What Happened to Madeleine McCann: Coverage Spins Out of Control as the Case Takes a Heartbreaking Turn

·10 min read

This is the second part of a three-part series. Read part one here.

When their daughter Madeleine disappeared on the night of May 3, 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann were sure that she had been abducted from the resort where they'd been vacationing in Praia da Luz. But they tried to remain hopeful that, wherever she was, the 3-year-old was alive and being properly cared for.

The parents of three broke their silence to the media the following evening, having to venture only steps outside their holiday apartment to read a statement into the waiting cameras, pleading for information and their eldest child's safe return.

Immediately, sightings piled up: A gas station employee telling police that she saw a blonde child who looked like Madeleine come into the convenience store with a woman (CCTV footage showed it wasn't her); a man, with a child, behaving unusually in a supermarket; a bald man carrying a young girl toward the marina. Some tabloids actually printed a sketch of a long empty oval with short, side-swept hair and no face, based on a shopkeeper's description, or lack thereof.

True Crime: Kidnapping Survivors

Journalists had poured into Praia da Luz from all over the U.K. and Europe, filing hundreds of stories and filming endless footage of the Ocean Club, the nearby beach and surrounding environs, and the detectives as they went about their business, ruing the influx of outsiders.

The Polícia Judiciária preferred keeping their heads down and getting their work done, former chief investigating coordinator Gonçalo Amaral recalled in the 2017 Netflix docu-series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, explaining that the PJ's usual process is "based on secrecy." The media, with their endless questions and expectations of constant updates, were a huge distraction.

What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 2
What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 2

At the same time, Kate McCann had already hitched her hopes to one particular sighting from the night Madeleine was taken.

Their friend Jane Tanner told police right away that at around 9:15 p.m.—when she got up from dinner with their group to check on her own sleeping daughters—she saw a man carrying a small child on the street outside the apartment block where their party was staying.

"As soon as she heard that Madeleine went missing, everything clicked into place and she felt sick," Kate wrote of Jane in her 2011 book, Madeleine. When the distraught mom heard what her friend had seen, however, she was admittedly "strangely relieved," recalling how she felt reassured that "Madeleine hadn't just disappeared off the face of the earth. There was something to work on."

"There was little doubt in my mind then, nor is there now, that what Jane saw was Madeleine's abductor taking her away. But in spite of the fact that she'd reported this to both the [Guardia Nacional Republicana, the first officers to respond that night] and PJ straight away, it would be 25 May before her description of the man and child would be released to the press."

White, dark hair, 35-40 years old, 5-foot-10, medium build, carrying a barefoot child in light-colored pajamas.

Close and Yet So Far: The Agonizing 25-Year Hunt for Answers in Kristin Smart's Disappearance

In the meantime, a week after Madeleine went missing, detectives questioned and searched the home of Robert Murat, a 35-year-old British ex-pat living in Praia da Luz with his mother in a villa steps away from the Ocean Club. On the night Madeleine disappeared, he had walked over to the scene to offer his translation skills to anyone in need. His ubiquity over the ensuing days caught the attention of a Sunday Mirror reporter, who mentioned him to police.

As Robert remembered in the Netflix series, he soon realized that insisting he had nothing to do with the child's disappearance and clearing his name wasn't going to be so easy. "They wanted me to confess," he recalled.

Missing Madeleine McCann
Missing Madeleine McCann

He was allowed to go home, but word quickly got out that police had an arguido—a suspect. Tabloids proceeded to paint him as a very suspicious person, with headlines ranging from the Daily Mail's "Oddball of the Algarve" to the Daily Express' "His girl is the spitting image of Madeleine!" referring to his young daughter back in the U.K.

Robert, who was never arrested or charged, was officially cleared by Portuguese authorities on July, 21, 2008. Earlier in the month, Britain's high court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor in lawsuits filed by Robert and two acquaintances (who were not suspects but were also questioned by police in Portugal) against four national newspaper groups, which admitted in a statement read in court that 11 of their publications had printed "false claims" about the three men.

The Disappearance of Maura Murray: Everything You Need to Know About the Baffling Unsolved Case

According to The Guardian (which was not one of the 11, though the Mail and Express were), News International, Mirror Group Newspapers, Express Newspapers and Associated Newspapers agreed to publish apologies in their papers and pay Murat what amounted in 2008 to $1.1 million in libel damages, plus $190,000 to each of the other two men.

In response to a separate lawsuit, Sky News apologized that November for publishing a story and video containing what the media outlet's counsel acknowledged during a high court hearing were "false allegations." She said the defendant had agreed to pay "substantial damages" as well as the plaintiff's legal expenses. Murat's attorney Louis Charalambous said in a statement afterward, "This settlement represents the final stage of Mr. Murat's claims against those sections of the British media which defamed him so terribly."

Kate McCann, Gerry McCann, Madeleine McCann
Kate McCann, Gerry McCann, Madeleine McCann

Meanwhile, though their dissatisfaction with the local police only increased from day one, it seemed as if all of the U.K. was looking out for the McCanns. Family and more friends flew in immediately. A small contingent of officials and investigate specialists from the U.K., including a crisis management expert who was initially there to represent the interests of the Mark Warner Ltd.-owned resort, but who soon was serving as the parents' go-between with reporters. The British ambassador to Portugal, John Buck, came to town. Cherie Blair, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, called Kate to lend her support, mum to mum.

Within another week, the growing group dubbed "Team McCann" launched Madeleine's Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned to raise money for the search, and the Find Madeleine website went up. In her book, the proceeds from which went to the fund, Kate recalled that the media presence only seemed to grow, and she knew that every move she made was being judged: Not smiling made her seem cold and unfeeling, but smiling was callous. How dare she look to be enjoying a beach day with her other children, 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie? And, from the beginning, what were she and Gerry thinking leaving their children alone in the apartment that night?

What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 1, David Beckham
What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 1, David Beckham

But the case had become a cause celebre back home, with the likes David Beckham and Robbie Williams issuing pleas for information and Topshop founder Sir Philip Green lending his private jet. Gerry and Kate, both observant Catholics, met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, and traveled to Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam and other cities to hold press conferences—not for a tour, as they insisted to reporters who asked if they were concerned what impression they were giving off.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

As The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann recounts, though largely sympathetic from the beginning, reported sentiment in Portugal was also starting to turn against the McCanns. Journalists were quoting residents who lamented how much time, energy and money was being spent on searching for this one English child, while missing local children were given short shrift. Some U.K. tabloids also didn't discriminate between scraps and real scoop.

Kate recalled a July 22 headline in Britain's Sunday Express: "MADDY'S PARENTS TO FACE INQUIRY." The article suggested they may be facing allegations of child neglect related to the night Madeleine vanished. They were used to such lines of attack, Kate wrote, but mainly she was devastated because she still felt that she and Gerry had "given this predator an opportunity" by leaving the children alone.

(In March 2008, the high court awarded the McCanns close to $1 million in damages—to be paid to Madeleine's Fund—in their libel complaint against Express Newspapers for printing what their spokesman called "grotesque and grossly defamatory" stories. The Daily Express and Daily Star (both owned then by the defendant) also printed front-page apologies. Those papers were hardly alone in their salacious coverage, family spokesman Clarence Mitchell told The Guardian, "but they had the worst track record and were the worst offenders from Gerry and Kate's perspective.")

In August, Portuguese police publicly acknowledged for the first time that the child might be dead. And, despite previous public statements saying they were treating the case as an abduction, it turned out they were also probing the possibility that she'd never made it out of her family's apartment alive.

Biggest Unsolved Murder Mysteries

On Aug. 6, the PJ impounded the Renault Scenic the McCanns had rented on May 27 for a forensics search.

The next day Kate saw local reports that investigators had found blood on the bedroom wall in apartment 5A (which had since been rented out to other guests)—all news to her.

On Aug. 8, after a sit-down in Praia da Luz with BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour (in her book Kate called her response to a question about how she and Gerry were keeping each other going "cringe-worthy"), another BBC journalist approached them and said, "Do you know what they're saying? They're saying that you killed Madeleine."

A week later, The Times in the U.K. reported that analysts at the Forensic Science Service in Birmingham, England, had determined the blood from the apartment was not Madeleine's, but rather belonged to an unknown male. Samples taken from the trunk of the Renault had been sent to the Birmingham lab, as well.

When the test results from the car were shared with the PJ, spokesman Oligario Sousa told reporters they were "very happy" with the results, because "they mean they can go further with the case."

On Sept. 5, investigators called Kate and Gerry back in for questioning. On Sept. 7, they were officially named arguidos.

What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 1, Phil McCann
What Happened To Madeleine McCann Series Part 1, Phil McCann

"They are suggesting that Kate has in some way accidentally killed Madeleine, then kept her body, then got rid of it," Philomena McCann, Gerry's sister, told Sky News in response to the announcement. "I have never heard anything so utterly ludicrous in my entire life." The couple's spokeswoman Justine McGuinness called the cops' allegation that Madeleine's blood was found in the boot of the rental car "ludicrous." And the very idea that Kate was somehow involved in her daughter's death was "clearly ridiculous," she said.

As she recalled in her book, Kate was offered a two-year jail sentence if she'd confess that she'd hidden or otherwise disposed of her daughter's body—far better than being charged with homicide, the police told her.

"Most people find it hard to comprehend how innocent people can confess to crimes they haven't committed," Kate wrote. "Gerry and I don't. Not now."

But they were informed the next day that they were free to leave the country—and they decided to do so immediately.

On Sept. 9, four months after they'd touched down in Praia da Luz for a spring holiday as a family of five, the McCanns returned to England with their twins. Despite what the Portuguese police (who would officially clear them as suspects the following July), the tabloids and all their critics were saying, they maintained their hope that Madeleine was alive.

Or at the very least that they would get answers.

The third and final part of this series will be published June 19.

(E! and Sky News are both owned by Comcast Corp.)