it to the twins to make sure that their life is as fulfilling as they deserve."

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Kate and Gerry were officially cleared, along with fellow suspect Robert Murat, on July 21, 2008, Portugal's attorney general's office announcing there was no evidence that Madeleine had come to serious harm.

At the same time, the PJ said they were halting their investigation.

Kate wrote that she and her husband weren't sorry to hear it, that they were "far from convinced that there was any real investigation taking place anyway." They had already hired private investigators to continue the search.

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Three days after the announcement that they were no longer suspects, Gonçalo Amaral—the PJ's former chief investigating coordinator who had stepped down from the McCann investigation in October 2007 and retired from the force in June 2008—released a book about the case that floated the theory that Kate and Gerry had covered up what really happened to their daughter, as well as shed a more flattering light on his department's actions during the course of the investigation.

The couple sued Amaral for libel in 2009, launching a process that stretched on for years: They went to trial in 2014, and in April 2015 a Lisbon judge awarded the McCanns more than $500,000 in damages—money they stated would go right to Madeleine's Fund, which has helped finance search efforts since 2007—and banned further sales of the book, The Truth of the Lie. However, arguing that the book was an account of a widely documented police investigation, Amaral won his appeal the following year, clearing the way for his book to go back on sale.

The McCanns appealed to Portugal's Supreme Court, which refused to take it up in 2017. They called the decision "extremely disappointing," but said all that they'd ever really wanted was for British and Portuguese authorities to be doing all they could to find their daughter.

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Meanwhile, London's Metropolitan Police formally opened their own investigation into Madeleine's disappearance in May 2011, calling it "Operation Grange"—and Portuguese prosecutors followed suit that October.

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In October 2013, Scotland Yard ruled out one once-promising lead: They had finally managed to confirm that a man the McCanns' friend Jane Tanner saw at 9:15 p.m. on May 3, 2007, carrying a barefoot child in light-colored pajamas was just another vacationing Brit with his own kid.

Later that month on an episode of the BBC's Crimewatch, Scotland Yard shared new composite images based on the accounts of another couple who reported seeing a man awkwardly carrying a child fitting Madeleine's description on the street about 500 yards away from the McCanns' apartment, headed in the direction of the beach, closer to 10 p.m. that night. According to the Met, more than 300 calls and 170 emails came in directly after the program aired.

But whatever information was relayed, it did not lead to any notable developments. And so would be the case for years.

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Ahead of the 10th anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance, Kate and Gerry told the BBC's Fiona Bruce that they did still have hope that their daughter might be found, noting that sometimes miracles happened—such as the discovery in 2013 of three young women in Cleveland who'd been held captive for a decade, or the fact that Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped at 11 in 1991, was found alive 18 years later.

"We tried everything in our power to not have a long, protracted, missing-person case like this," Kate said. "It's devastating and we really threw ourselves into trying to do everything we could to help find her. It looks like that hasn't worked yet. But you know we are still looking forward...We still hope."

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Three years later came the announcement that there was a new suspect: a man in prison in Germany for drug offenses who, according to German authorities, had a long criminal record that included convictions for child sexual abuse.

On June 3, 2020, Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Mark Cranwell said that his office had received information about the man in 2017 and had been investigating ever since in a joint effort with the Polícia Judiciária and Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (the BKA). By then, only a handful of detectives were still on the case, down from the initial 30 investigators assigned to Operation Grange in 2011.

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While Cranwell said their job was to "follow the evidence, maintain an open mind and establish what happened on that day in May 2007," Braunschweig state prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters told reporters the next day, per Reuters, "We assume that the girl is dead. The public prosecutor's office in Braunschweig is investigating a 43-year-old German national on suspicion of murder." Wolters told the BBC that they had evidence "strong enough to say that the girl is dead and strong enough to accuse a specific individual of murder—that strong."

However, he added, "One has to be honest and remain open to the possibility that our investigation could end without a charge, that it ends like the others have."

A few days later, Wolters walked his assessment back a bit, telling the Sunday Mirror that "a little bit of hope" remained that Madeleine was alive.

According to the BBC and Associated Press, the suspect, Christian Brueckner, was also convicted in 2019 of the 2005 rape of a 72-year-old American woman in Praia da Luz and sentenced to seven years in prison, which he began serving in January 2021 upon completion of his drug-related sentence.

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Friedrich Fulscher, Brueckner's attorney, said at the time that his client denied having anything to do with Madeleine's disappearance and had no plans to cooperate with the German prosecutor's office.

Brueckner—who lost his appeal on the rape conviction in November 2020—broke his silence in the spring of 2021, releasing a statement from prison directed at Wolf and fellow prosecutor Ute Lindemann that alleged he was being unfairly persecuted.

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"Charging someone with a crime is one thing," began his handwritten message, dated May 8, 2021, but released June 14, according to The Telegraph. "It is something completely different, namely an unbelievable scandal, when a public prosecutor starts a public prejudicial campaign before proceedings are even opened. You have proved worldwide, through arbitrary convictions in the past and through scandalous prejudicial campaigns in the present, that you are unsuitable for the office of an 'advocate for the honest and German people who trust in justice,' and that you bring shame to the German legal system."

That's where the investigation remained, authorities in Germany voicing their grim suspicions, while Scotland Yard pressed on. Brueckner, 45, has not been charged in the McCann case. 

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Scotland Yard said in 2020 that they'd yet to see "definitive evidence whether Madeleine is alive or dead"—and that remains the case. Then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick told reporters that December that they were working "really, really closely" with German authorities, yet she "would not expect necessarily every single piece of material to be shared with us."

"We're continuing to work very closely with our colleagues in the BKA...and the PJ," she continued. "We do have our small team still working on that and there's no significant change for us in terms of our resourcing or posture...We will continue until the time that it is right, either because much more light has been thrown on this and, or, somebody has been brought to justice. Or, if we feel we have exhausted all possible opportunities. We're not any of those stages at the moment, and the team continues."

A source close to the investigation told the Telegraph in January 2021, "At this stage there is no evolution. Of course I would like to see an end to this, but there is no reason to think that [Brueckner] could take us to Madeleine, and that is the most important thing."

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As the 14th anniversary of their daughter's disappearance approached in 2021, Gerry and Kate McCann posted on the Find Madeleine website, the couple having never joined social media, "Every May is tough—a reminder of years passed, of years together lost, or stolen. This year it is particularly poignant as we should be celebrating Madeleine's 18th birthday. Enough said."

A Met spokesperson confirmed to E! News last June that the McCann case remained open but they were unable to comment further about their active investigation—and it remained a missing-person inquiry. Clarence Mitchell, the McCanns' longtime spokesman, didn't respond to interview requests at the time.

Months later, on April 21, the Prosecutors Office in Faro, Portugal, said they had an official suspect, not releasing a name but saying they were acting on a request from German authorities and in coordination with English investigators.

The next day, on the website devoted to finding their eldest child, the McCanns—whose twins are now 16 years old—wrote, "We welcome the news that the Portuguese authorities have declared a German man an 'arguido' in relation to the disappearance of our beloved daughter Madeleine. This reflects progress in the investigation, being conducted by the Portuguese, German and British authorities. We are kept informed of developments by the Metropolitan police.

"It is important to note the 'arguido' has not yet been charged with any specific crime related to Madeleine's disappearance. Even though the possibility may be slim, we have not given up hope that Madeleine is still alive and we will be reunited with her."

(Originally published June 19, 2021, at 3 a.m. PT)

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