In Focus

What happened to Madeleine McCann? A timeline of the case

Suspect has parole request rejected 15 years on from toddler's disappearance

Madeleine McCann

On the 15th anniversary of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, her parents have said that “a truly horrific crime has been committed”.

Kate and Gerry McCann wrote that this year “feels no harder than any other but no easier either”. 

Their daughter went missing on a family holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal, on 3 May 2007. In a Facebook post uploaded last night, the couple included a quote from Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne which read: “But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”

Here is how the case has unfolded over the past 15 years.

3 May 2007

Gerry and Kate McCann, doctors from Leicestershire, were on holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal, with their three children – Madeleine, nearly four, and twins Sean and Amelie, two.

At 8.30pm, the McCanns left their sleeping children in their holiday apartment to meet friends for dinner at a tapas bar in the Ocean Club resort where they were all staying. When Kate returned to the apartment to check on the children at around 10pm, she discovered Madeleine’s bed was empty and the child had gone.

14 May 2007

British expat Robert Murat, who lived next to the resort where Madeleine went missing, was named as an “arguido” in the case following an anonymous tip-off. The Portuguese legal term, often translated as “suspect”, is closer to being a person questioned under caution.

Despite becoming the subject of lurid tabloid speculation, the IT consultant was never arrested over Madeleine’s disappearance.

7 September 2007

After further questioning of Madeleine’s parents, detectives also named them as “arguidos”, sparking widespread media speculation that the McCanns were complicit in their daughter’s disappearance.

21 July 2008

After declaring that all existing avenues of investigation had been exhausted, the Portuguese attorney general shelved the McCann case, and lifted the “arguido” status of the McCanns and Murat. Once cleared, all three won several hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel damages from British newspapers.

5 July 2010

The McCanns met with then-home secretary Theresa May to discuss the search for Madeleine, shortly after the third anniversary of their daughter’s disappearance.

12 May 2011

Following a request from May, Scotland Yard launched its own review of the case, known as Operation Grange.

25 April 2012

British detectives said they had reason to believe Madeleine could still be alive and released a computer-generated image of how she might look aged nine. However, Portuguese police declined to reopen the case on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

4 July 2014

Two years into its review, the Met confirmed that it had uncovered “genuinely new” lines of inquiry and 38 people of interest.

24 October 2014

Portuguese police reopened the case after their own review uncovered new leads.

28 April 2015

Goncalo Amaral, who led the investigation in 2007, was found guilty of libelling the McCanns in his 2008 book, The Truth of the Lie, and was ordered to pay €500,000.

28 October 2015

Having pursued 560 lines of inquiry, Operation Grange was scaled down from 29 full-time detectives to four. “By 2015 they had taken 1,338 statements, collected 1,027 exhibits and investigated 60 persons of interest, as well as 650 sex offenders,” The Sun reported.

4 December 2016

The Home Office agreed to extend funding of Operation Grange until April 2017 while detectives re-examined a previous theory that Madeleine could have been abducted by a European human trafficking gang. The funds were subsequently extended every six months.

February 2017

Supreme Court judges in Portugal ruled in favour of a lower court decision to overturn the McCanns’ 2015 libel win against Amaral.

27 March 2018

Investigating police confirmed that they had been granted further funding from the Home Office, bringing the total to over £11m.

15 March 2019

Netflix released a new documentary series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, reigniting speculation about her whereabouts. The eight-part series was widely criticised, with The Telegraph saying it “confirms that the true crime genre has become prisoner to its crassest tendencies”.

5 June 2019

The UK government said it would continue to fund the police investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance until March 2020.

3 June 2020

German investigators announced that a 43-year-old German man, who was in prison for raping a 72-year-old woman in 2005, in the same town where Madeleine went missing, was a new suspect in the case. The man was described as white with short blonde hair, about 6ft tall and with a slim build at the time. British media named him as Christian Brückner.

Police also released photos of two vehicles - a VW camper van and a Jaguar car - which are believed to be linked to the man, as well as a house in Portugal.

3 December 2020

Prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters admitted to the BBC that his team did not have enough evidence to charge Brückner, named only as Christian B in Germany for legal reasons.

15 June 2021

A letter was published in German tabloid Bild in which Brückner claimed German state prosecutors were mounting “a public campaign of prejudice” against him and called for their resignation. 

Brückner said that “charging a guilty person is one thing”, but “a wholly different thing, in fact an unbelievable scandal, is when a state prosecutor sets off a public campaign of prejudice even before the start of the main proceedings”.

The letter, which was written in what The Times describes as “a childlike, punctiliously neat script”, also included a “cartoon drawing of two German state prosecutors - possibly intended to be Wolters and Lindemann – in a pizza restaurant”.

The male figure is seen looking at the menu and saying: “I’ll have the forensics fillet” to which the female character replies: “Delicious! Me too!”

22 April 2022

Brückner was made an arguido in the McCann case by Portuguese police, although his lawyer noted that he had not been charged over the case.

2 May 2022

In an exclusive for Sky News, Martin Brunt reported that Brückner claimed he had an alibi for the date of Madeleine’s disappearance. “Christian B says he was having sex in his camper van with a woman at the time,” said Brunt. He said he drove the woman to the airport at Faro for a flight home the following day and was stopped and photographed at a police roadblock. German police apparently “found a photograph of the woman lying in his camper van” during their investigation of the 2005 rape for which he is behind bars, said Brunt.

He added: “If it’s true, the alibi would contradict vital, but circumstantial, evidence from mobile phone data masts that police say puts him close to the apartment from where Madeleine vanished.” German prosecutors said that so far Brückner had not offered them an alibi.

3 May 2022

Fifteen years on from Madeleine’s disappearance, the Daily Mirror reported that Brückner had been refused parole after serving half of his sentence for rape. Although he was eligible for parole, the “panel were thought to judge him at high risk of reoffending”, said the newspaper. “They concluded his 'social prognosis' meant he had to stay behind bars in the northern German city of Kiel.” 

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