‘The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’, Explained

Netflix’s latest true-crime series, ‘The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’, takes the viewers back into the fray of the yet unsolved case of Kate and Gerry McCann’s daughter. It all started about twelve years ago. On the night of May 3rd, 2007, 3-year-old Madeleine McCann was found missing from her bed in the ground floor apartment of Praia da Luz, a resort in Algarve, Portugal, where the family had been vacationing at. Since then, the case has been through a great number of upheavals and the whole world has been kept informed of them by massive media coverage, something that no other child abduction case has found on this scale. Though there have been suspects and even sightings of little Madeleine, the case seems far from coming to a conclusive end, much to the distress of her parents. In this docu-series, Netflix hasn’t tried to take a stand for or against someone, and to some disappointment, the documentary makers haven’t tried to solve the case either. Instead, what they have presented in this eight-part series is a case-file that demands your scrutiny.

Where and How Did Madeleine McCann Disappear?

The McCann’s and their group of friends had been on a week-long holiday to the luxurious resort in Algarve. A small distance, about 180 feet, from their apartment was the Tapas restaurant where the adults went to dine while leaving the children sleeping in their beds. There was a precarious situation with the entry and exits of the apartment, which is what became a crucial factor for the woes of the McCanns. To enter through the main gate, one would need to cover a little more distance from the restaurant, while from a back entrance, it would become much easier for them to quickly check on their children and return to the restaurant. Locking the main gate, Kate and Gerry left the back entrance open and decided to check on Madeleine and their twins in an interval of every 20-30 minutes. The other couples had made a similar arrangement and were constantly keeping a watch on the kids.

At 22:00, Kate went on a round, and it was then that she realised that Madeleine was not in her bed. After searching everywhere in the apartment, she ran to the restaurant to notify everyone that her daughter had been taken, and everyone sprung into action. The police were notified and other tourists volunteered to help in the search, but no one could find the girl. By the next day, the media had received the whiff of a developing story and were already outside the resort to cover the event. The parents pleaded in front of the cameras for the return of her daughter, the Portuguese police tried to solve the case by keeping things under a cover, and when they couldn’t crack it, the British police was involved in the case.

The media coverage received by the case brought everyone’s sympathy to the family, and from celebrities to high-ranking politicians showed their support for the family, by either donating for the fund founded for backing the investigation or by providing some strong moral support.

Suspects

By far, only a couple of people have been seriously interrogated as potential suspects. Robert Murat, a man who owned the neighbouring property, had become involved with the case on the very next day. He had come to know that the parents were having some trouble with the police because of the language barrier, so he decided to step-up and acted as translator. Not only this, but he also interacted with the media and made a lot of enquiries about the case. This tipped off some people as the behaviour that has previously been seen in culprits. They try to get close to the investigation, they ask a lot of questions, they try to help- it does remind you of a couple of serial killers! Checking off all the boxes of the profile, Murat became the first suspect of the case. He was sturdily followed by the police who just needed a simple shred of evidence, anything good enough to pin the blame on him. He was marked as a paedophile and was accused of a lot of other things. His house was raided, front yard excavated, and yet nothing was found, due to which he was let go.

When nothing came of Murat, the police turned their attention to Sergey Malinka, the website developer for Murat. Everything from his place was boxed up as evidence, most of which included the material that he was working on for his clients, and was tossed and turned and scrutinised to find anything that could tie him to the crime. Again, due to lack of proper evidence, he was allowed to walk away, with some damage done to his reputation. There were two, separate, sightings- reported by Jane Tanner and the Smiths- that brought attention towards a man with a girl in his arms. Even though a profile was developed, it didn’t do any good for the case. In the days following the disappearance, there were a couple of reports where people said that they had seen a girl like Madeleine with someone who didn’t seem to be her family. Again, it didn’t add anything worthwhile to the case. Over the years, there have been a number of sightings, across Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Morocco, most, if not all, of whom have turned out to be false alarms.

Role of Madeleine McCann Parents

While considering the many scenarios of the case, the police were led to believe that perhaps they had been wrong to look for the suspects outside. Perhaps, the culprits were right in front of them. The relationship between the Portuguese police and the McCanns had taken a sour turn after the involvement of the British police when everyone had started accusing the former of incompetent behaviour in the “golden hours” of the investigation. The police had been a bit apprehensive of the parents, and had for some time, been considering the facts given by the parents, and their friends, that didn’t line up. Their doubts were further substantiated when the pair of skilled sniffer dogs- Eddie and Keela- made some startling discoveries. The dogs had been trained to find the scent of the human cadaver and human blood in a place long after the deed had been done there. Both the dogs identified two places where their senses indicated that something had happened. One was behind a sofa in the apartment, and the other was in the rental car hired by the McCanns. This led the police to form the theory that the parents might have killed their daughter by accident and to escape punishment, had gotten rid of her body. They accused the parents of drugging their children with some sedative, probably something to help them sleep. It could have happened that Madeleine was overdosed by mistake and had died because of it.

The suspicion was further mounted on the parents when Kate refused to answer the questions of the Portuguese police and, shortly after their interrogation, left Portugal for Britain, an act that was seen by some people as running away from possible arrest. There were also the questions on Kate’s reaction after she had discovered that Madeleine was missing. She had come running out, shouting “Someone has taken Madeleine”. How could she have known by that point that the girl was abducted? Didn’t she consider the possibility that she might have just wandered off? There were no clear signs of a struggle. There was just an open window, so to immediately draw the conclusion that the child has been taken seems a bit hasty. Some people also questioned the willingness of the McCanns to involve the media in their search for Madeleine.

To some, it felt like they were enjoying the limelight, and some have even made the accusation that the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have gone into Madeleine’s rescue fund haven’t given any proper lead to the case. Further, the idea of every half-an-hour run by one parent or the other didn’t make much sense. There were nine people dining on that table, eight of whom would require to regularly check in on their kids. If this arrangement of every 20-30-minute check is to be considered, then it seems not only messy, but also a bit difficult to handle, considering how only one parent was leaving the table at a time, and yet there was a window when none of them was on the round.

And above all, how could someone leave their children so unprotected? They left an entrance open to their apartment, something that could have been easily accessed by anyone on the public road. They left their door unlocked, without anyone accompanying the kids. Even if they weren’t actively involved in the disappearance of their daughter, they surely deserve blame for their irresponsibility, which can’t be emphasised enough. Yet, we can expect that not a day goes by when the McCanns don’t feel guilty for the reckless behaviour that cost them their child.

Theories: Who Kidnapped Madeleine McCann?

The run-time of twelve whole years and, sadly, counting has given way to a lot of bizarre theories about the case. Some people have gone far enough to speculate that there wasn’t a case there in the first place, that it was something the government did to distract the public from some other issue! A bit less mind-bending than this is the alleged involvement of secret services like MI5 in trying to cover-up the case. For all we know, she could have been abducted by aliens! There is anything, and everything, that one can concoct to satisfy the conspiracy theorist inside them. For normal consideration, here is the list of possibilities that could have been the root cause of the utter despair that followed this case. Since we have already considered the likelihood of the parents’ involvement in the case, I haven’t listed it down here.

A Crime That Begot Crime

In many such cases, it has been discovered that the murder or the disappearance was perpetrated to hide another crime. In this case, the most likely prospect seems that of a burglary gone wrong. Maybe someone thought the adults weren’t in the apartment and decided to break-in, not counting in the factor of the children’s presence. Maybe, Madeleine witnessed the theft and in order to shut her up, the thieves either abducted her or killed her by mistake. In any case, what happened to her could just have been a nervous reaction by some inept burglar.

Wrong Place Wrong Time Scenario

Since the back entrance was unlocked, it could be so that Madeleine had woken up when no one was checking, and she could have come out of the apartment to find her parents. For that, she’d have to come out in the street, and it could have been there that she met with trouble. A paedophile who happened to be around, or some child snatcher who chanced upon luck, little Madeleine could have fallen into wrong hands owing to her sheer bad luck. The possibility that she could have simply wandered off and fallen into a well or something else was also considered. But, in that case, considering how massive the search was for her, something surely must have been found of her. If she was dead, there must have been a body by now.

Planned Abduction

On the morning of the disappearance, Madeleine asked her mother, “Why didn’t you come when Sean and I were crying last night?” This query threw Kate off-guard and is what made her, and Gerry, decide to make more frequent checks on the kids. However, it was only after she was gone that they began to consider the reason for this question. Why were they crying? What had happened the previous night? Did someone trouble them? Was this the person who took Madeleine?

A child was taken from her bed. Children disappear from beaches, at fairs, even from the streets; but rarely, if ever, has a case seen a child abducted from their bed like this. And this points towards the fact that someone had been watching the family, someone had their eyes on Madeleine. A week is enough to figure out someone’s routine, and the McCanns had been following the same one for the past couple of days. Someone could have easily anticipated them leaving their kids at the apartment while they dined a short distance away. In two hours (from 20:00 to 22:00), they could have worked out the 20-30-minute check-runs, and this is how they could have known about the back entrance. So, when 21:30 run had been made, the abductor would have had the window of full 30 minutes, 20 at the least. This is time enough to take a child. Now, the question is who could have done it and why?

There can be a number of answers for why, which would add an exponentially greater ambiguity to who. For the planned abduction of a kid, the reasons boil down to the following five. Number one is money. However, no ransom was ever made, we count that out. The second reason could be revenge. Someone wanted to hurt the McCanns, so he/she took their child, the one who had come to them after a very long struggle. Kate and Gerry hadn’t been able to have their own child, so they tried IVF, which gave them Madeleine. What’s a better way to hurt someone than to take their precious child away from them? However, this theory doesn’t have much support, because there wasn’t anyone whom the McCanns identified as potential enemies. But, who knows, maybe it was someone who was pretending to be their friend. Maybe someone close to them was jealous of their happiness. Also, isn’t it so that in most of the cases the culprit is someone close to the victim? There would be a lot of speculation involved in this, and since we don’t have a clear picture of the McCanns’ relationships with others, we don’t know how far we could go with this theory.

Is Madeleine McCann Dead or Alive?

Leaving the obvious reasons behind, we are only left with the more sinister prospects. Someone could have kidnapped Madeleine because either they were a paedophile or a child trafficker. Algarve has a reputation for being a hotspot for the illegal drug trades, especially considering its proximity and easy sea-route to Morocco and extended access to Africa. There had been prior sightings of people who had been going door to door, asking for donations, some being very unwelcoming. It could be possible that one, or all, of these people, were scouting the location for potential targets and had found one in Madeleine. If a group of people was involved, which seems rather likely, it would have been easier to abduct her, considering that they might already have experience with kidnapping. Either she was sexually assaulted by a paedophile, or she was slaved off in some foreign country. Another possibility could be that she was abducted for some rich family. If the sightings are correct and it is Madeleine who has been seen over the years in all those countries, then there is one thing that can explain her roaming about the world. Someone (maybe even the parents, or at least one of them, if not both) kidnapped her and sold her off to a rich family that didn’t have kids or saw their child in Madeleine and so specifically wanted her. Sort of something that happened in the latest season of ‘True Detective’.

One more thing that keeps the investigators nagging about this case is how could’ve someone possibly abducted a child in a place where people, including the parents of the children, were roaming around the streets at odd hours. How did someone, anyone, did not notice a single thing about the act? A shady person, or an odd car, someone must have seen something! How could an outsider simply walk away with a child, without anyone’s notice? Or perhaps, it wasn’t an outsider after all! Maybe, there was someone from the resort’s staff who was involved. Someone who knew of the McCanns’ routine, someone who knew how to enter the apartment, someone who knew a safe place to hide the child before whisking her away for good.

We are nowhere close to finding Madeleine McCann, not even sure if she is alive or not. In any case, until a conclusion is reached, her parents will not stop looking for her, as they have already demonstrated through their perseverance of more than a decade. We can only hope and pray that the family get some closure, in whatever form it may come, and soon.

Read More in Explainers: True Detective Season 3 | Mindhunter 

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