More than a decade ago, Madeleine McCann, the 3-year-old daughter of Kate and Gerry McCann, vanished from the family’s resort apartment in Portugal’s Praia da Luz. The frantic search for Madeleine quickly evolved into an international investigation, with Portuguese and British police coming to very different conclusions. What happened to Madeleine McCann on the evening of May 3, 2007 is still unknown, but these are the four key theories surrounding her disappearance.
1. Coverup by McCann parents (who are not suspects in the case)
Early on in the investigation, the Portuguese police, Polícia Judiciária, suspected Kate and Gerry McCann were involved with the disappearance of their daughter. Detectives didn’t believe Madeleine could have been abducted through the apartment’s bedroom window like Kate had claimed, as they (incorrectly) said the window shutters could only be opened from the inside. There was also no reported forensic evidence of anyone climbing through the window.
Goncalo Amaral, the original lead detective on the case, told the BBC in 2012, “All the clues showed there weren't signs of someone breaking into that apartment. There is no evidence that the window that Kate McCann told the police was open was indeed open. As far as the abduction is concerned, the possibility of an abduction is materially impossible.”
Two cadaver dogs were also brought in to search the McCann’s apartment and hire car. Both dogs reacted to minute traces of blood, and one dog even grabbed Madeleine’s favorite stuffed animal. The McCanns have always maintained their innocence.
Family spokesperson Clarence Mitchell said in the BBC documentary “Madeleine McCann: 10 Years On,” “Something happened in that flat, yes, that removed Madeleine from it. Did she die — did two doctors cover up the death of their own daughter whilst on holiday? Of course not, and it’s ridiculous to suggest it. The evidence does not stack up.”
In the days that followed, detectives received the final forensic results from the cadaver dog investigation, which were “weak and incomplete,” with none of the DNA being a direct match to Madeleine. And in another interview in the BBC documentary, criminologist Heriberto Janosch demonstrated that one could indeed open the shutters from outside the apartment without making any noise or damaging the window, disproving the Portuguese detectives’ previous claims.
Polícia Judiciária shelved the investigation in 2008 and told the McCanns they were no longer suspects.
During a press conference, Kate told reporters in 2008, “It's hard to describe how utterly despairing it was for us to be named arguidos [suspects] and to subsequently portrayed in the media as suspects in our own daughter's disappearance.”
2. Burglary gone wrong
A series of burglaries in Praia da Luz prior to the arrival of the McCann family led British investigators to believe Madeleine’s disappearance might have been the result of a burglary gone wrong. According to Janosch, three burglaries with the same modus operandi (the opening of a side window) occurred on the block of the McCann’s apartment in the weeks leading up to Madeleine’s abduction.
According to the BBC documentary, three local men came to the center of the British police’s investigation in 2014. Based on phone records from the night Madeleine disappeared, which contained texts and phone calls that aligned with the time she was thought to be abducted, Scotland Yard made a formal request to question the three men. They claimed they had nothing to do with the missing girl’s disappearance.
Carlos Anjos, former president of the Polícia Judiciária Officers Union, told BBC, “This burglary theory is absurd. Not even a wallet disappeared, no television disappeared, nothing else disappeared. A child disappeared.”
Recently, Scotland Yard announced there was no evidence to implicate the three men who had been suspects for almost three years.
Martin Smith, a main witness in the investigation, claimed he saw a man carrying a child on his shoulder near Kate and Gerry McCann’s apartment the night Madeleine went missing. Two men became of interest to the police: Robert Murat, a British expat who lived close to the McCann apartment, and Vitor Manuel Dos Santos, a local man who worked at the resort as the reception manager and took the McCann’s booking.
Murat was the first person to be named a suspect in the investigation, though he was never arrested and ended up being rewarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in a libel case against British newspapers.
In an interview with the BBC, Dos Santos claimed he lost his job at the Praia da Luz resort because he was questioned by both Portuguese police in 2007 and British detectives in 2014 about his involvement with the Madeleine McCann disappearance.
Though no arrests have been made, Smith’s E-fit (Electronic Facial Identification Technique image) of the suspect still remains a piece of evidence in the case.
4. Wandered off
Some also believe Madeleine could have left the apartment on her own in search of her parents, who were having dinner with friends at a tapas bar about 70 meters away from where Madeleine and her twin brother and sister Sean and Amelie slept. While the front door of the flat was locked, Kate and Gerry left the patio door open so they could easily check on their children throughout the evening.
According to The Sun, Mark Williams-Thomas, an investigative journalist and ex-cop, told ITV's This Morning, “I think Maddie was aware they were in the tapas bar in the resort. In order to get to the bar you have to come out of the premises, walk on a public road and go back in again.”
For this to be true, however, Madeleine would’ve had to open and close the large sliding door on her own, which many believe is unlikely.
Mitchell told The Sun, “This is pure speculation and as such Kate and Gerry will not be dignifying it with any sort comment whatsoever.”
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.