The case of Madeleine McCann, a British girl who disappeared 16 years ago, at the age of 3, from a holiday apartment in Portugal, returned this week to saturate the media coverage when the Portuguese police resumed their searches.
Police ended their search after three days on Thursday in the Algarve region of Portugal, where the girl disappeared in 2007 while on holiday with her parents and siblings.
The search “resulted in the collection of some material” that was sent for analysis, but there was no evidence that anything conclusive had been found. It was requested by German authorities and conducted in the presence of British authorities, police said.
The agents searched an area of the Arade Dam, about 48 kilometers from the coastal town of Praia da Luz, where the family had spent their holidays.
According to local media, the area used to be frequented by a German who was named as a suspect in the case. A German prosecutor, Hans Christian Wolters, told broadcaster NDR, “We only have a few indications that we can find evidence there”.
The searches have revived a case that dominated Europe for years, leading to an international search effort and becoming the subject of books, front pages and a series of Netflix documentaries, generating endless speculation, empty hopes and hints.
Here’s what we know about the case:
Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeleine’s parents, said they left Madeleine and her siblings, 2-year-old twins, in their holiday apartment while they ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Madeleine’s father checked on the children around 9 pm, and they were all there, but when his wife checked on them about an hour later, Madeleine was gone. A search began soon after, but it yielded few significant leads.
The girl’s disappearance triggered a wave of public interest and grief that has been compared to British national mourning following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, with Madeleine’s face printed on “Missing” posters and T-shirts.
An initial investigation by Portuguese police yielded no concrete results but drew widespread criticism after Madeleine’s parents were named as suspects. They were formally released in 2008.
In 2020, German prosecutors made it clear that they did not expect to find Madeleine alive and that new evidence led them to conclude that the girl was likely the victim of homicide.
Who’s the suspect?
It was unclear why the new searches were initiated, but in 2020, German authorities said a German sex offender was under investigation on suspicion of murder. They did not name him, but German media identified him as a man named Christian B.
The suspect lived intermittently in the Algarve region of Portugal from 1995 to 2007. He has a criminal record for sexual abuse of children and, at the time of his identification, was already in a German prison for an unrelated sex offense and crimes drugs. A German prosecutor said the suspect made a living from drug dealing, but also working in restaurants, selling used cars and robbing hotel rooms and vacation homes.
British detectives said they received their first tip on the suspect after making a public appeal in 2017, on the 10th anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance. He has not been charged with crimes related to her disappearance and has consistently denied involvement. In 2022, the Portuguese police made him a formal suspect.
In recent years, British newspapers have been filled with interviews with people who knew the suspect in an attempt to gather useful information.
Has the area been searched before?
Overall, hundreds of volunteers helped the family search for Madeleine across the world.
The operation coordinated by the German and Portuguese authorities is the first formal search in the dam area, but in 2008, Marcos Aragão Correia, a Portuguese lawyer not connected to the case, hired specialized divers to check the area following some tips he said he had received.
In 2014, the British police, who also opened an investigation, known as Operation Grange, for several days examined bush near the resort where Madeleine disappeared but found no evidence.
On May 3, Madeleine’s family gathered to celebrate the 16th anniversary of her disappearance. “Still missing……. I’m still sorely missed,” her family wrote in a statement. “We look forward to a breakthrough,” she added.
What do we know about the search?
The British media, galvanized by the announcement by the Portuguese police, eagerly followed the search.
They reported that police on Tuesday focused on a peninsula near a reservoir and that a police speedboat was sent into the watershed. According to The Guardian, officers used pickaxes, chainsaws and rakes to search the peninsula and surrounding woods.
The Mirror reported that German officers loaded evidence into the back of a truck.
The BBC said police had deployed sniffer dogs along the bank of the reservoir and expected the operation to last a few more days. According to the Independent, the police cut down trees.