Plot to kidnap child hatched a week before Madeleine McCann disappeared

A plot to kidnap a child was being hatched in a Portuguese holiday resort a week before Madeleine McCann vanished there, Sky News has been told.

Expat Ken Ralphs said that Christian B, the German drifter suspected of abducting Madeleine, tried to recruit a mutual friend to help find a youngster to sell to a childless couple.

Mr Ralphs, a former UK political campaigner, said Christian B made the offer to the man who was penniless and living in a tent in a remote part of the Algarve coast.

Mr Ralphs, 59, said: "We were sitting around the fire one night after a meal, we had a few beers and during the early hours of the morning my friend began to cry.

"I asked him what the matter was and, eventually, he confessed to me he was getting involved with Christian to steal a child from Praia da Luz from a rich family."

Mr Ralphs, Christian and their mutual friend, a foreigner who cannot be named for legal reasons, were all part of a nomadic, bohemian community living - for different reasons - off-grid in isolated spots in southwest Portugal.

After a short drive off-road, Mr Ralphs took me along a track to a clearing in the woods about 20 miles from Praia da Luz, the beachside village from where Madeleine disappeared in May 2007.

"It's fenced off now, probably privately owned," explained Mr Ralphs, as we stood in the shadow of several towering eucalyptus trees.

"But 17 years ago my friend and his family were living in a teepee here and me and my wife used to bring them food.

"Christian knew the guy was vulnerable and wanted to travel abroad, but he couldn't leave because he couldn't afford the air tickets."

Mr Ralphs said he told his friend not to get involved in the plot and offered to help him financially when he returned from a trip he was about to make to the UK.

"I said you can't get involved in kidnapping a person for ransom, that's ridiculous, then he explained - 'no, it's not like that'. Christian had a customer, a buyer lined up, a German couple who couldn't have children."

'I showed police secret map'

A week later, Mr Ralphs was back in the UK when he heard the news that Madeleine, aged three, had vanished without a trace from her family's rented holiday apartment.

He told me that within three hours he had driven from his father's home to a police station in Workington, Cumbria, and reported what he knew.

"I said to the police, here's the secret map of how you get to this point in the woods here. I said that must be sent immediately to the Portuguese police."

On his return to the Algarve he went to his local police station and repeated his story, but said he was told Portuguese detectives knew nothing about it.

He found his friend had disappeared, his teepee tent burned, and there was no sign of Christian B. He never saw either of them again.

Mr Ralphs added: "The GNR [local police] asked me, 'have you made your statement to the British police'? I said, 'yeah' and they said, 'well, don't worry, go home. If they need to contact you, they will'. And of course, over the years nobody contacted me."

In 2020, when Christian B was publicly identified as the Madeleine suspect, Mr Ralphs recognised him from media photographs and again contacted the police.

Mr Ralphs was interviewed by Portuguese detectives, though he still doesn't know what part his evidence has played in the investigation.

He said: "They told me someone had made contact with my friend abroad and he had denied knowing me, but I have a dozen witnesses who will say that he's lying. I guess he just didn't want to be interviewed by police."

Mr Ralphs has had contact with Scotland Yard detectives and late last year sent a detailed statement to the German prosecutor now leading the Madeleine investigation.

The prosecutor, Hans Christian Wolters, told Sky News he had passed the statement to German investigators.

'He normally parked in the bushes where he was hidden'

Christian B, who cannot be fully identified under German privacy laws, is still the main suspect in Madeleine's disappearance but has not been charged. He denies any involvement.

He is currently serving a seven-year sentence in a German prison for the rape of an elderly American woman, a crime he committed in Praia da Luz in 2005.

Mr Ralphs said he knew Christian in the months before Madeleine vanished because they both used to park their camper vans on Barranco beach at the end of a long, rocky track.

Mr Ralphs and his wife had left the UK when police mistakenly exposed him after he had passed on information about a gangland murder.

He successfully sued Greater Manchester Police, pulled out of a witness protection plan and disappeared into an itinerant life in Portugal.

When German police appealed for information about the then unnamed suspect in 2020 they released a photograph of Christian B's yellow and white camper van parked on Barranco beach near its eastern cliffs.

"I think Christian took that picture to show his friends back in Germany, a tourist snap," Mr Ralphs told me as we wandered the beach on a blowy January morning.

"He normally parked away from the sea, in the bushes where he was hidden and could sell drugs which was what he was known for."

I showed Mr Ralph pictures of Christian B from those days and more recent police photographs and asked if he was sure it was the same man.

"Of course, it's definitely him," he said. "I remember him clearly, he was good-looking, spoke very good English and was polite, though not particularly friendly. A bit of a loner."

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Mr Ralphs's evidence of a plan to steal a child is backed up by Michael Tatschl, a good friend of Christian B in those days.

Tatschl told author Jon Clarke in his book, My Search For Madeleine: "He (Christian B) was always bragging about money and making money, particularly from burglaries. He even talked about selling kids, maybe to Morocco."

And Scotland Yard detectives have always believed that, whatever her ultimate fate, Madeleine was abducted in a carefully planned operation.

Sky News has approached Christian B's lawyer and Scotland Yard for comment.