Since May 2007, when she vanished from her bed in a Portuguese holiday resort, Britons have been obsessed by the mystery of what actually happened to three-year-old Madeleine McCann.
Her wide-eyed face has haunted the front pages of British newspapers for so long, she is known by first name only—like a pop star or a princess. She is, of course, the antithesis of that: an innocent sucked into the vortex of uncertainty, a child-shaped hole in the life of her family and the nation. But now there is renewed hope that Maddie, as the tabloids call her, might be found.
Scotland Yard announced it has new leads in the case and that, as a result, the Metropolitan Police will be carrying out a formal inquiry. Thirty-eight new “persons of interest,” of both British and assorted European origin, have been identified and, last week, a team of officers flew to Portugal to carry out interviews as part of the case review, Operation Grange.
The investigation began at the behest of Prime Minister David Cameron after the McCanns appealed to him directly. Some have criticized the government for giving the case special attention because of the family’s fame and privileged status.
Kate and Gerry McCann certainly have advantages, but to consider them lucky after the ordeal they have been through would be profoundly missing the point. Two physicians from Leicestershire, they have devoted the past six years of their lives, as well as their life savings, to a relentless—and often unaided and lonely—search for their daughter. They have written a book, hired private investigators and appeared often to fundraise for their Find Madeleine Fund.
Some have fame thrust upon them, but with the McCanns, this is true only in the cruellest possible way. The disappearance of their daughter caused an enormous initial outpouring, but the media turned vicious when they became suspects in her apparent murder, due to DNA evidence misinterpreted by Portuguese authorities. The McCanns were officially cleared in 2008, the same year the Portuguese police closed the case. But for years, they have endured speculation over whether they were negligent. (Madeleine was abducted from their hotel while the couple was having dinner with friends in a restaurant 50 m away.)
The scale of Operation Grange is staggering. Investigators have collected tens of thousands of documents from private detectives and foreign agencies. The information was translated into English and cross-checked with special police software. Over the years, the McCanns have unearthed several unconfirmed sightings of Madeleine around the world, but all seemed to dissolve when pursued. This latest break, however, appears to be the best—and possibly the last—chance the McCanns have to find their daughter. They were reportedly given hope by the recent discovery of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Ohio, a decade after they went missing in separate abductions.
“What the review has told me is that there is no clear, definitive proof that Madeleine McCann is dead,” Det. Chief Insp. Andy Redwood said in a press conference last week. “So on that basis, I still genuinely believe that there is a possibility that she is alive.”
The McCanns, who can be credited with keeping the hunt for their daughter alive in the face of apathy and international red tape, did not appear at the news conference, but said through a spokesperson that they “warmly welcome” the shift in the police approach from review to investigation. “It is clearly a big step forward in establishing what happened and, hopefully, toward bringing whoever is responsible for Madeleine’s abduction to justice.”
Even if they manage to zero in on suspects, there are challenges. Foreign national residents abroad cannot be prosecuted in the U.K., even if they are linked to a crime. Despite this, the U.K. police say they told the press they are at “an advanced stage of dialogue” with the countries involved. And of the 38 persons of interest, 12 are British nationals, all of whom were in Portugal at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance.
In what must be a great relief to the McCanns, police have also confirmed that none of the family’s friends present on the holiday was among the potential suspects. At various times during the investigation, their holiday companions (“the Tapas 7,” as they were dubbed, after the restaurant they were dining at during the abduction) have come under police and media scrutiny.
The McCanns provided key testimony at the Leveson inquiry into press standards. They recounted how the British tabloids declared “open season” on them, stalking their home for photos and disseminating myths about the case. One particularly egregious headline: “Maddie ‘sold’ by hard-up McCanns.” The McCanns sued for libel and won; the paper ran front-page apologies and paid $866,000 in damages—money the McCanns donated to the Find Madeleine Fund. Let’s hope it pays off.