Suspect sighting in Madeleine McCann case was false lead, say police as they follow new line
Police investigating disappearance have shifted emphasis of inquiry
Police investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann have shifted the emphasis of their inquiry after discovering that a notorious presumed sighting of the girl being taken away from her holiday apartment was a false lead.
Detectives from London’s Metropolitan police (the Met) now believe that a man with dark, collar-length hair seen carrying a pyjama-clad child almost outside the McCann family’s apartment in Praia da Luz, southern Portugal, at about 9.15pm on 3 May 2007 was in fact an innocent British holidaymaker returning his own child from a night creche.
In the light of what police describe as “a revelation moment,” altering six years of thinking about the case, investigating officers now believe Madeleine could have been taken up to 45 minutes later in the evening.
The discovery had brought “a shift of emphasis”, said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, leading the investigation: “We’re almost certain now that this sighting is not the abductor. But very importantly, what it says is that from 9.15pm we’re able to allow the clock to continue forward. In doing so, things that were not seen as significant or have not received the same attention are now the centre of our focus.”
Video: BBC's Crimewatch reconstruction
Inquiries are now centred on another man - whom police have been unable to identify - seen carrying a blond child, believed to be wearing pyjamas, close to the Ocean Club complex at about 10pm that night. The family who saw him provided two e-fit images of the man more than five years ago. However, the sighting was viewed as too late to be significant - which is why the e-fits were only released publicly on Sunday.
Police are also seeking to identify a pair of blond men seen lurking around the holiday centre about the time of the disappearance, and a group of presumed bogus charity collectors who targeted nearby apartments - working on the possibility that Madeleine’s abduction was carefully planned. Officers are also investigating whether a spate of local break-ins before Madeleine’s disappearance could be linked, including one when an intruder was seen peering into a cot but stole nothing.
But the key breakthrough since the Met launched its investigation in July this year concerns Jane Tanner, among the group of friends dining with Kate and Gerry McCann at a tapas restaurant in the holiday complex on 3 May as Madeleine and her younger twin siblings, Sean and Amelie, slept 50 metres away.
Tanner went to check on her own children at about 9pm, around the same time Gerry McCann looked in on his - the last time the family saw Madeleine. About 15 minutes later, Tanner recounted, she saw the man carrying a young child in pyjamas almost directly outside the McCanns’ apartment. From 2007 onwards, Portuguese and British police presumed any abduction most probably took place between 8.30pm, when the McCanns went to dinner, and 9.15pm.
However, the new investigation tracked down the British holidaymaker, who said he was carrying his child home via that route at that time. A new police photograph of the man wearing similar clothes to those worn that evening is remarkably similar to an artist’s sketch based on Tanner’s recollection.
The Tanner sighting had “dominated up to now”, Redwood admitted. He added: “It has meant the focus was always done and dusted by about quarter past. Now it takes us forward to 10pm.”
The man police now want to contact was spotted at about 10pm walking down the hill from the Ocean Club complex towards either the beach or the town centre, carrying a blond child aged around three or four, who was most probably wearing pyjamas. He was seen by an Irish family called Smith, who gave a statement to police soon after their holiday. The e-fits were compiled by private detectives in September 2008. However, Redwood said, for years the sighting was seen as “wrong place, wrong time” and thus unimportant.
Redwood declined to say whether the breakthrough could or should have been made earlier, when the investigation was led by the Portuguese police: “What I’m not here to do is to try and dissect the decision-making of previous detectives, or private detectives. That’s not appropriate. Today is about saying this is the information that we have, and this is how my work, with my team, is coming together, and this is what we’re asking the public to help with.”
A parallel part of the inquiry concerns reports of blond men, sometimes alone or as a pair, loitering in areas near the McCanns’ flat on 2 and 3 April 2007, including on the stairwell of their apartment block about 6pm on the evening Madeleine vanished. Police reissued two other e-fit images of the man as part of an appeal on BBC TV’s Crimewatch programme on Monday night. The appeal will also be shown in the Netherlands and Germany, following reports that these men may have been heard speaking Dutch or German.
Officers are also seeking to track down the people behind a series of burglaries around the Ocean Club complex, mainly in the early months of 2007. There was also an incident almost exactly a year before the abduction when children in a ground-floor apartment saw an intruder break in through a patio door and stare into a travel cot, stealing nothing. Redwood said: “We’re particularly interested in that event as to whether it has any resonance to the disappearance of Madeleine.”
Such incidents could be connected to premeditation in the case, Redwood said: “There are elements of this case which on one reading of the evidence could suggest that there was an element of pre-planning or reconnaissance.”
But despite the detailed briefings, police warn that speculation about imminent arrests is premature. Redwood said: “It is about trying to understand who, precisely, these people are. Our absolute priority is to whittle them down.”
Officers do not consider the McCanns themselves as suspects or persons of interest to the inquiry.
Madeleine McCann’s disappearance timeline
It has been six years since the three-year-old disappeared from her holiday apartment. Here are major developments since then
3 May Madeleine disappears from a holiday apartment at the Ocean Club resort in the Algarve village of Praia da Luz, while her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, dine with friends at a nearby tapas restaurant.
4 May The McCanns make an emotional plea for Madeleine’s safe return, directly appealing to their daughter’s abductors and speaking of their “anguish and despair”.
25 May In their first interviews, the McCanns say the guilt of not being with Madeleine will never leave them. Police release a description of the man seen carrying a child on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance.
6 June Madeleine’s parents deny any involvement in her abduction when questioned by a German journalist at a press conference in Berlin.
16 June A British couple report seeing a small blonde girl in the Maltese capital, Valletta. A full-scale investigation is launched in the wake of a number of other possible sightings.
17 June Portuguese police say Madeleine’s friends and family may have unwittingly destroyed vital evidence in the first few hours after her presumed abduction, during their search for her.
28 June Spanish police arrest an Italian man and a Portuguese woman suspected of trying to extort money from Madeleine’s parents by offering them information about the missing girl.
6 July Dutch police reveal they have arrested a man in Eindhoven suspected of attempting to defraud Gerry and Kate McCann by demanding €2m for information on Madeleine’s whereabouts.
6 August A Portuguese newspaper reports that British sniffer dogs have found traces of blood on a wall in the apartment where Madeleine went missing. A Portuguese paper, the Jornal de Noticias, claims detectives now believe it is most likely that Madeleine is dead, having been killed accidentally.
15 August Blood traces found in the bedroom where Madeleine was sleeping the night she was snatched were not hers, the London-based Times reports. Forensic results show the blood came from a man, it adds.
31 August It emerges that the McCanns are to launch a libel action against a Portuguese newspaper that claimed police believed they killed their daughter. The action will be against the Tal & Qual paper, based in Oporto.
6-8 September Kate McCann arrives at a Portuguese police station to face further questioning by detectives. Both McCanns are declared official suspects (arguido) after police questioning.
9 September The McCanns return to their home in Rothley, Leicestershire, with their twins, Sean and Amelie.
10 September Portuguese police sources suggest DNA tests prove Madeleine’s body was in the boot of a car hired by her parents 25 days after she disappeared. Some DNA experts doubt the claims.
11 September A dossier outlining the police case against the McCanns is passed to the local prosecutor, Jos Cunha de Magalhaes e Meneses, who then asks a judge to assess the information.
18 September Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC reporter, confirms he has resigned as the head of the government’s media monitoring unit to become the spokesman for the McCann family. His salary is paid by a Cheshire businessman, Brian Kennedy.
19 September The Evora district attorney general, Luis Bilro Verao, rules there is not enough evidence to justify further questioning of the McCanns about the disappearance of their daughter.
2 October The police officer in charge of the inquiry, Goncalo Amaral, is removed from the case and demoted for criticising British police involvement in the investigation.
16 November Jane Tanner, one of the McCann family’s closest friends and part of the so-called Tapas Seven, says she saw a man carrying a sleeping child away from the holiday apartments 45 minutes before Kate McCann discovered her daughter was missing.
13 February Portuguese authorities say the search for Madeleine is winding down, more than nine months after she vanished.
19 March The Daily Express and the Daily Star carry unprecedented front-page apologies for publishing more than 100 articles on the disappearance of Madeleine, some of which suggested her parents were involved in her death. The papers pay £550,000 in damages.
7 April Portuguese police arrive in the UK to be present as Leicestershire constabulary officers begin interviewing the Tapas Seven.
3 May The first anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance is marked with a renewed appeal for information and church services in Portugal and the UK.
7 July Leicestershire police agree to share with the McCanns 81 pieces of information from their investigation. The McCanns ask to have access to Portuguese police files, too.
15 July Robert Murat, a British expat living in Praia da Luz, wins about £600,000 in damages from 11 British newspapers and Sky News for defamatory reports of his involvement in the disappearance.
24 July A book by the former head of the investigation, Amaral, is published claiming that Madeleine died in her family’s holiday apartment in Praia da Luz.
4 August The Portuguese police file on the disappearance is made public. It shows that days before the McCanns were formally named as suspects, a British scientist had warned that tests on DNA recovered from the family’s hire car were inconclusive. It also shows that during a subsequent interview with Portuguese police, Kate McCann refused to answer 48 questions about her daughter, apparently fearing they were intended to implicate her in the girl’s disappearance.
15 October The Tapas Seven receive a reported £375,000 in damages from Express Newspapers.
10 March Gerry McCann, appearing before MPs, calls for more stringent regulation of the press and labels coverage of his daughter’s disappearance as some of the most “irresponsible and damaging” in press history.
1 May A digitally enhanced image of how Madeleine might look now is revealed as the second anniversary of her disappearance approaches.
17 May The McCanns announce they are to sue Amaral over claims made in his book that Madeleine died in her family’s apartment and the parents were involved in hiding the body.
3 November A one-minute video message - produced in seven languages - is launched by Britain’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, showing new images of how the girl might look more than two years after her abduction.
28 April Near the third anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance, Gerry McCann says it is “incredibly frustrating” that police in Portugal and the UK have not been actively looking for Madeleine “for a very long time”.
12 May In an open letter in the Sun newspaper, the McCanns ask the prime minister to launch an “independent, transparent and comprehensive” review of all information relating to the disappearance of their daughter.
13 May David Cameron writes to the McCanns telling them the home secretary will set out “new action”. The Metropolitan police begin a review.
23 November The McCanns appear as witnesses at the Leveson inquiry into press standards. Kate McCann says she felt “totally violated” after the publication by the News of the World of her personal diaries and Gerry McCann says he believes British newspapers declared “open season” on them a few months after Madeleine’s disappearance.
4 July The Metropolitan police say they have new evidence. They say they are investigating 38 “persons of interest” after launching a formal investigation.
14 October Detectives release an e-fit of a man they want to identify. There is a new reconstruction on Crimewatch of the events on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance.