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Madeleine search: How did it come to this?

Original Source: TELEGRAPH: SUNDAY 09 SEPTEMBER 2007
By Olga Craig
Last Updated: 1:38am BST 09/09/2007Page 1 of 3
Kate and Gerry McCann, admired around the world for their courageous search for missing daughter Madeleine, have been named as suspects in the case of her disappearance. Olga Craig tracks the couple's desperate four-month ordeal

As Kate and Gerry McCann trudged, hand-in-hand with heads bowed, through the narrow cobblestone streets of Praia da Luz towards the town's tiny, whitewashed church of Our Lady of the Light, en route to 11am Mass on the morning of Sunday, May 5, crowds of onlookers stood in silent sympathy.

Only two days before, the couple's eldest child, blonde, bewitching three-year-old Madeleine, had vanished from their holiday apartment, seemingly abducted from her bedroom while she slept, tucked between her twin siblings, in the sleepy Algarve coastal resort.

Already, shockwaves were reverberating around the world.

Here before them, was the distraught, stumbling young mother whose name was now synonymous with the searing heartache of maternal loss.

As the McCanns drew nearer to the church, the quiet murmurings of grief, of sympathy and pity for a mother who clutched Cuddle Cat, her child's favourite toy, to her chest and was so clearly clinging to the belief that within days Madeleine would be found, swelled.

Spontaneously, the few supportive claps became a crescendo.

Holiday-makers and locals enveloped the couple, stroking Kate's face, clapping Gerry's back, pressing flowers and green and yellow ribbons into their hands.

Their message was clear: we are with you, we will support you, we will comfort you as we would our own.

Four months on, almost to the day, how astonishingly, almost unbelievably, things have changed.

On the morning of September 7, again, shortly before 11am, Kate McCann once more walked through the Portuguese crowds swarming the pavement, this time to face an 11-hour grilling by police, who were waiting to ask her: Did you kill your daughter?

This time there was no cheering support, no rousing reception.

Instead the low, slow sound of hissing, then jeers and the escalating angry cat-calls of: "How could you? What mother could do this?"

Only one lone voice, that of an English holiday-maker, shouted: "We believe you Kate."

It must have been scant comfort to Madeleine's mother, now painfully thin and wan-faced, as she walked trance-like into the Portimao police headquarters.

Today Kate McCann, and Gerry, both 39, are no longer deemed, by Portuguese police at least, the tragic victims of a heinous and heartless crime: they now face the finger of vile suspicion as the chief suspects in the disappearance of their daughter - of whom there has been not a single sighting since the evening she vanished.

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That the McCanns, initially, evoked sympathy and compassion worldwide is without doubt.

The great and good, from the Pope to the British Prime Minister, from David Beckham to pop stars, have pledged their support, using their status and celebrity to highlight the compelling and sorrowful story of Madeleine's abduction, which has topped the news agenda for three months.

In the intervening time, the couple have been feted and applauded across the world, saluted for their relentless FindMadeleine campaign - which has raised more than 1 million - and the stoic courage they have shown as the lacklustre Portuguese police inquiry, punctuated by bumbling inefficiency and the most basic of flaws, lumbered slowly along.

Then, three weeks ago, the tide seemed to turn. When Robert Murat, the British-born suspect, angrily suggested those "bloody McCanns" should return home, he was not, this time, a lone voice.

The Portuguese media had already been revelling in lurid headlines suggesting that the couple were "swingers" who indulged in wife-swapping, had drunk 14 bottles of wine along with their seven friends on the night Madeleine vanished, had not been nearly so vigilant about checking on their children on the evening of May 3 as they claimed and were under intense scrutiny by police, who now believed Madeleine was dead.

The idea that something was awry finally seemed to be taking root in the public's consciousness.

Increasingly, the McCanns seemed isolated. Even though the Portuguese police investigation was riddled with flaws, more and more people began to question the family's version of events.

Gnawing, often unspoken, doubts festered.

When the Portuguese media insisted that its allegations were not based on wildly imaginative speculation, but were the result of secret briefings by police moles, they had largely been dismissed.

Now, however, the public grudgingly gave them more and more credence.

On Friday, we discovered why. Those veiled innuendoes and lurid allegations, it became clear, were indeed based on the Portuguese police's suspicions. Suspicions they had most likely leaked to their own country's media, possibly in the hope of rattling the McCanns and encouraging them to change their story.

And those suspicions were based on scientific evidence, albeit evidence that the Portuguese themselves had spectacularly missed or failed to seek out and which was revealed only after they finally allowed British police, who possess much more sophisticated equipment and methods, to become involved.

In the past two days, events have switched. Why, Portuguese police want to know, did the McCanns hire a car five weeks after Madeleine's disappearance and one day before they flew to Rome for an audience with the Pope?

How did traces of Madeleine's blood come to be found on the window and under the sofa of apartment 5a in the Mark Warner Ocean Club resort in which the couple had stayed along with their two-year-old twins, Sean and Amelie, and Madeleine?

Why were traces of Madeleine's bodily fluids discovered in the car?

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Why had sniffer dogs smelled the scent of a corpse on Kate McCann's jeans and T-shirt and on Cuddle Cat, Madeleine's favourite toy which Mrs McCann twists obsessively through her trembling fingers as her last tangible link with Madeleine?

Did you sedate your daughter, accidentally overdose her and then panic and dispose of the body, they want to know.

And while there can be no doubt that the majority of people believe the McCanns to be entirely innocent, and that the allegations are, in the words of Philomena McCann, Gerry's aunt, "ludicrous and utterly untrue", the public, too, has pressing questions: Have the McCanns cynically manipulated a gullible public that was all too willing to believe their heartbreaking story of how their cherished child disappeared?

Was their carefully orchestrated and sophisticated campaign, that included jetting across the world on fact-finding missions and high-profile press events, merely a smoke screen for what could be one of the most audacious and clever cover-ups?

In the early days of May no one could have imagined such a scenario.

Day after day, as the McCanns left their apartment at 9am to walk Sean and Amelie to the Mark Warner creche, they appeared more and more pitiable.

They embraced media involvement, believing publicity was their best weapon.

"We are waging a war, a strategic campaign," Gerry told me in the couple's first face-to-face interview with a British Sunday national newspaper.

That day, the first time I had spoken at length to the couple, there seemed no reason to doubt their story of how they had put their three children to bed at 7pm and then dined at a tapas bar, checking at half-hour intervals.

Yes, I had niggling suspicions. It was true, I suggested gently, that while they had dined within the safe confines of the Mark Warner resort, behind security staffed gates, their children were left alone in a ground-floor apartment seven to eight minutes away, on the main road.

And when I, apologetically, asked my two final questions, prefacing them delicately with the explanation that I had, as a journalist, no option but to ask, Kate became very edgy.

When I queried their decision to ignore the various baby-sitting services, Kate mumbled something about not wanting "to leave them with strangers".

When I asked why they left the patio doors and windows unlocked, she stood up and walked off. Understandably, they were distressing questions. Nevertheless, she was unwilling to address them.

Kate McCann, whom I was convinced, without a doubt, was incapable of harming a hair upon her child's head and was, truly, a distraught and heart-broken mother, did come across as detached, a little cold.

Only through lengthy gentle coaxing would she talk of her emotions. But, I reasoned, too much could be read into that.

Joanne Lees, initially suspected of the murder of her boyfriend Peter Falconio, suffered vilification simply because she did not wear her heart on her sleeve. She was, as was later proved, innocent.

When Kate was asked a difficult question she sat in silence, leaving the response to Gerry.

He, more gregarious by nature, could be slightly arrogant. It was easily explained by his natural desire to be doing something positive and his professional training as a highly skilled cardiologist, accustomed to controlling situations. Yet it was mildly disconcerting.

In those initial weeks, I also witnessed the Portuguese police's shambolic inquiry.

I noted the four Alsatian sniffer dogs penned in cages in the sweltering sun while their handlers scoured the seafront shops for souvenirs instead of seeking evidence; I observed too their failure to close the border between Portugal and Spain for 12 hours after Madeleine vanished and the paucity of their apparent evidence against Robert Murat, who appeared to be guilty only of having a strange manner and a nosy desire to be at the heart of the case.

Although Portuguese police insisted that there was no paedophile ring operating in the country, their British counterparts revealed that 130 such criminals had travelled to Portugal in the past two years.

Casa Liliano, the villa shared by Mr Murat and his mother, Jenny, about 100 yards from the McCann's apartment, was searched twice, its grounds dug up.

His computers were scoured and his links with the somewhat elusive Russian, Sergey Malinka, and Malinka's mysterious on-off girlfriend Michaela, were trawled through.

But while Mr Murat became the sole suspect, no charges have ever been brought and he expects to be exonerated soon.

By July, while the McCanns were still swamped with unswerving support, the first voices of dissent began to emerge.

he Leicester Mercury, the couple's local newspaper serving the Rothley village where they lived, was forced to close its Madeleine website after a series of "spiteful and defamatory" remarks were made about the McCanns.

Then came the real turning of the tide. Tired of being ignored by the McCanns, the Portuguese media camped outside their villa and knocked constantly upon their door. When the family left, the media circus followed, tracking the couple obsessively.

In Praia da Luz, too, more and more people began to ask why the McCanns were still there. It seemed heartless. And, yet, one could see the sentiment take root and grow.

In a scathing letter to the Algarve's English language newspaper, the Portugal News, Martyn Smith, a British solicitor living in Praia da Luz, asked a series of scorching questions.

"The Director of Public Prosecutions should consider if there is a case to answer," he thundered, querying the couple's decision to leave their children alone.

Why, he asked, did the McCanns travel to several European countries but never Britain. "It may be for fear of prosecution," he said.

The all-too-sad truth was that the tide of goodwill was turning against the McCanns.

Locals were angry that their police were being so heavily criticised by the British press. British journalists also believed the Portuguese simply wanted a scapegoat, preferably not Portuguese, upon whom they could pin the crime.

"People here are finding it all very tiresome," Sheena Rawcliff, the managing director of the Resident, Praia da Luz's English-language magazine, admitted to me.

"Of course our hearts go out to them. But people are asking the blunt questions. Why leave them alone? Why remain here? The McCanns need closure, but so, too, do the people of Praia da Luz. A backlash has begun and I believe it could get ugly."

This weekend, Ms Rawcliffe has been proved correct.

Kate and Gerry McCann should have been preparing to board a flight back to England this morning with their two remaining children.

Instead, they will, once again, trudge to their local church, passing the posters, now torn and dog-eared, of their cherished Madeleine. They have vowed to remain in Portugal until they clear their names.

But, however astonishing it may seem, there appears to be a possibility that the couple whose anguish has touched the world may face charges of accidentally killing their child and disposing of her body.

Few in Britain will believe that they could have been involved: perhaps because that possibility, with all its implications, is too horrendous to contemplate.

Never more so than now will the McCann's motto of "Hope, Strength and Courage" be more important, or more vital, to their survival.


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