Ten years have now passed since the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the British toddler who went missing from a holiday apartment in the Algarve region of Portugal while her parents dined with a group friends at a nearby tapas bar. Over the past decade, Madeleine’s story has captured the public’s imagination like no other missing person case, providing newspapers and social media users across the world with endless opportunities to speculate over the fate of the then three-year-old.
Soon after she vanished, police in Portugal suspected Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, of causing her death by accident, perhaps by giving her a lethal overdose of sedatives before stepping out for their evening meal. Since then, the passing of time has done little to quell endless rumour and conspiracy theories about what might have happened to Madeleine, who would now be aged 13.
Despite the lack of any credible evidence that might lead them to discover her fate, both British and Portuguese police doggedly continue to investigate Madeleine’s disappearance, prompting some observers to question why so many resources are still being thrown at a probe that seemingly shows such little promise of producing any results.
As the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance approached, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said that while the only four suspects the force had been investigating had been ruled out of having anything to do with Madeleine going missing, he still held out hope of uncovering the truth. Rowley told reporters the Met had one line of inquiry worth pursing, without specifying what that was.
Barring the possibility that somebody close to Madeleine might have been responsible for her disappearance, several theories about her fate persist.
Kidnapped by people smugglers
It has repeatedly been suggested that Madeleine was snatched by a people smuggling gang. As recently as April 2017, ex-Scotland Yard detective Colin Sutton told the Mirror she may have been stolen to order by African traffickers who sold her to a rich family. Sutton said gangs from the lawless West African state of Mauritania regularly sell abducted children to wealthy Middle Eastern families, having smuggled them out of Europe by ferry. The paper also claimed that a girl who looked identical to Madeleine had been spotted on a notorious smuggling route asking a man when she would see her mother.
In December 2016, the Sun on Sunday reported that police in Portugal were working closely with their colleagues in the UK after receiving a tip-off that Madeleine had been abducted by a European trafficking gang. The revelation came days after the British government confirmed it had decided to extend funding for Operation Grange, the UK investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance. Kate and Gerry McCann have long suspected their daughter was taken by people smugglers, and have regularly spoken with human trafficking organisations about the possibility.
Abducted by members of a paedophile ring
One of the more bizarre twists in the McCann case came in the summer of 2016, when it was suggested that British paedophile entertainer and former MP Clement Freud may have known what happened to Madeleine. Freud, who passed away in 2009 and had recently been unmasked as a serial abuser of children, owned a villa in the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz, from where Madeleine went missing. He is said to have attempted to strike up a friendship with the McCanns just months after their daughter vanished, inviting them to his home and exchanging a number of emails with the couple. The son of a woman who claimed she was molested by Freud when she was 14 told the Daily Mail he suspected the broadcaster had links to a paedophile ring in the Algarve that was responsible for Madeleine’s abduction, and that the now-disgraced writer had taken the secret of what happened to the toddler to his grave.
Years earlier, UK police were told Madeleine was taken by a members of an international paedophile ring who had been taking photographs of her just days before she disappeared. In August 2008, it was revealed that Scotland Yard had received an email that said Madeleine was stolen to order after members of the Belgian gang sent pictures of her back to fellow paedophiles in their home country. Sightings of Madeleine had been reported in Belgium before details of the email were made public, but these were later dismissed as unreliable.
Taken during a botched robbery
British police have suggested that Madeleine may have been kidnapped during an attempted robbery that went wrong. In April 2016, UK detectives said a member of a gang of thieves worked at the resort the McCanns were staying at when their daughter vanished. They said they believed the gang broke into the McCanns’ apartment and panicked when Madeleine woke up, prompting them to snatch the three-year-old in a bid to stop her identifying them. Officers said mobile phone records placed several members of the gang close to the McCanns’ apartment on the night Madeleine vanished, and that they were looking to question the suspects having already spoken to them on a previous occasion. Portuguese police refused to allow British officers to pursue the theory, citing a lack of evidence.