Madeleine McCann Disappeared Without a Trace 10 Years Ago and the Cold Search for the Truth Continues

Kate and Gerry McCann still hold out hope that they'll find their daughter, who vanished when she was 3 while the family was on holiday in Portugal

By Natalie Finn Nov 04, 2017 1:00 PMTags
Madeleine McCann, Most Followed Crime StoriesHandout/Getty Images

Ten years ago, Kate and Gerry McCann suffered every parent's worst nightmare when their 3-year-old daughter, Madeleine McCann, went missing.

And for the McCanns there has been no waking up, no reprieve from the horror that is living every day not knowing what happened to her.

"Ten years—there's no easy way to say it, describe it, accept it. I remember when Madeleine first disappeared, I couldn't even begin to consider anything in terms of years," the McCanns said in a statement on the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance earlier this year. "Now here we are...Madeleine, our Madeleine—10 years. Most days are similar to the rest—another day. May 3, 2017, another day. But 10 years—a horrible marker of time, stolen time."

There's also been no escaping a world that still looks at them slightly askance—if not necessarily with suspicion, then with judgment.

Just days ago, an Australian man named Daniel Gearie dressed up as Madeleine for Halloween—he donned a blond wig and a royal blue Everton jersey like the one the smiling toddler wore in a widely disseminated picture of her—and knowing he was doing something appalling, he captioned the pic, "You've taken it too far daniel." He also tweeted, "and before you say 'this is sick' etc I know it is but I'm not the one who left a child unattended in a Portuguese hotel."

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People were obviously quick to come down on him hard and he ended up deleting those tweets and apologizing for the stunt, which he admitted to the Mail Online was intended to "provoke a reaction" at a party he was going to.


"Kate and Gerry have never dignified this sort of offensive and cretinous behavior with any sort of comment at all and they are not going to start now," a family spokesperson told the site. "It is right the material has been deleted."

It's a level of disrespect, along with the flippant commentary and morbid humor, that's plagued the McCanns for the last decade. 

On May 3, 2007, the couple, who are also parents of now 12-year-old twins, were vacationing at the Ocean Resort in the beachside village of Praia da Luz, Portugal.

After an afternoon spent playing in the pool, Madeleine was last seen by non-family members at around 6 p.m. Gerry and Kate, both doctors, tucked their three kids into bed at around 8:30 p.m. and went to join friends in the hotel restaurant, barely 75 yards away from their flat, unit 5A. The group they ate dinner with that night, including some fellow parents, would come to be known to police and the media as the Tapas Seven. Every 30 minutes, someone would go and check on the kids.

Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Gerry checked on the children at 9:05 p.m. Dr. Matthew Oldfield, another member of their party, went in at 9:30 p.m. but later couldn't definitively say whether Madeleine had been in bed or not.

Kate returned to the apartment at 10 p.m. At first she didn't notice anything amiss but then saw that the curtains were moving in the breeze, meaning the window was open. Unlike how they left it.

She then realized that, while twins Amelie and Sean were fast asleep, Madeleine, who was going to turn 4 on May 12, was gone. After a quick, frantic search of the resort grounds, they reported Madeleine missing at 10:14 p.m. She had been wearing Eeyore pajamas from Marks & Spencer and had gone to sleep with her pink blanket and her Cuddle Cat.

Police were on the scene immediately but reportedly no road blocks were put up until 10 a.m. the next day, and a global missing persons alert didn't go out for five days; they would also later be criticized for not immediately sealing off the apartment as a possible crime scene.

Kate McCann made her first televised appeal for her daughter's safe return on May 7. "Please, please do not hurt her," she said into the camera.

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In the ensuing weeks and month, Portuguese authorities would cast a wide net hoping to find any valid clue that would lead to Madeleine's whereabouts.

Witnesses recalled seeing a man carrying a child who fit the missing girl's description at roughly 10 p.m., about 500 yards away from the apartment (sketches were mocked up and the mystery man remained a suspect for years until 2013, when London's Metropolitan Police positively determined his identity as a British vacationer who had been carrying his own daughter). A 33-year-old British expatriate who lived about 150 yards away from the resort with his mother was questioned and his home was searched, much to his protest that he was being scapegoated (the man, Robert Murat, would later win $785,000 in libel damages from multiple media outlets for their coverage of him).

People started "seeing" Madeleine everywhere, and bogus tips poured in. A man and woman were arrested for allegedly trying to extort money from the McCanns in exchange for information about their daughter, and those wouldn't be the only arrests of that kind.

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But in a 24/7 news cycle fueled by splashy headlines, and in a world that still didn't know for sure what happened to 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, who was found murdered in her own home the day after Christmas in 1996, suspicion inevitably fell on Gerry and Kate—and there it stayed. Europe was no different than the United States in that respect. (The police in the Ramsey case were also criticized for not treating the house as a crime scene right away, thereby possibly contaminating evidence.)


The McCanns of course insisted that they had nothing whatsoever to do with Madeleine's disappearance, but count the local police among the skeptics.

In July British detectives, sniffing at what they felt was the ineptitude of the Portuguese authorities, flew in sniffer dogs from Yorkshire, England, to aid the search and went to search the apartment with luminol. The flat the McCanns had stayed in had already been cleaned and rented out again, another factor the Brits found appalling.

Traces of blood were found on the wall in the bedroom were Madeleine had been sleeping, but DNA testing ultimately showed that the blood belonged to a man. Tabloids in the U.K. and Portugal had practically buried the girl already but it wasn't until Aug. 11 that local police acknowledged publicly for the first time the possibility that Madeleine was dead.

In September, Portuguese detectives declared Kate and Gerry "arguidos"—official suspects. Detectives pressed Kate to confess, telling her she would probably only get a few years in prison if she cooperated.

On Sept. 9, after a whirlwind tour around Europe and the U.S. to hold press conferences and plead for information, and all of a sudden suspects in their daughter's disappearance, Gerry and Kate returned home to Leicester, England, with Sean and Amelie.

AP Photo/Armando Franca

The search continued and Portuguese authorities continued to try to build a case against the McCanns. There was a report of police sources saying a cadaver dog had sniffed out blood that was a "100 percent match" to Madeleine in the trunk of a car the family had rented more than three weeks after the disappearance (results were actually inconclusive). Goncalo Amaral, the chief inspector who was heading up the investigation, was removed from the case after criticizing British authorities' involvement, which he felt was working solely in the family's favor. He later wrote a book in which he brought forth the theory that Madeleine's death was an accident and her parents faked her abduction. They sued him for libel and were awarded about $750,000 in damages, but the decision was overturned and the Portuguese high court declined to reinstate the judgment this year.

Other theories have since abounded: There had been a rash of burglaries in the area, and perhaps Madeleine had woken up and thieves had snatched her up in a panic. It was a kidnap-for-hire, perhaps perpetrated by a childless couple who saw the McCanns and desperately wanted a daughter of their own. Sex trafficking. Pedophiles. Maybe the case was connected to an accused child abductor who committed suicide in Switzerland in August 2007. Or maybe Madeleine wandered off on her own, perhaps looking for her mom and dad, and she was abducted outside of the room or killed in an accident.

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Meanwhile, back at home, friends and family rallied around the stricken parents. A fund was established to ensure the investigation continued independently (the McCanns courted controversy by using some of that money to pay their mortgage). Sir Richard Branson donated $130,000 for the McCanns' legal fees. Clarence Mitchell, a BBC reporter turned government-employed media manager quit to become the family's full-time spokesman (and continues to speak on their behalf when needed to this day). The McCanns were approached about turning the case into a TV movie, and they said they discussed it out of concern that the funds to prolong the search were dwindling.

In March 2008, London's Daily Express and Daily Star published apologies for printing dozens of sensationalized, "seriously defamatory" accounts of the case, including some that implicated Gerry and Kate, and were ordered to pay $720,000 in damages to the McCanns and members of the so-called Tapas Seven, money to be funneled to the Find Madeleine fund. 

AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito

On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, church services in Madeleine's honor were held in the U.K. and Portugal, and her parents renewed their plea for information that could help bring them answers.

In July 2008, the Portuguese police officially closed their investigation. The McCanns and Robert Murat were formally cleared as suspects.

Scotland Yard opened its own inquiry into Madeleine's disappearance—dubbed Operation Grange—in May 2011; in 2014 detectives returned to Portugal to follow new leads. Criminals posing as charity collectors had been knocking door-to-door at the time as a way to gain entry into people's flats, and perhaps Madeleine had gotten in the way of one of their plots. A suspicious character had also been spotted loitering in the area, and they wanted to track him down.

Nothing substantial came of any of it.


And so the passage of time has seemingly only raised more questions as people continue to wonder, what did happen to Madeleine McCann? She didn't just disappear into thin air.

The case may resemble JonBenét Ramsey's at a glance because there are no definitive answers regarding a child's fate and fingers were pointed at the parents, but there are also cases that can give a mother and father hope. Elizabeth Smart was rescued nine months after being abducted from her home. Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped by a sex offender when she was 11, was found alive 18 years later. The McCanns were also heartened when Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were found alive in a house in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2013, roughly a decade after each was kidnapped.

 "Their recovery is also further evidence that children are sometimes abducted and kept for long periods," the McCanns said. "So we ask the public to remain vigilant in the ongoing search for Madeleine."

Multiple books have been written about the case, including Kate McCann's own Madeleine, published in 2011, with proceeds going to the fund. A new Oxygen special airing tonight, Madeleine McCann: 10 Years Later, assesses where the investigation is now and chronicles Kate and Gerry's quest to balance their grief and hope for answers with their mission to raise Sean and Amelie in as normal a fashion as possible.

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"Personally we don't use social media, though we have used it for Madeleine's campaign, but for our twins who are growing up and mobile technology is used all the time, we don't want them not to be able to use it, the same way that their peers do," Gerry McCann, a professor of cardiac imaging at the University of Leicester, said in the 2017 BBC special Madeleine McCann: 10 Years On. "We've been as open with them as we can, we've told them about...things, and also, you know, that people are writing things that are simply just untrue, and they need to be aware of that."

This summer a friend of the couple who runs sought to crack down on the nasty comments that trolls would leave daily on message boards and the site's Facebook page, warning that those who abused the forum were going to get blocked. "Please do not feed trolls. Trolls feed on havoc and causing chaos," he wrote. "If we do not feed them they will starve for attention and hopefully spread their hate someplace else."

London's Daily Star reported in August that a tattoo artist in the Mallorcan resort town of Magaluf, a popular vacation spot for Brits, had fulfilled a request for ink reading "I stole Madeleine McCann," an example of the garbage that drunken tourists ask for when they're stumbling home from bars in the wee hours.

At the time, Scotland Yard was on the verge of closing down Operation Grange, but an additional $200,000 was earmarked by the Home Office to keep it going until the end of March 2018. The U.K. has spent roughly $14 million on the investigation to date. Reportedly over the last 10 years, at least 60 people have been questioned, 650 sex offenders considered, 8,685 alleged sightings investigated, 40,000 documents reviewed, almost 1,340 statements taken and more than 1,000 pieces of evidence collected. Only a handful of detectives remain on the case now, down from 30 in 2011.

The chance that Madeleine, who would be 14 now, will be found alive grows ever more remote, but Gerry and Kate McCann continue to hold out hope that they'll be reunited one day. And those who are aiding their tireless quest certainly hope that their efforts will bring the family, if not their missing daughter, then at least some peace.

There may be no evidence that Madeleine's alive but, as her father continues to point out, there also isn't any evidence that she's dead.

Madeleine McCann: 10 Years Later premieres tonight on Oxygen at 7 p.m.