Joana Cipriano was an 8-year-old girl with a playful smile and a tomboy haircut. One summer afternoon in 2004, she left her home in the small Portuguese village of Figueira to go to the store. She was never seen again.
Police soon claimed Joana accidentally walked in on her uncle and mother having sex, who then chopped her into bits, dismembered her, crammed her into a tiny refrigerator, and eventually fed her to a sty of pigs. The mother, Leonor Cipriano, was sentenced to 16 years, and her brother, João Cipriano, was also sentenced to prison for the crime, reports ABC News. The case is featured prominently on the sixth episode of Netflix’s latest true crime installment, “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann," which makes curious parallels of the missing Portuguese girl to the infamous 2007 abduction of the British child. But how are the two cases connected?
Firstly, both crimes occurred in close proximity of each other in Portugal. Madeleine disappeared in Praia da Luz, a popular tourist destination in the country’s Algarve region, which is about 10 miles from the small village of Figueira where Joana was last seen.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Goncalo Amaral, the lead Portuguese detective on the McCann case, also oversaw the Cipriano investigation. Amaral allegedly tried to pin the blame on Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann (who maintain their innocence to this day), and also quickly zeroed in on Joana's family as the suspects. And in both the Cipriano and McCann cases, Amaral’s methods came under intense scrutiny, as The Telegraph reports.
“When they see that they don’t have any lines of investigation or clues, they blame the parents directly,” said Julian Peribañez, a Spanish private detective who was hired by the McCann family to investigate their daughter’s disappearance, in the docu-series. “It’s not a case about finding Joana. It’s not a case about finding Madeleine McCann. It’s a case about finding evidence against the parents,” he added.
At the time of McCann’s disappearance, Portuguese police were weathering a national scandal — and an impending internal investigation — triggered by the handling of the Cipriano disappearance. Joana’s mother had retracted her confession, claiming it was given under duress, and photos emerged showing injuries sustained in police custody. Her face was completely bruised and purple, her left eye swollen shut. Police claimed the injuries occurred because she had thrown herself down a flight of stairs in an effort to kill herself.
Watch Out Of Sight: The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann Friday, March 29 at 9/8c, only on Oxygen
In the end, a handful of police officers were charged with torture, but eventually acquitted. But in 2009, Amaral was charged with perjury in connection to a cover-up of the beating. “What I found was like the Spanish police of the '70s,” said Peribañez of Portuguese authorities in the Netflix docu-series. “[Amaral] acted and he worked like he was the sheriff of the town. ‘This is my town, I do whatever I want,’” he added.
Amaral, now-retired, denies any wrongdoing, and maintains to this day that Joana’s killers are locked up. “Both João and Leonor, all they did at the time was lie, lie, lie,” Amaral told Netflix’s producers. Although police did find traces of human blood in the refrigerator where Joana’s uncle allegedly stored her body, as well as human remains in the pigpen where she was allegedly finally disposed of, none of this forensic evidence was ever conclusively linked to the 8-year-old's death, and a body was never recovered. However, Joana’s mother and uncle lived out prison sentences and were only recently released, according to local outlet Portugal Resident.
In the Netflix docu-series, Peribañez, the Spanish investigator, tracks down João's former cellmate, who alleges the Ciprianos sold Joanna to a foreign family — and that she’s still alive. The cellmate claims the uncle showed him a picture of Joana after she was kidnapped in a room that is “not from somewhere poor.”
“For me, from what I’ve seen, I have no doubt [Joana’s still alive],” the former cellmate told the Portuguese reporter.
McCann’s disappearance, regarded as one of the world’s most infamous child abduction cases, has never been solved.
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