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Madeleine mystery fails to fade

Date

Neil Tweedie

The search for Madeleine McCann continues, Neil Tweedie writes

Kate and Gerry McCann holding an age-progressed police image of their daughter during a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, on May 2, 2012 in London, England.

Kate and Gerry McCann holding an age-progressed police image of their daughter during a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, on May 2, 2012 in London, England. Photo: Getty Images

The garden of Apartment 5A Rua Dr Agostinho da Silva, in the resort of Praia da Luz, is reasonably well maintained but, here and there, weeds poke up between the flowers. The property is unloved rather than neglected, preserved but not used, as if frozen in time.

Five years ago, a little girl, nine days shy of her fourth birthday, disappeared from this ground-floor holiday flat in the Algarve.

Madeleine McCann was, according to her parents, spirited away in the night by a kidnapper so bold that he, or she, was prepared to enter the property via a window as they dined with friends in a neighbouring restaurant.

Kate McCann, Madeleine's mother, describes the moment of discovery in her book, Madeleine. Explaining how, during the meal, she, her husband Gerry and a friend took it in turns to check on Madeleine and her twin brother and sister, sleeping together in one of two bedrooms, she writes: "When I realised Madeleine wasn't actually there, I went through to our bedroom to see if she'd got into our bed. That would explain the open (bedroom) door. On the discovery of another empty bed, the first wave of panic hit me. As I ran back into the children's room the closed curtains flew up in a gust of wind. My heart lurched as I saw now that, behind them, the window was wide open and the shutters on the outside raised all the way up. Nausea, terror, disbelief, fear. Icy fear. Dear God, no! Please, no!"

No trace of Madeleine McCann has been found since that night, despite the expenditure of vast amounts of effort, time and money.

Few disappearances have commanded such attention over such a long period of time. Like all great mysteries, it divides, between those who champion one explanation and those who favour another, darker one. It also occupies its own landscape: as the Kennedy assassination has the Texas Schoolbook Depository and the Grassy Knoll, so the Madeleine McCann disappearance has Flat 5A and the Ocean Club tapas restaurant, where the McCanns dined on that fateful night.

The people of Praia da Luz would prefer it otherwise. They have no wish to be a destination for ghouls – or journalists. For many of them, May 3, 2007, is a day they would rather forget, a blight on a resort known for being family-friendly and safe.

Some residents retain the sympathy for the McCanns that was universal in Portugal before they were declared arguidos, suspects. Others are hostile, accusing the British couple of everything from neglect to concealment of a death.

Most, though, are simply apathetic, wanting it all to go away.

"It's over," says Paul Luckman, publisher of the English-language newspaper in the Algarve, the Portugal News.

"It did have a short-term effect in terms of visitor numbers but this village has a long history of safety – nothing happened before and nothing has happened since. The shock factor has been replaced by apathy. Nobody is interested. The attitude is, 'It's gone, it's over, can we please get on with our lives?' "

In Portugal, perhaps, but not in Britain. Pressure from the McCanns and News International, which is said to have donated £1 million ($A1.56 million) to the Find Madeleine fund in return for exclusive access to Kate McCann's book, has led to a fresh inquiry by the Metropolitan Police. Authorised personally by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, Operation Grange has so far consumed £2 million and the services of 29 detectives and seven civilians. There is talk of 195 fresh leads and the possibility that Madeleine may yet be found alive.

Abduction is the favoured theory and a new portrait of the missing girl, as she would now appear, has been circulated. And still the sightings come in.

The account of Antonio Castela, a taxi driver in the Algarve, is typical of the leads being pursued by Scotland Yard.

He says that he picked up a girl resembling Madeleine and four adults the night after her disappearance, driving them to a hotel near Faro, where they got into a blue Jeep. Castela contacted the police but he was never questioned.

The authorities in Lisbon remain to be convinced by such accounts. They have undertaken their own review of the original investigation, widely criticised for its flaws, but as yet see no reason to re-activate it.

"The Portuguese police have been led down the garden path, with supposed new leads and red herrings," says Luckman, who is on close terms with some of the officers involved in the original inquiry. "There have been sightings from Brazil to Belgium and nothing has come of them. They are not against re-opening the case for a valid reason. I can't blame them for saying they have more valuable things to do."

British criticism of Portugal's handling of the case has left a bitter taste, Luckman says.

"The people here are charming and friendly and they have taken a lot of stick," he says. "Everybody in this village turned out for the search and police worked overtime for no pay. Yes, mistakes were made, but they genuinely thought they were searching for a child who had wandered off.

"The main criticism aimed at the parents is that they left their children alone and uncared for. For Portuguese people, that is almost impossible to understand."

The restaurant where the McCanns and their friends ate and drank that night is now a pizzeria. Stand by the swimming pool and look towards 5A and you are struck by how far away the apartment is. The view of its rear entrance is almost obscured and the three children were sleeping in the bedroom on the far side of the building. It is difficult to believe that a crying child could be heard from that distance.

The McCanns are not only pursuing the search for their daughter; they are also pursuing Goncalo Amaral, head of the original inquiry. His book, The Truth of the Lie, accuses the McCanns of complicity in their daughter's death. The British couple are now suing Amaral for libel. 

The case, due in court in September, will not result in the couple being put in the witness box, however.

Isabel Duarte, the lawyer fighting the case for the McCanns, says: "My clients are no longer arguidos, they are not defendants in a criminal trial, and have the right to be respected. Mr and Mrs McCann will not have to give statements because Mr Amaral did not ask for them."

Amaral, who is reputed to have earned £300,000 from sales of the book after resigning from the police, is believed nevertheless to have declared bankruptcy. The McCanns have not pursued the option, available to them under Portuguese law, of mounting a criminal prosecution for libel against the former detective.

Praia da Luz is quiet now. The weather is still changeable and the British families and pensioners who flock here for the sun have yet to arrive in any numbers. The streets are almost deserted, lending the place a melancholy air.

The reputation of Apartment 5A goes before it.

Put on the market by its owner, Ruth McCann (no relation to the McCanns), it was later withdrawn from sale. The flat's proximity did not deter Lesley Peeke-Vout, from Newcastle, from buying a neighbouring ground-floor property.

"Very few people rent 5A," says Peeke-Vout. "I haven't seen anyone in it since last year. We bought [our apartment] three years ago. I knew about what had gone on but it didn't bother me. We like the position."

She believes Madeleine's disappearance has had a negative effect on Praia da Luz, but that the current problem for the resort is recession and cuts in family-holiday budgets.

"The locals don't like to talk about what happened in 2007," she says. "They think it damages their business."

Last Thursday, a vigil was held in the resort's Catholic church, Nossa Senhora da Luz, to mark the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Candles were lit and prayers said at 9pm.

The church is available to the Anglican community in the resort and Haynes Hubbard, the Canadian vicar who ministers to the area, attended. He and his wife became friends of the McCanns in the days after the disappearance of their child and are still close. Hubbard has no doubt about their innocence.

"Kate comes every six months or so," he says. "She needs to walk the streets she last walked with her daughter, to touch base, to look at the apartment and visit the church. She needs to know something is still here. Gerry comes less often – he is busy.

"We arrived from Canada with our young children two days after Madeleine was taken. It was absolute bedlam. We walked into their chaos. We were with people who had lost their daughter. They weren't people who had done something to their daughter, they were looking for their daughter. They were driven then and they are driven now."

The Daily Telegraph, London

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