There is no doubting the beauty of the Barragem do Arade reservoir, its glistening blue waters a vibrant contrast to the dry reddish soil of its shores, where wild flowers sprout amid orange groves. From single-track roads, footpaths lead off into the expanse that borders the lake, to secluded areas perfect for a picnic and a bonfire, a drink and a smoke, perhaps of something illicit. Or, darkly, for something far more sinister.
For this is the area, 30 miles from Praia da Luz, where police this week have been digging and probing for clues in a 16-year-old investigation which has baffled, captivated and tormented those at its heart. Today for Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine disappeared from the holiday village where the family was staying 16 years ago – freezing her forever in our minds as a toddler when today she might be a 20-year-old woman – these footpaths may lead to some sort of resolution.
Earlier this month, to mark a vigil on the anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance, where her 18-year-old sister Amelie lit candles in her memory, they noted: “The police investigation continues, and we await a breakthrough.” German prosecutor Christian Wolters, leading the search at the reservoir, put matters more starkly: “Of course we are still looking for the body. [But] there are other things too.”
But the truth is, that after a hunt for a little girl over a decade and a half, that has involved the police forces of three nations, countless missteps, many millions of pounds (the Metropolitan Police have spent £13 million since they started their investigation in 2011 while the spending in Portgual and Germany is not known), appalling accusations and conspiracy theories, these paths may also lead nowhere. Or worse, since the dig team packed up on Thursday night, they may offer up clues only to the “what might have been?”
Now, so long after Madeleine went missing, there is a prime suspect for her abduction, the German 46-year-old convicted sex offender Christian Brueckner, and a key location in her disappearance, and yet despite the samples sent back from the reservoir to forensics labs, nothing may come of it.
Because mistakes, and the passage of time, have effaced and eroded so many of the clues that might long ago have incarcerated whoever broke into the children’s room of the McCanns’ holiday apartment, pulled back their eldest daughter’s duvet while their younger twins slept on, separated Madeleine from Cuddle Cat, her favourite teddy, and lifted her off into the night.
Fifteen years ago, Portuguese police closed the case, saying there was nothing more they could do. Now German police are convinced they have the man they want in their sights. But will they find enough to make a case stick? And if the same rigour had been applied in the years before May 3 2007, the night Madeleine went missing, or even during the hours after, might this whole trauma have been prevented in the first place? Could she have been saved?
The list of mistakes, of bumbling, straightforward errors, made in the aftermath of her disappearance is well known: the fact that the so-called “golden hour” – that vital chance in the immediate aftermath of a child’s disappearance to find them – was spurned by Portuguese police appearing late at the resort; that house-to-house enquiries were haphazard; that delays meant potentially vital CCTV footage from a neighbouring apartment block had been wiped by the time officers got round to checking it; and possibly worst of all, that a series of procedural errors were made in securing forensic evidence from the crime scene.
The McCanns’ apartment, for example, was not taped off until well into the following morning, by which time dozens of people had been in and out. Vital sheets, blankets and pillow cases were reportedly washed by resort cleaners allowed to follow their normal routine. DNA testing was not carried out on Cuddle Cat. Officers performing fingerprint dusting were photographed not wearing gloves themselves.
If not enough effort was spent on these leads, too much time was wasted on others. For example Jane Tanner, a friend of the McCanns, told police she saw a man carrying a slumbering child in his arms at the time. This “mystery” suspect was a key avenue of the investigation. But when, more than five years later, British police launched their own inquiry – Operation Grange – they quickly traced and ruled out the “suspect” merely by checking the records of the resort creche.
Yet possibly the most disabling wrong turn was performed by Goncalo Amaral, the detective in the charge of the Portuguese investigation – at least until he was removed in October 2007. He, according to one long-time observer of the inquiry, “became utterly convinced that the McCanns themselves were guilty” – partly through DNA traces found in their hire car – and began, in this version of events, to prioritise police resources accordingly.
“Ultimately when you read through the detail of the [hire-car] DNA you see the absolute red herring it was, but it was a dangerous red herring because I think investigators in Portugal thought this was a smoking gun,” Jim Gamble, a former top child protection officer, later told the producers of a Netflix documentary. To the horror of their daughter’s disappearance, the McCanns had to add the horror of being suspects.
In 2015, after writing a book about the case, Amaral was ordered to pay half a million euros in libel damages to the McCanns – a decision overturned on appeal by a judge who ruled the detective’s claims were covered by a right to “free speech”.
Only when Scotland Yard began their review of the case in 2011 were breakthroughs made. Mobile phones shown to be in the area on May 3 2007 had not been traced to registered owners. In October 2013, Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, then leading the Met inquiry, said doing so was tough to do with mobiles acquired six years earlier on a pay-as-you-go basis. But eventually, they did match a phone to a name: Brueckner.
The prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann case, a drifter now serving a seven-year sentence for the rape of a 72-year-old American woman, lived more or less permanently in the Algarve between 1995 and 2007, at times very close to where Madeleine went missing. His first conviction for sexually abusing a child came in 1993, when he was just 17. But after a two-year youth sentence he left Germany for Portugal, mixing casual jobs with petty crime.
With an Austrian carpenter called Michael Tatschl, he shared a ramshackle farmhouse near Praia da Luz, with Tatschl later describing him as both a “very good burglar” who amassed countless passports and valuables by breaking into apartments, and “a pervert … more than capable of snatching a child”.
In 2006, the pair were jailed for several months after stealing diesel from lorries, being released in December, just months before Madeleine was abducted. While in jail, another German drifter Manfred Seyferth, with a man called Helge Busching, claim they broke into Brueckner’s home and stole a gun and a video camera. Footage shot with the camera, they allege, shows Brueckner abusing and torturing a woman as well as a girl in her teens.
Seyferth and Busching allegedly disposed of the gun at the reservoir, which Brueckner called “paradise” and allegedly visited days before Madeleine’s disappearance.
Last October, at a court in Braunschweig, central Germany, prosecutors charged Christian Brueckner with four separate brutal sex offences committed in the area before Madeleine went missing. These alleged crimes include two rapes, forcing a girl to perform a sex act, and exposing himself to a 10-year-old girl. But in April, the charges were dropped after the court declared it had no jurisdiction. Though the charges may be made at another court, it is a sign of how now, whenever the net appears to be tightening, the passage of time and the bureaucracy of a three-nation investigation make it hard to draw close.
The result is that somehow Kate and Gerry McCann have to live with the knowledge that, had things been done differently, a known sex offender may not have been free to wander near Praia da Luz on the night of May 3 2007. They have to live with the knowledge that golden hours were lost after their daughter went missing. And they have to live with the knowledge that every day that passes makes a criminal conviction harder to secure.
Brueckner’s current sentence is due to end in a couple of years. Will he then walk free? Those observing the case, watching investigators dig around the idyllic Barragem do Arade reservoir this week, think not. “Watch and you’ll see the Germans will charge him,” says one. Brueckner has denied being involved in Madeleine's disappearance and has not been charged with any crime related to it. For their own sakes, Madeleine McCann’s parents can only hope that this will not be another opportunity missed. It may be the last one.