What Happened to Madeleine McCann? Inside the Unsolved Case of a Little Girl Gone Missing on Holiday
She was sleeping in her bed. Then she was gone.
It’s late April 2007. A family of five—two doctors and their three young children—pack their swimming trunks and sandals and fly from their home in central Britain to a resort on the coast of southern Portugal. They’re heading to the village of Praia da Luz, a resort town with a population of about 1,000 people. Some locals call Praia da Luz “Little Britain” because the area is so popular among expats and Brits on holiday.
The family is traveling to Portugal to spend seven nights with a group of friends. Nine adults and eight children make up the party. The plan: activities and games for the kids; tennis, tapas and drinks for the parents.
The McCann family boards their flight to Portugal on April 28. Their oldest daughter, Madeleine, 3, is dressed in pink, backpack stuffed with her favorite stuffed animal, Cuddly Cat. Madeleine trips on her way up the plane’s tall, grownup-sized stairs. She would celebrate her fourth birthday a few days after returning home from the holiday.
But for Madeleine, this flight is a one-way trip.
What Happened to Madeleine?
Madeleine McCann disappeared six nights into the family’s spring break. According to her parents, Madeleine was asleep in her bed on the evening of Thursday, May 3, 2007 while the nine adults ate dinner at the resort’s open-air tapas bar. The parents told police they were taking turns checking on the sleeping children. This had been a regular practice all week, they said.
Madeleine’s disappearance became an overnight media sensation, bringing an international media presence to the small Portuguese village. Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents, faced the cameras to beg whoever took Madeleine to return her safely to her family.
It’s been more than 12 years since little Maddie disappeared. Suspects have come and gone, police and private investigators have pored over the case time and time again. Reported sightings inspired glimmers of hope that dimmed as quickly as they appeared. Most recently, Netflix released an eight-part documentary exploring the case and its many factors. Here, we’ll lay out a timeline of the events leading up to Madeleine’s disappearance, the immediate aftermath, as well as twists and turns the case has taken since.
Here is everything you need to know about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
It Takes a Village...
On April 28, 2007, the McCann family arrived in Praia da Luz for a seven-night vacation with seven friends and their five children. The group included Fiona and David Payne and their two children; Fiona’s mother, Dianne Webster; Jane Tanner and her partner Russel O’Brien; the two O’Brien children; Matthew and Rachael Oldfield; and their daughter.
The McCanns were staying in apartment 5A, a ground-floor unit with sliding glass patio doors that opened onto a walkway near a swimming pool. The McCann children, Madeleine and her one-year-old twin siblings, Sean and Amelie, slept in a bedroom near the front door, which was located on the other side of the block from the pool and tapas restaurant. According to the McCanns’ statements to the police, the front door was always locked while they were out of the apartment.
An Important Dinner Reservation
Each night, the nine adults had a dinner reservation for a table at the tapas restaurant just across the swimming pool from the block of apartments where the group was staying. Kate specifically requested a table on the side of the tapas restaurant closest to the 5A patio. At the time, she explained, in writing, that the children would be left alone during the meals but that they would be intermittently checked on.
In her book, Madeleine: Our Daughter's Disappearance and the Continuing Search for Her, Kate writes that she fears Madeleine’s kidnapper — someone with access to the hotel’s largely public reservation book — could have been tipped off about the children being alone by her reservation request.
Dinner began at 8:30 p.m. and the group, dubbed the Tapas Seven by the media, would linger into the night, drinking and socializing. The parents, according to their statements to police, would take turns checking on their respective children. Though the time intervals vary between statements, the group maintains that the children were being checked on periodically throughout the meals, every night of their trip.
May 3, 2007: The Day of the Disappearance
For five days, the group played tennis and relaxed on the beach without incident. The kids attended the resort’s kid’s club, where they went sailing and played games until around 5:30 p.m.
On Wednesday evening, the night before Madeleine’s disappearance, Kate notes in her book that she became angry at Gerry when he abruptly left the dinner table. When she returned to their apartment, he was asleep and snoring. “Still feeling a bit offended,” she writes, “I decided to sleep with the children.”
The next morning, Madeleine asked Kate a question during breakfast. In her book, Kate recalls her asking, "Why didn't you come when Sean and I cried last night?" Madeleine did not elaborate. Kate was additionally confused because she had slept in the children’s room the previous night.
That afternoon, according to the Netflix documentary, Madeleine was very tired and asked to be carried home when Kate picked her up from the kid's club. Madeleine continued to nod off during storytime. At 8:30 p.m., Kate and Gerry left the apartment and their three sleeping children for dinner at the tapas restaurant. They were among the first of their friends to arrive that night.
A few minutes later, Matthew Oldfield arrived at dinner. He’d just walked by the McCanns’ apartment on the way to the restaurant, and he informed Kate and Gerry that their apartment seemed quiet and that the shutters were closed.
10 p.m.: Kate’s Turn to Check
At approximately 9:05 p.m., Gerry walked the 295 feet from the tapas restaurant to the back patio door of apartment 5A to check on the children. According to all of the interviewed witnesses, the McCanns’ back patio door had been left unlocked so that the parents could quickly check on Madeleine, Sean and Amelie without walking around the block to the front door.
Gerry would eventually tell police that during his first check on the kids, he noticed the bedroom door was open wider than he had recalled, but the children were sleeping peacefully, so he pulled the door so that it was almost all the way closed again.
He then returned to dinner.
A few days later, a friend of the family would report that Gerry suspected that an abductor was hiding behind that open door when he checked on the children.
About 10 minutes later, Jane Tanner went to check on her children. She reported to police that she saw Gerry McCann and another British tourist, Jeremy Wilkins, chatting outside in the narrow street between the apartment 5A patio and the tapas restaurant. Neither Gerry McCann nor Wilkins recall seeing Jane Tanner in the street.
Roughly 25 minutes after Gerry checked on the children, Kate had planned on taking her turn. Instead, their friend Matthew Oldfield volunteered to look in on the McCann kids while he was checking on his own. Oldfield entered the apartment through the rear patio door.
He noticed that the bedroom door was wide open and that there was enough light in the bedroom for him to see into the room. Oldfield said he saw the twins sleeping quietly on the cots in the center of the room. He did not look into the room far enough to see Madeleine, according to his statements to Portuguese police.
Oldfield could not recall if the shutters were open at this time or if the light in the bedroom was coming from the living room lamp. But he told police that he was sure that there was no breeze, that he noticed, and that the bedroom curtains were not blowing in the wind.
Oldfield returned to the tapas restaurant and reported that everything was quiet in apartment 5A.
Approximately 30 minutes after Matthew Oldfield did his round of checks, Kate McCann headed toward the apartment to make sure the children were sleeping soundly. Like Gerry and Matthew Oldfield before her, Kate entered the apartment from the back patio.
Upon entering the apartment, she was surprised by the amount of light coming from the bedroom. Kate approached the bedroom door and pulled it a little more closed. The door slammed shut, as if a draft from the window had blown through the bedroom. At first she thought she might have left the patio door open behind her but quickly realized she had not.
She opened the bedroom door. The twins were sound asleep, but Madeleine was nowhere to be found, and the window — which was only supposed to open from the inside — was wide open. Maddie’s pink blanket and Cuddly Cat were left behind.
In a panic, she ran toward the tapas restaurant to alert Gerry and the rest of the group to her horrible discovery: Madeleine was gone.
10:10 p.m.: The Search Begins
Ten minutes after Kate noticed Madeleine was missing, Gerry asked Matthew Oldfield to have the resort’s receptionist call the police. By 10:20 p.m., the hotel’s missing child protocol had been activated. Resort staffers and guests spent the next six hours searching for Madeleine. They searched under bushes, along the beach and in the children’s play area — anywhere Madeleine could have wandered.
After some time, Gerry noticed that the police had not yet arrived and asked the receptionist to call them again. After the second call, a patrol car from the GNR, the local police force in the area, was dispatched to the resort.
Midnight: More Forces Called In
Around midnight, when no clues had manifested, the local police called the Polícia Judiciária (PJ). The PJ is Portugal’s national investigative bureau in charge of solving major crimes. By the time the PJ had arrived on the scene, apartment 5A had been turned upside-down.
During the initial commotion, things had been moved around the suite, cupboards had been opened and closed and forensic evidence, if there was any to be found, had been trampled.
Initial Sightings Emerge
During this time, Jane Tanner recalled that she may have seen something very important when she went to check on her children at 9:15 p.m.. Tanner told police she had seen a man with dark hair carrying a sleeping child near apartment 5A. She could see that the child was barefoot and wearing light-colored pajamas. Could this have been a kidnapper?
On May 26, 2007, Portuguese police received a call that an Irish family had also spotted a man carrying a blonde child around Madeleine’s age at around 10 p.m. on the night of Madeleine's disappearance. The man they described had short-cropped brown hair and looked uncomfortable carrying the child.
As media attention grew, more reports came tumbling in to police. From Portugal to Morocco to Spain, Madeleine lookalikes were spotted in stores and gas stations. In Belgium and Brazil, people reported seeing girls that matched Madeleine’s description in cafes and on planes. There were even reported sightings as far away as New Zealand. None of the sightings turned up any leads, and most were quickly debunked by investigators.
12 Days Missing: An Arguido and an Ask For Help
In Portugal, there is an official classification for people formally named as suspects in an investigation: arguido. And on May 15, 2007, the PJ named their first arguido.
Finally, the world had something to cling to: Robert Murat, 34. He lived close to the apartment where the McCanns were spending their holiday. In the days after Madeleine’s disappearance, a journalist reported Murat to the police for asking what was described as a suspicious number of questions about the investigation.
Police began investigating Murat in earnest on May 15, 2007, searching his house and draining his pool. Sniffer dogs were brought to his home, but no concrete evidence ever turned up that tied him to the McCann family or Madeleine. His arguido status was ultimately lifted.
Murat appears in the Netflix documentary and denies having anything to do with the case. He says instead that, as a fluent speaker of both English and Portuguese, he was simply volunteering as a translator between the English-speaking media and the local police.
On the same day that Murat was made a formal suspect in the case, the McCann family established a fund to raise money to help with the search. The fund was called Madeleine's Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned Ltd, and it generated a huge amount of interest instantaneously.
A Meteoric Rise, A Spectacular Fall
By the end of May, 2007, the Madeleine’s disappearance was receiving near wall-to-wall media coverage. The McCanns had flown to the Vatican to visit Pope Benedict XVI. They organized an event that released helium balloons in almost 300 cities around the world. Celebrities including Sir Richard Branson and JK Rowling donated undisclosed amounts of money to a fund to aid in the family in their search.
But not everyone was so charmed by the family’s polished media tour. In an interview with Britain’s Channel 5, political writer and former member of Parliament Matthew Parris noted that “the sheer professionalism of it I think troubled journalists.”
That air of suspicion came to a head on June 6, 2007. The McCanns were at a press conference in Berlin spreading the word about Madeleine’s disappearance when a German radio reported named Sabine Mueller asked, “How do you feel about the fact that more and more people seem to be pointing the finger at you, saying the way you behave is not the way people would normally behave when their child is abducted and they seem to imply that you might have something to do with it?”
The McCan’s denied involvement and said that they were unaware that there was anyone pointing the finger at them. “I have never heard before that anyone considers us suspects in this. The Portuguese police certainly don't,” Gerry McCann responded.
McCann may have spoken too soon.
Suspicion Piles Up
On June 30, 2007, Sol, a Portuguese national newspaper, published an article highlighting apparent inconsistencies in the McCann's timeline of events. The article also alleged that Kate and Gerry McCann, along with their friends, had made a "pact of silence" regarding the disappearance.
In early August, 2007, two British scent dogs, one trained to alert at the odor of cadavers and a second trained to alert at the smell of blood, were brought to Praia da Luz to aid in the investigation. This would be a significant turning point in the case.
Both dogs were brought to apartment 5A, where the McCann family had stayed on their holiday, and both dogs alerted behind the sofa in the living room area of the apartment. Both dogs also alerted in and around the silver Renault Scenic that the McCanns had rented 25 days after Madeleine’s disappearance. Eddie — the dog trained to alert at the smell of cadavers — alerted near the driver door. Keela — the dog trained to alert at the smell of human blood — alerted in the trunk of the car.
Tests on DNA collected from the areas where the dogs alerted were inconclusive, but the Portuguese press grew more suspicious that Madeleine had not been abducted. A chief investigator for the PJ told the media that clues had been found that could point toward the death of the child.
Four Months Missing: New Arguidos
On September 7, 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann were officially named arguidos by the Portuguese police. The police separated the couple. They told Kate McCann that if she admitted that Madeleine had died in an accident in the apartment, she would receive just a two-year sentence, while Gerry would be free to go.
During an 11-hour interview shortly thereafter, Kate McCann, at the advice of her attorneys, refused to answer 48 questions asked of her.
Lead Detective Removed
In 2007, the lead PJ detective in the Madeleine search, Gonçalo Amaral, was removed from the case and transferred to another city after criticizing the British police that were aiding in the investigation. Amaral told a Portuguese newspaper that the British investigators, “have only investigated tips and information developed and worked on for the McCanns, forgetting that the couple are suspects in the death of their daughter Madeleine."
Amaral returned to the public eye in July 2008 when he published a book about his time on the Madeleine investigation. The McCann family sued Amaral for libel for claims he made in the book, but the case was ultimately thrown out by Portugal’s supreme court.
In 2009, Amaral was convicted of falsifying evidence related to the investigation of another young girl’s disappearance in the Algarve region of Portugal not far from Praia da Luz.
When eight-year-old Joana Cipriano disappeared from the Algarve in 2004, several officers were accused of assaulting a suspect, the girl’s mother, during a 48-hour interrogation.Two officers were convicted of the assault. Amaral was not present during the interrogation but was later convicted of falsifying evidence to help the convicted officers.
Just shy of 15 months after Madeleine McCann disappeared, the Portuguese Attorney General Fernando José Pinto Monteiro announced that the inquiry into the disappearance would be closed and the arguido status of the McCanns would be lifted.
Since the Portuguese police have closed their investigation, private investigators and British state-sponsored reviews have continued to look into the case.
In 2011, Britain's then-Home Secretary Theresa May launched a Scotland Yard investigative review called Operation Grange. Despite receiving several rounds of funding since 2011, the Metropolitan Police have yet to turn up any leads.