A little girl went missing. Despite the worldwide publicity and the reward money, the police investigations and the court cases, the special supplements and the “world exclusives”, that remains all we know for sure about the night Madeleine McCann disappeared.
In the 3,653 days since the three-year-old girl from Leicestershire listened as her mother read what would be her last bedtime story before snuggling down in her Eeyore-patterned pyjamas, there has been no lack of effort.
Teams of police officers in Portugal and in Britain, sniffer dogs, divers, journalists and scores of villagers – all have joined her parents in the hunt for the little girl who went on a family holiday to the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz and has not been seen since the evening of 3 May, 2007.
Prayers were said, vigils held, emotional appeals made. And yet, as her parents, Kate and Gerry, mark a grim milestone on Wednesday, what more do they know about the night they lost their eldest child, and their anonymity?
“Ten years,” said Joao Godinho of the Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manha, who has been covering the case since day one. “Five words. A little girl went missing.”
'Anywhere but here'
In Praia da Luz, her name is now under something of a taboo, the case not spoken of by locals who would prefer their village of 3,500 – about a third of them British expatriates – were known for something else. After the Easter rush, Luz is quiet now. Only a few tourists walk the cobbled streets between the whitewashed apartments with their terracotta roofs to cafes that serve beans on toast as well as sangria.
At the Church of Our Lady of Light one recent evening, the priest, Jose Manuel Pacheco, politely shooed me away for mentioning her name. “Silence, silence!” he said. “I can speak about potatoes, about the internet, the sea, whatever – but not Maddie.”
Praia da Luz literally means “Beach of Light”, but it will now forever be associated with that darkest of nights. For Victor Mata, an amiable 71-year-old who used to spend every summer here and eventually retired to the village, “it’s been too long and there’s still no solution”.
Mr Mata, who is now president of the village council, said residents were initially sympathetic towards the McCanns. “In the beginning, people were very friendly and everybody tried to help,” he said. “But then it turned into a negative thing for the village. People think we helped so much and our lives were so disturbed by this and even today we don’t know what happened.”
We want it to be remembered as a case that has been solved
Pedro do Carmo, Policia Judiciara
In the years since Madeleine was apparently taken from the bed where she was sleeping next to her younger brother Sean and his twin sister Amelie while their parents dined nearby, the Policia Judiciara in Portugal and Britain’s Metropolitan Police have pursued hundreds of leads. Suspects have come and gone, searches begun and ended – all met dead ends. For a time, the couple themselves were named "arguidos" - or formal suspects - though that label has long since been removed and no evidence was found against them.
As the investigation got nowhere, Luz became a haven for the nosey, intent on seeing the place where the little girl went missing – and, inevitably, for journalists. That first year, there were still so many foreign reporters camped in the village by December that their Portuguese colleagues bought them Christmas presents. “All the world was looking to Praia da Luz,” said Mr Godinho. “It was crazy.”
Whatever happened that night, it wounded Luz’s reputation as a quiet, family-friendly resort. It had a “very negative” effect, said Mr Mata: for two years after her disappearance, the number of tourists “noticeably decreased”. “People lost their jobs because of this. A lot of shops and restaurants closed down. It had a huge influence on the real estate market.”
Over the years, the McCanns have made occasional pilgrimages here to be closer to the spot where they last saw their daughter. These days, said Mr Mata, they are neither especially welcomed nor treated with animosity. “They can come and nobody notices,” he said. “They are just two more people who come to Luz.”
Some locals retain their sympathy for the couple. Laurinda Jones, a 66-year-old villa manager, gave Mrs McCann a book of prayers only a few weeks after Madeleine went missing. “I think they’ve gone through enough and people have made it even worse for them,” she said.
Maria Manuela Costa has lived in Luz all her 82 years, and has never known a more seismic occurrence. “After all these years, the only thing I feel is sorrow for the missing girl,” she said.
Still, Mr Mata cannot help wondering what would have happened if the McCanns had chosen another holiday destination that week in May. “If they had gone somewhere else it would have been better,” he said. “Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”
A decade on, calm has mostly returned to Luz. The bougainvillea is flourishing and, one recent morning, there were plenty of children on the beach where Mrs McCann used to go running. Parents pushed their children on the swings; a father held his daughters’ hands as he led them towards the rockpools. An elderly British couple sipped tea at a beachside café, the man in socks and sandals, his wife in a fleece and scarf. Property is booming again: every street seems to have an estate agent and there are more 1 million euro apartments being built.
Yet that night is never truly past. Even now, camera crews are a common sight outside 5a Rua Dr Agostinho da Silva, the ground floor flat in which the McCanns were staying. “Strictly no admittance – residents only,” reads a sign by the car park. A short walk away, past the Ocean Club’s swimming pool, is the tapas restaurant where the McCanns dined with their friends that evening – now a snack bar.
The number of journalists visiting dwindles every year, but for many locals there are still too many. “We’ve just had enough of it,” said Paul Luckman, publisher of the Portugal News. “We all just wish it would go away.”
Of pride and policemen
Of course, there are some for whom it cannot go away. Two hundred miles north of Praia da Luz, Pedro do Carmo oversees the investigation from the 11th floor of the Policia Judiciara headquarters in Lisbon.
Mr do Carmo is Portugal’s second most senior policeman. That he is in overall charge of the file suggests its importance to the force – and perhaps how wounded it has been by suggestions that the Portuguese authorities’ initial response was inept, failing to tape off the apartment or to preserve crucial evidence in the first hours after Madeleine disappeared.
Certainly, Mr do Carmo, who wore a crisp white shirt and blue tie with a grey suit, was at pains to emphasise his force’s professionalism. He spoke very quietly and refused to be drawn on any questions he did not fancy answering. Madeleine’s disappearance was, he said, a “unique case” – indeed, he claimed, she is the only child ever to go missing in Portugal where the police were unable to discover what happened.
“I don’t think there was any law enforcement agency in the world that could do a better job than we did from the beginning – taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case,” he said.
“In those first moments of the investigation, it was not a criminal investigation, it was very much a rescue operation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would understand if we started to look at the procedures proper for a criminal investigation when the child could be – or needed to be – rescued.”
All these years later, he insists his officers are “working to get to bottom of this”. A team of 20 investigators looks after the case, though they also deal with many others. “We were aware that it is a very difficult case and that there is no easy way to do the investigation. As time goes by, of course, things are not getting easier.” Still, he added, “we want it to be remembered as a case that has been solved somehow”.
Goncalo Amaral acts like it already has been. The former chief inspector, who was the first detective to investigate the disappearance but was removed from the case within six months, still clings to his theory that Mr and Mrs McCann covered up the accidental death of their daughter, even though they have not been arguidos for nine years now.
Mr Amaral has a markedly different style to Mr do Carmo, wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt and three times interrupting our interview to smoke a cigarette. Where Mr do Carmo appears to weigh every word, the interpreter struggles to make Mr Amaral pause long enough to translate his last reply.
It is clear that Mr Amaral has much to get off his chest. He earned at least £300,000 from his first book on the case (“I didn’t write it to earn money,” he insisted. “I wrote it to defend my honour”) yet he is now writing another, which he hopes will be published in England.
There is no dearth of material. There is his beef with the Press (“they called me the fat police, the disgraced police, the corrupt police, the drunk police”), with the British establishment - for applying what he sees as undue pressure (“even today we are vassals of the British government”) - and, most of all, with the McCanns themselves, whom he accuses of trying to “asphyxiate me economically”.
This is not a reality show. This is a tragedy for a father and a mother
Rogerio Alves, the McCanns' lawyer
Were it not for this case, Mr Amaral explained, he would by now be “on the 11th floor” – a senior police executive, like Mr do Carmo. Instead, after he published his first book, the couple sued him for libel. Portugal’s highest court eventually ruled in Mr Amaral’s favour and he hopes he has now seen the last of the litigation, although the McCanns said in a recent interview that they now intend to pursue Mr Amaral in the European courts. Contrary to reports, Mr Amaral says he has no plans to sue the couple – but he is still bitter about the fight.
His income was frozen and his investigation consultancy company had to be wound up, he says. “I lost my house,” he said. “I was forced to leave my job in order to defend my reputation. The director of police decided to embrace the cause of an English family and not of his chief inspector.”
Still, Mr Amaral does not pause when asked if he wouldn’t rather have been on holiday that week in May. “No, no,” he said, in English. “I always like complex cases.”
'We have to keep hopeful'
Far from being complex, some things about the case are actually rather simple, according to Rogerio Alves, the McCanns’ lawyer. For one thing: his clients’ innocence.
“When I first started, I talked with them and I was absolutely convinced – as I am – about their innocence,” said Mr Alves, who has represented the couple since 2007, when he was president of the Portuguese Bar. “Everything that has been said – they were guilty, they were involved in murder – is rubbish, absolute rubbish. I know how much they suffered.”
Mr Alves calls all the speculation “supplementary suffering”, inflicted on his clients when they were at their lowest ebb.
“It was very cruel,” he said. “Everybody can have their own opinion about the health system, a football team or whatever – but we are talking about an abduction. This is not a reality show. This is a tragedy for a father and a mother.”
Mr and Mrs McCann still receive a steady stream of letters purporting to offer information about Madeleine, he said. “Sometimes it’s crazy people, sometimes helpful people, maybe hallucinating people. But you have to try to find inside all that information what can be useful.
“I believe that they will dedicate their entire lives trying to do their best to find their daughter,” he said. “We have to keep hopeful and we have to keep fighting.”
Back in Praia da Luz, Adelino Novais sits most days at a table in his café, just round the corner from the Ocean Club. “Everybody here wonders if one day the mystery will be solved,” said the 67-year-old, scratching his moustache. “The best thing would be if she would appear.”
“Every story has an ending,” said Mr Mata, the village council president. “And this one still hasn’t ended.”
A little girl went missing – and someone, somewhere knows what happened next.