In Depth

Madeleine McCann theories: what really happened?

Police still have no leads on toddler's disappearance 12 years ago

After twelve years and millions of pounds’ worth of funding, police remain no closer to uncovering the whereabouts of Madeleine McCann.

The toddler vanished from her bed at an Algarve holiday resort in May 2007 while her parents ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The circumstances of her disappearance and the ongoing mystery about her fate have intrigued armchair sleuths and conspiracy theorists alike.

New Netflix documentary The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann examines the evidence and interviews many of those involved with the case, who share their views and theories about what happened on that night in Praia da Luz.

Here are some of the most well known:

Parental involvement

Goncalo Amaral, the Portuguese detective who led the initial investigation, has said that he believes the McCanns were involved in their daughter’s death and then covered up the crime by disposing of her body and staging a break-in.

Subscribers to this theory point to seeming inconsistencies in the couple’s accounts as evidence of a cover-up.

The McCanns were named as suspects in the case in September 2007, after specially trained blood and cadaver dogs raised the alarm both in the holiday apartment and in the boot of a rental car hired by the couple weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance.

However, DNA testing of both spots subsequently failed to find a match to Madeleine, and the McCanns were dismissed as suspects in July 2008. 

Yet her parents are still viewed as suspects by some armchair detectives. The most popular explanation put forward is that the McCanns had sedated their children to ensure they would stay asleep while the adults went out to dinner, and that Madeleine died of an overdose or an adverse reaction to the medication.

That theory has been rubbished by Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt, who says it is hard to believe that seemingly loving parents and trained doctors would “choose not to raise the alarm, but instead dispose of their daughter’s body, and have the means to do so without a car and in a foreign country, before joining friends for dinner as though nothing had happened”.

Neither the initial investigation nor Scotland Yard’s long-running inquiry have ever found any evidence to implicate the McCanns in any wrongdoing.

Burglary gone wrong

Some believe Madeleine “may have been snatched after waking up and disturbing intruders”, reports The Daily Telegraph, which notes that there had been “a fourfold increase in the number of burglaries in [Praia da Luz] in the months running up to Madeleine’s disappearance”.

The rear patio doors had been left unlocked, which would have made the holiday flat an easy target for opportunistic burglars. If one or more intruders believed the apartment was empty, it is conceivable that they could have taken the girl in a panic after accidentally waking her up.

However, “such a spontaneous act is likely to lead to mistakes, a trail of evidence and detection”, says Sky News’ Brunt, who argues that the absence of any trace of the girl undermines the “burglary gone wrong” theory.

A tragic accident

Another theory suggests that Madeleine died in a tragic accident after wandering out of the holiday apartment.

The area around the Ocean Village resort where the family were staying was undergoing a lot of development in 2007, with multiple building sites nearby as well as ditches, storm drains and disused wells. This has led some commentators to speculate that she could have fallen to her death or come to some other mischance in the rugged terrain.

Others suggest that the toddler was struck by a car as she wandered along the poorly lit roads, and that the panicked driver removed the body and dumped it elsewhere to cover their tracks.

The theory has echoes of a similar lead in the case of Ben Needham, the 21-month-old British boy who vanished in 1991 while staying with his grandparents on the Greek island of Kos.

In September 2016, police received a tip-off that a now-deceased local man had accidentally killing Ben while driving a digger near the Needhams’ house and then buried the body.

Relatives of the man strongly denied the claims, and no proof has been found to corroborate the claim.


One particularly sinister theory is that Madeleine was snatched by a stranger who had been watching her and her family while they enjoyed their holiday, and who struck when the McCanns left the children unattended.

Supporters of this theory point to a string of sexual assaults on British girls on holiday with their families in the Algarve in the years leading up to Madeleine’s disappearance.

The intruder targeted children aged between seven and ten, breaking into holiday accommodation to assault his victims before fleeing, The Guardian reports. The man has never been identified.

The Daily Record reports that four witnesses saw an unidentified man hanging around the flat in Praia da Luz five times in the four days before McCann went missing. He was described as an “ugly, big-nosed man”.

The paper adds that two retired British detectives put together a portfolio of supposed evidence aimed at proving this theory, derived mostly from a 30,000-page report on the disappearance by Portuguese investigators.

The two detectives linked the supposed stalker with two reported sightings of a man carrying a blonde child in his arms on the night McCann disappeared.

Human traffickers

Rather than being snatched by a lone predator, others believe that Madeleine was stolen to order by a criminal gang.

Private detectives in 2007 claimed they had uncovered evidence that human trafficking “spotters” could have been operating in Praia da Luz at the time of the abduction.

Their theory is that Madeleine may have been “hidden and handed over to a child trafficker two days after she went missing and taken to Morocco”, the Daily Mirror reports. From there, she could have been smuggled to Mauritania, a hub for the trade in trafficked children.

Many people believe abduction by a skilled human trafficking gang is the “most logical explanation” for how Madeleine was able to vanish without a trace, says Sky News.

The McCann’s spokesperson, former BBC reporter Clarence Mitchell, says that this is his personal theory. “A child was taken to order from that room,” he told The Daily Telegraph last month.


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