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Who Was Kevin Halligen And How Did He Scam Madeleine McCann's Family?

Netflix's "The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann" talks about self-described spy Kevin Halligen, who did plenty of damage to the missing girl's case.

By Jill Sederstrom
Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of missing 4-year-old British girl Madeleine McCann holding up a picture of their daughter during a press conference.

In the months after 3-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished from her room on a family trip to Praia da Luz, Portugal, her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, were desperately searching for answers. But a year after the May 2007 disappearance, authorities in Portugal announced they were stopping their investigation without any new leads.

As shown in Netflix's new docu-series"The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann," the parents eventually trusted a man named Kevin Halligen to help them find their missing daughter — but this would prove to be a tragic mistake, costing the search effort both time and money without any significant progress made in the case. So who was Halligen, and what exactly happened there?

After the local authorities announced they were archiving the case in 2008, the family, as well as tycoon Brian Kennedy who helped fund the search for the missing girl, were frustrated. Not just with the authorities, but also with the private investigation firm they had hired to aid in the search.

“There comes a point where you decide, 'Let’s up the game a bit, let’s try and bring in someone else who is going to approach this from a different angle,'” Kennedy’s son, Patrick Kennedy, said in “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann.”

In 2008, they turned to Oakley International, an investigation firm in the United States described by investigative journalist Robbyn Swan as one of the “big boys” in investigations.

“They were promised all sorts of things, that the people working for Oakley were former FBI, CIA, and MI6, that they had the latest in investigative tools, techniques, technology available to them. They could do all sorts of things that Metodo 3, their previous investigators, could not do,” she said in the documentary.

Richard Parton, a freelance voice analyst who was hired by Oakley International to aid in the search effort, said at the time Halligen was a respected member of the industry.

“Kevin had access to a dream team that would impress the daylights out of you, top in their field,” he said in the documentary. “They had skills.”

The team hit the ground running, setting up a special hotline to receive tips in the case and tracking down an Irish man and his family who had allegedly witnessed a man carrying a little girl wearing pajamas near the apartment where McCann had vanished that night.

Swan said that by using a sketch artist, the firm was able to create two sketches of the man and circulate it throughout the media. The sketch and other witness information was used to comb the area and identify other potential suspects, including a man who lived in a van in the area.

“I do remember that Kevin was mentioning they were tracking a van,” Parton said.

But as the investigation continued, Kennedy, who was funding the search effort at the time, began to hear unusual rumors about the investigation that left him concerned.

“Kevin did what he usually does and he throws out juicy tidbits and things that would inspire hope,” Parton said, adding that he reportedly claimed to have access to satellite photos of Portugal the night Madeleine went missing that could reveal the truth behind what happened to the missing girl.

But the photos turned out to be nothing more than images from Google Maps.

Parton said Halligen was making claims that “just didn’t make sense” to the investigations team as well. At one point, Parton said Halligen claimed he had sent a man and women team into Praia da Luz with a child similar to Madeleine’s age to act as “bait.” On another occasion he claimed to have an undercover priest working with investigators.

“There’s very little evidence that he did what he said he did,” Parton said. “Kevin’s only effort was to create a report that indicated they did something.”

Parton also noticed that stories about Halligen’s relationships and backgrounds were not consistent and, despite a vast number of people vouching for the investigative expert, “nothing was matching up.”

Kennedy was receiving troubling reports as well from people linked to the investigation who weren’t being paid.

Halligen had allegedly started threatening to expose information about the McCann family. It was also discovered that the tips coming into the tip line had never been answered or followed up on.

Halligen fled to Rome when it was discovered that he was allegedly a fraud.

“He was really an Irishman who had been largely masquerading as an investigator,” Swan said. “He had made friends with the Washington elite, was living the high life off the back of what seemed to be the money for the search for Madeleine.”

The family was left devastated that no real progress had been made, even as the days since their daughter had vanished continued to tick by.

Before his 2018 death of a brain hemorrhage, Halligen would deny the claims he had used the money improperly in a 2014 documentary by Adrian Gatton.

He called the allegations a “gross distortion of what was actually happening,” according to the BBC.

"The print media in particular took this line that really nothing was being done; I was living the high life on the proceeds of the McCann case,” he said in the documentary. "Trust me, I didn't so much as buy a new suit... The money, all of it, is fully accountable. It's provable."

But Halligen would plead guilty in the United States in another fraud case.

He was accused of contracting with Trafigura, a Netherlands company who requested his help to free two executives who had been arrested on the Ivory Coast, and then using the money for his own benefit without working to secure their release.

The company had paid Halligen millions in less than a year, according to the Washington Post. At one point, prosecutors said he took a $2.1 million payment and then purchased a $1.6 million house the very next day.

 “The victim in this case was in­cred­ibly vulnerable, a fact that the defendant capitalized on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maia Miller said at the sentencing hearing. “This company was in a highly vulnerable state and would have spent anything.”

He was sentenced to 41 months in prison, but was credited for 43 months he had already served and was quickly ordered to leave the United States, reported The Washington Post.

His alleged deceptions even extended to his personal life. Halligen, who was already married, allegedly fell in love with an American attorney and held a lavish wedding ceremony, complete with 100 guests and a lobster dinner.

But the man officiating the ceremony was no minister and instead a hired actor, according to The Post, and Halligen told the women he had pretended to marry that the reason they couldn’t sign any official paperwork was because he was a spy.

The 56-year-old met a disturbing end in 2018, when his body was discovered in his home after he had reportedly suffered from a brain hemorrhage.

“My understanding is that he was found dead on Monday night. There was blood around the house, probably caused by previous falls when he was either drunk or blackening out,” Gatton told the press at the time, according to the Independent. “Halligen was increasingly shambolic and these blood stains hadn’t been cleared up.”

Gatton said in Halligen’s final days he was overcome by an alcohol addiction and his home was full of “empty drink bottles.”