After three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared on a family vacation in Portugal, her parents pursued a high-stakes strategy: media saturation. It succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings—winning the aid of everyone from J. K. Rowling to the Pope—and failed miserably. Getting the first in-depth interview with Gerry McCann since he and his wife, Kate, were declared suspects, the author re-traces their footsteps to their daughter’s empty bed.
by Judy Bachrach WEB EXCLUSIVE January 10, 2008
Kate and Gerry McCann appealed to Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, four weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance. Felici SNC/Grazia Neri/Polaris.
On a hot day last September, four months after their daughter, Madeleine, almost four, vanished from a sleepy resort town in Portugal during a family vacation, Kate and Gerry McCann, both British doctors, opened their villa door to a local policeman.
The policeman’s name was Ricardo, and he had been, relatively speaking, on friendly terms with the couple. He knew their circumstances. Their lives, heavy with grief since their daughter’s disappearance, had undergone a few small improvements. Kate had grown shockingly thin, but at least she was eating regular meals.
This time, however, the bearing of the detective from the Policia Judiciária was different. And the McCanns were not entirely surprised. “Because for months they used to have regular weekly meetings with the Portuguese police, and then they stopped,” recalls Gerry’s older sister Trish Cameron, who was in the villa at the time. Also, without the McCanns’ knowledge or consent, the police had photocopied Kate’s diary, examined her borrowed Bible, and removed Gerry’s laptop.
“Do you have something to tell us?” Ricardo asked, dramatically.
“No,” Kate replied. “Do you have something to tell us?”
He nodded. “Yes. You are being made arguidos.” He was using the Portuguese word for “formal suspects.”
It was at that point, Trish says, that her sister-in-law became incandescent with rage, screaming, “Do you honestly believe that I would murder my own child?”
“No,” said the policeman.
The Portuguese police, as they informed the world through calculated leaks to their own media, simply believed that Gerry, a Scottish cardiologist, and Kate, a general practitioner, both 39, were lying when they said their daughter had been abducted from their resort villa the night of May 3. Authorities now suspected the McCanns were somehow responsible for their daughter’s death and the disposal of her body, though in what manner no one seems to know. Local incinerators have been scoured, to no avail. The $4 million reward for information leading to Madeleine’s recovery; the televised pleas by the McCanns; the hiring of Control Risks Groups, a security firm whose directors included former S.A.S. commander Sir Michael Rose; the Find Madeleine Web site visited by more than 80 million people in three months after the disappearance—these, the police believed, were all red herrings.
And for a long time the global media were of the same opinion. “Could Kate and Gerry McCann have had a hand in their own child’s disappearance?” People magazine asked in September. By October, Britain’s Daily Mail had an answer: new dna tests “put the mccanns back under suspicion.” Body fluids found in a car rented by the McCanns 25 days after Madeleine disappeared, it was subsequently reported, matched 88 percent of the child’s genetic profile. (A problem with this information, British DNA specialist Nigel Hodge informs me, is that most genetic profiles are based on 20 DNA components. “And 88 is not divisible by 20,” he says flatly. Moreover: “If there are DNA components that do not match, the DNA could not come from that person.”)
A photo of Madeleine taken on May 3, 2007, the day she disappeared. Kate McCann/PA Photos/Landov.
Undaunted, the tabloids summoned up yet another genetic fantasy: maddie: who’s her daddy? asked the Daily Star in October, implying that Gerry is not Madeleine’s biological father. (The girl was conceived through in-vitro fertilization.) As the news industry trumpeted All Madeleine All the Time, and Barbara Walters and Oprah clamored for interviews, Kate’s elegant face grew more gaunt in each tabloid photo. Meanwhile, a British poll revealed that 48 percent of all respondents believed the couple could have been responsible for their daughter’s death. Only 20 percent considered them completely innocent.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Gerry says bitterly. “Kate killed her in a frenzy, Madeleine was sedated by us, she fell down the stairs—in which case you would have thought they’d have found her body. I’ve heard all that! There have been a huge number of theories in the media. But what I want to know is—who told them all that?”
In fact, much of what is aired or printed about the vanished girl and her parents is mendacious, mistaken, or just plain conflicting: according to the press, to various detectives, and to top Portuguese authorities, the child is alternatively alive in Morocco (or maybe Portugal or Bosnia) or dead, killed one moment by kidnappers and in other instances by family. In all these hypotheses the supporting facts are invented, from the reason for Kate’s lack of public emotion to the first acts of the Portuguese police (dubbed “the Keystone Cops” and “Butt Heads” by reporters). Thus, the media has managed to rob the McCanns of their daughter a second time. And to complicate matters, it was Gerry McCann himself who, two days after Madeleine’s disappearance, ignited the media conflagration that is now consuming the couple.
It is Gerry who is behind what he tells me is “the marketing … a high public awareness” of Madeleine. At his side while we talk is Clarence Mitchell, a voluble former government media analyst and BBC reporter, handpicked by Gerry to be the latest in a line of spokesmen. On October 17, Mitchell spoke at Coventry University. His topic: “Missing Madeleine McCann: The Perfect PR Campaign.” Except that it has been anything but perfect.
It has in fact been so counterproductive that, as winter approached, Portuguese attorney general Fernando Pinto Monteiro suggested that one way or another the McCanns were responsible for their child’s death. Specifically he said that if indeed Madeleine had been kidnapped, it was the carefully contrived publicity engineered by her parents that likely sealed her fate. “With the whole world having Madeleine’s photo,” he observed, any abductor would have been pushed to such a degree that “there’s a greater probability of the little girl being dead than alive.”
And with this last devastating conclusion—namely that Madeleine will likely never reappear—Madeleine’s own father haltingly agrees.
Gerry McCann has vivid blue eyes set in an impassive face, and a jaw that has grown more angular and prominent as the tragedy has unfolded and almost seven pounds have melted from his frame. There are those, including a onetime close associate, who find him difficult and controlling, feeling he has the trademark arrogance and self-regard of many surgeons. And his judgment is certainly questionable. In the fall, for instance, it emerged that the McCanns had made two mortgage payments from the $2.4 million fund set up to find Madeleine. But months of anguish have taken their toll, and now there is mainly resignation.
When the policeman came to their door with the bad news that they were now suspects, Gerry simply asked him to leave. “Why shoot the messenger? I felt that saying anything more was not going to change what happened,” he says.
Kate, however, cannot help replaying the circumstances that led to the child’s disappearance—the work, she is certain, of a mysterious abductor. “I will tell you what I haven’t told anyone,” says Jon Corner, a family friend. “In August, I was with Kate in Portugal. She told me, ‘I wish I could roll back time and go back to the day before Madeleine was abducted. I would slow down time. I would get a really good look around and have a really good think. And I’d think: Where are you? Who are you? Who is secretly watching my family? Because someone was watching my family very, very carefully. And taking notes.’ ”
“That’s a logical conclusion for anyone who knows anything about what happened to us,” Gerry says briskly. This is his first detailed and candid interview since being declared a suspect, and so great is his loathing of most journalists that it takes place in utter secrecy near his home, in Leicestershire. In a country inn lined with portraits of ladies in powdered wigs, a polite manager points the way to the back exit, in the event other reporters drop by.
While front-page stories about the McCanns sell newspapers—up to 30,000 extra copies a day—perhaps because they happen to be a handsome, prosperous couple wrecked by tragedy (“Let’s face it: if Kate were fat and spotty and aging, they wouldn’t be selling all these papers,” says Trish), the British media believe that sales don’t really soar unless the couple is accused of villainy. “The last equivalent story was probably the Second World War,” observed a columnist for The Guardian. When, in November, Panorama, a BBC newsmagazine show, bought the same five-month-old footage of the McCanns (shot by a family friend) as ABC’s 48 Hours and repackaged it, viewership rose by 2 million, to 5.3 million.
In this search for villainy, the British tabloids are aided by the most unlikely ally: the Portuguese police, who are often the sources for some of the more outrageous allegations, unquestioningly swallowed by the Portuguese media.
“No, the leak about [Madeleine’s] DNA not being compatible with Gerry’s is not malicious, not at all,” a Portuguese journalist tells me sarcastically, referring to the who’s her daddy? headline, before turning deadly earnest. “It is revenge, pure and simple. Because the British attack our police as stupid. And backward. And incompetent. Because they say we are a primitive country and our laws are primitive!”
The Portuguese police “don’t want to be portrayed as a leather-jacketed, swearing bunch of fat, greasy villains who beat people up with rubber hoses,” one of the most active in the McCann camp tells me, and yet this is exactly how they have been portrayed.
Thus the Madeleine frenzy, which began as a story about bad judgment and irretrievable loss, has spun out of control, each day bringing fresh allegations, outrage, celebrity alliances—the Pope! J. K. Rowling! David Beckham!—and sensational links to power. At the E.U. summit in mid-October, for instance, British prime minister Gordon Brown, who had regularly been in touch with the McCanns, raised the Madeleine issue with Portuguese prime minister José Sócrates, urging “proper cooperation between the British and Portuguese police.” Gerry’s allies were jubilant.
And yet this high-powered strategy has also backfired. There appears to be massive resentment among the Portuguese. Although Madeleine’s photo is posted at Heathrow, it is nowhere to be found at Faro, the airport nearest the seaside village from which she disappeared.
Shortly after the McCanns hired a team of Spanish private investigators, in early October, word leaked out that the Portuguese police had stopped their search for Madeleine (at least temporarily). Nothing the parents have done has worked out right.
“The McCanns have completely changed the way we now look for missing children—it used to be you go to the police; now it means you go to the media, to celebrities,” says a disapproving Scotland Yard specialist in abused children.
“There are many cases in the world of children who have disappeared,” Portuguese national police chief Alípio Ribeiro recently complained. “But none have this external component, this massive public exposure, that gives it a fantastic, almost surreal dimension.”
The McCanns are both reviled and pitied, occasionally in the same breath. Madeleine’s face has appeared on movie screens, on cell phones, in e-mails, in airports, in health centers, and on British Airways planes. “So the strategy we used,” says Gerry, “well—somehow something caught the public’s imagination.” But it has not caught their daughter’s abductor.
The McCanns are also fairly sure their phones are monitored not only by the British police, who are waiting to see if a kidnapper calls, but also by Portuguese authorities. “It’s quite possible,” acknowledges Gerry’s older brother, John McCann, a pharmaceutical salesman who lives in Glasgow. “Because there’s information that’s been appearing in the press that you’d have to think, How did that get into the public domain? Because it wasn’t us releasing it. Every now and again, amidst all the speculation and rumor and outright lies, there’s been a grain of truth.”
“What happened in the last two months has clearly polarized people,” Gerry says slowly. “People can support you in your darkest hours, and in our case the darkest hour was of course when Madeleine went missing.”
And now, I wonder, with all the polarization?
“And now it is just”—he swallows hard—“bleak.”
Praia da Luz (population 1,000) is regularly described, with reason, as “a little Britain.” The same could be said of the entire Algarve, the southern Portuguese province in which the village is situated, which was partially ransacked in the late 16th century by the Earl of Essex. That tradition is now carried on by more than 50,000 British property owners in the area. Signs are in English, and every other commercial establishment proclaims itself an “Irish pub,” which means Carling beer and, on Sundays, shoulder of lamb and “Yorkie pud.” At 10 o’clock one very warm morning, four beet-red Englishmen sampling lagers in an outdoor café steps away from the turquoise sea are being scolded by their desperate guide: “You are always drunk before noon!”
New security guards, in burgundy berets and black military pants, now ring portions of the Ocean Club resort, where the McCanns were staying until mid-September. The village is quite desolate. The heart went out of it last May.
For almost a week last spring, the McCanns’ holiday routine was unvarying. After high tea, at 5:30 p.m., Madeleine and her two-year-old twin siblings, Sean and Amelie, would be retrieved by their parents from the kids’ club. Two hours later the children were put to bed back in their own room in an unprepossessing corner villa, its two entrances bordered by terra-cotta tile and a small white wall covered with pink bougainvillea. The back door, reached by a gate and a flight of steps, was left unlocked.
Then the McCanns would join seven friends at the resort’s tapas bar, close by the swimming pool, an area described by Gerry as “like being at the bottom of your garden.… You could see our apartment from where we were.” You can indeed glimpse the very top part. However, in order to see anyone entering through the back, one would have to dine standing up. The other entrance to the villa is not visible at all.
At intervals, members of the group (since dubbed “the Tapas Nine”) checked on one another’s children, although this method was imperfect. The night of May 3, Gerry checked on Madeleine, fast asleep in her pink-and-white Winnie the Pooh pajamas, and the twins, at 9:05, but the friend who next checked on the McCann children said afterward that he did not actually see Madeleine.
Thus the most important clue to the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance was initially ignored. At around 9:15, another friend, Jane Tanner, emerged from her own villa to see a white man in beige trousers—five feet six, brown hair (longer in the back), and perhaps 35, she later told the police. In his arms he cradled a child wearing pink-and-white pajamas.
It wasn’t until Kate walked into the villa at 10 and felt a sickening breeze—the front window had been jimmied open—that she realized something terrible had happened. “The scene was stark,” Gerry tells me. On one bed the twins lay sleeping. In the next lay only the plush cat toy Madeleine was never without. That was when Kate came out screaming, “Madeleine has gone!”
In subsequent moments, she seems to have added, “They’ve taken her! We have let her down!” This was the version Sheena Rawcliffe, the managing director of The Resident, a local English-language newspaper, quickly learned, albeit secondhand, and the phrasing puzzled her. What was meant by “They”? It was the first element to ignite suspicion in the Portuguese press, but not the only one. What kind of parents would go out to eat and leave their small children alone in the room, especially in a country where restaurants welcome children, the local press wondered. Why didn’t they hire one of the resort’s babysitters? What child can actually fall asleep at 7:30 p.m.? In Portugal, as in many Latin countries, bedtime for even small kids might be as late as 10.
Moreover, Rawcliffe says, “If my child were missing, I wouldn’t think right away he was abducted. I would think, Where has the little bugger gone?”
But the McCanns were certain of their suspicions. “Wee Madeleine knows better than to wander away,” another of Gerry’s sisters, Philomena McCann, recalls him saying. And besides, the child was too small to open the window and crawl out. Gerry spent the night scouring the village for his daughter, and talking on his cell phone to relatives.
“Well, never in my life had I heard my wee brother so devastated,” says Philomena, who lives in Ullapool, in northern Scotland. “He was absolutely wailing on the phone. He was incomprehensible at times.”
“It’s all my fault, because Kate and I went out to dinner,” he wept to Philomena, who was stunned. She adds, “My wee brother is not a person who panics—he and Kate are very measured people, usually. That’s when I knew how bad things were.”
At 4:30 in the morning, when the search was temporarily called off, the McCanns found a policeman by their door, smoking, seemingly unworried. “Help me, please help me!” a frantic Kate sobbed into her cell phone to a childhood friend. The police had done nothing overnight, she added; the couple were all alone with no one to turn to.
That same morning, Gerry’s sister Trish phoned the BBC in Glasgow and sent photos of the beautiful little girl who had vanished from the resort. “The day after Madeleine was abducted, as Kate and I left the police station, there were 150 journalists in front of it,” Gerry recalls. “Alex Woolfall [the McCanns’ first spokesperson] explained to me that either I interact with the media or we would be hounded by the press.”
Actually, reporters noticed, Gerry seemed to interact avidly. Within a week, the media ranks in the tiny village swelled to 200: Dutch, German, Spanish, and Portuguese nudging their British and American counterparts. Until very recently, Sky News covered the story in such depth that the top three offerings on its Web site were “UK News,” “Madeleine,” and “World News.” The Portuguese police had never seen anything like it.
In the months following the child’s disappearance, the supposed incompetence of the Portuguese police was the subject of many devastating articles in the press, with an attitude wryly summed up by the Scotland Yard detective as “Johnny Dago is not good enough to do it.” This was at the precise time that, as Gerry explains, “we were relying on the Portuguese to find Madeleine, and it was not helpful at all.” However, since the media were, without a doubt, fed in part by the McCann camp, it is hard to know whom to blame.
It wasn’t true, for instance, that there were no fingertip searches performed at the villa, as reported by one British tabloid, or that the shutters were contaminated in the investigation, as reported by another; two on-the-scene reporters claim that personnel in Portuguese C.S.I. uniforms were seen taking fingerprints from those shutters early on, and then dispatched them to the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal in Porto and Coimbra. Nor did police treat Madeleine’s disappearance lightly.
As Woolfall explains, when he arrived a day and a half after Madeleine had vanished: “There were lots of police, I have to say. There is a big emphasis placed on children and family in Portugal. There was no doubt there was a massive effort trying to find her. And you had Portuguese policemen canceling leave and working over weekends.”
On the other hand, the moment police investigate a crime in Portugal, the country’s judicial-secrecy laws basically shroud everything—facts, names, suspects, witnesses—in a blanket of silence. Police press conferences are almost nonexistent; information is usually obtained only through leaks. (In Madeleine’s case, the police appointed a spokesperson, but after being kept clueless by his colleagues, he ultimately resigned.) There are other drawbacks—for example, Portugal has no DNA data banks or national missing-child alerts.
Moreover, Praia da Luz is not the ideal venue for a topflight criminal investigation. Gonçalo Amaral, who for five months was the senior detective in the case, is himself involved in another legal battle. He is accused of covering up a beating by his subordinates of a Portuguese woman who was ultimately convicted of killing her own child. Locally there are no cadaver dogs trained in tracking human blood or remains; after Madeleine vanished, local residents actually used household pets under the guidance of police with drug-sniffing dogs. “Let me tell you, I know a lot about detective dogs, and I don’t know why the police would want anyone bringing their pets to assist,” says Robert Tucker, who runs a New York security firm.
“One of the things the McCanns very much wanted was a forensic sketch of the man the witness saw carrying the girl wearing pink-and-white pajamas,” recalls Justine McGuinness, an early spokesperson for the McCanns. In the vital first months, their pleas went unanswered. In addition, newspapers claimed the sheets on Madeleine’s bed were never sent for analysis.
Besides, by May 15 the police (with the help of a suspicious British journalist from the Sunday Mirror) believed they had found their man: Robert Murat, a mild, slightly plump Englishman of 33 with a detached retina who lives with his mother in a large villa with a lush garden three minutes from the resort. He was declared an arguido—a status he holds to this day, along with the McCanns—and brought in to the police station for 19 hours of interrogation, say his relatives, with no food or sleep.
There, I learn on good authority, three of the Tapas Nine were put into a room with Murat, and each of them identified him as a man they’d seen hanging about the resort in the hours after Madeleine vanished. One of the witnesses, Fiona Payne, told police she’d actually seen him behind the McCanns’ villa that night, and recalled his “dodgy eye.” Another, Russell O’Brien, claimed Murat had said he spoke Portuguese as well as English, which is in fact the case. The McCann friends were not alone in their suspicions. By late December it emerged that three other witnesses claimed to have seen Murat near the McCanns’ villa apartment the night of the abduction.
It is part of the odd dynamic of this story that when I phone Sally Eveleigh, Murat’s cousin, who also lives in Praia da Luz, her first remark is that she cannot utter a syllable about Murat without the O.K. of her British press agent, the famously rambunctious Max Clifford. And when his blessing is secured, her second is: “Wonderful, darling, see you shortly. Robert can’t talk to you, because he’s an arguido. But we’ll have a bit of a party, won’t we?”
When I arrive at her massive house, lined with rosy tile and Moroccan rugs, Sally greets me in floor-length blue voile trimmed with pretty stones. And the party includes Murat: five feet 10 inches, dark-haired, wearing beige trousers, serving us tea, wine, and cigarettes.
“All I can say,” says Murat, “is that I am innocent. There is no way I was at the resort that night. Full stop. I was in my mother’s kitchen until one a.m. Yes, we are a kitchen kind of family. I spent the night at the house.” As an arguido he cannot reveal more. But he does drive me around and point out the major landmarks of the case. “That’s the apartment from which Madeleine vanished,” he says. “That’s my mother’s villa.” The police ransacked the place four months ago and came up with nothing.
‘I wish I hadn’t gone to the tapas bar. I wish I’d stayed in the apartment that night. I wish I’d stayed in the room when I checked on her five minutes longer,” Gerry recalls thinking in the days that followed his child’s disappearance. The world, he says, was “all black, with maybe tiny points of light.” The company that owns the resort sent Alan Pike, a trauma counselor, over from Britain, and he spoke to the couple every day for two weeks. Initially, the counselor tells me, he found the couple “catatonic.” They were certain Madeleine was dead.
But pessimism, the counselor knew, inhibits action. Moreover, he adds, “they still needed to be a mother and father to two other children.”
“Remind yourself of the evidence: there is nothing yet to demonstrate that Madeleine has died,” Pike told the McCanns. It’s time, he added, to take control of the things you can.
Gerry felt re-invigorated by such advice. “We can’t cry our eyes out every day, because that’s not helping,” he says. “So after three days I picked myself up—quicker than Kate could.”
Indeed, Woolfall recalls Gerry’s saying shortly after he arrived, “My biggest fear is that this could be a weekend story: british girl taken from portuguese resort—a terrible story! And then that’s it.” The fickleness of the media, Woolfall adds, had Gerry worried. They might so easily “move on to something else,” Gerry told him. Gradually a strategy was devised: stories, pictures, and exotic destinations were woven together, permanently enrapturing the press and luring it into a long, sleepless vigil.
By the end of May, an audience with the Pope had been arranged through the Westminster office of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The couple and a pool of reporters flew direct from Praia da Luz to the Pontiff in a Learjet belonging to the British billionaire Sir Philip Green.
Other celebrities were just as carefully selected and eagerly appealed to: J. K. Rowling, in part, Gerry explains, because the Harry Potter author had lived in Portugal for a time. Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo, because he is Portuguese, and Gerry used to play soccer himself. David Beckham—another Gerry idea—who was living in Spain at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance. Experts in child abduction had informed the McCanns that Madeleine was very likely still somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula.
The media were constantly sought out. Reporters followed the McCanns on trips to Washington (where then U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales met with the couple); to Morocco—just in case Madeleine had been taken there—where they met with Charki Draiss, director-general of national security; and to Amsterdam, where the McCanns had once lived. If the networks needed fresh footage, they would be told the exact time the McCanns might be walking to church in Praia da Luz.
So, as it turned out, this was not a weekend story. As time went by, Gerry explains that although “grief washes over you—it’s like a big wave, mostly I was able to beat it back.” The industry he poured into the search jolted him out of depression.
But Kate wasn’t buoyed. From time to time, she would turn to friends and offer a wistful half-plea—“I hope whoever has Madeleine is giving her blankets … is feeding her properly … is keeping her warm.” Not really absorbing at first, her confidant explains, “what kind of person this was.”
Eventually, though, the probable nature of the abductor was brought home to her in the most explicit and horrifying way. Never talk about Madeleine’s preferences to the press, British police warned the McCanns, because whatever Madeleine most loves—a favorite cartoon, say—could be used as a tool for manipulation by her kidnapper.
Madeleine’s mother was also warned not to weep in public. “That was one of the things they were told right from the beginning,” McGuinness reveals. “Don’t show any emotion, because whoever took the child could get off on that, and take it out on the child. Or the abductor might find tears stimulating in some way. Appalling when you’re being told not to show any emotion in public and your daughter is abducted!”
Appalling and, as it turned out, dangerous for the couple. The P.R. campaign was actually backfiring, regarded by many as slick and, given the gravity of the McCanns’ loss, at times downright strange. “I always wanted to meet the pope,” a British reader e-mailed The Resident newspaper, “and now I know how.” Portuguese police made note of Kate’s seeming stoicism in front of the press—the tearless face. They also marveled at the powerful allies the McCanns had accumulated.
“Why are these people able to put together the biggest media campaign ever, from the Pope to the White House?” asks Paulo Reis, a Portuguese freelance journalist who writes a blog about Madeleine, and with considerable authority: he seems to have excellent contacts in law enforcement. “Why are they all coming out strongly defending the McCanns? Who are the McCanns?” he wonders.
Kate and Gerry McCann are both Roman Catholic, the children of carpenters, and products of Scottish medical training, but there the resemblance ends. Gerry, the youngest of five children, is by far the more ambitious and confident of the couple, secure always in the knowledge, as his sister Philomena explains, “that he was absolutely the pet of the family.” As a result, his brother, John, tells me, he grew up “very sociable, always involved in clubs—football clubs, athletic clubs. He likes mixing with people. And like most of us in the family, quite competitive.”
Kate Healy, a deeply religious only child from Liverpool, once confided to her sister-in-law, “There were too many times when I’ve been alone,” and that solitude evidently left its mark. On meeting her in 1992 the boisterous McCanns found her, John recalls, “reserved.” (Although this reserve was apparently not impenetrable. At the University of Dundee, as the Mail on Sunday recently discovered, Kate’s nickname was “Hot Lips Healy,” and she was renowned, according to her yearbook, for leading friends astray during “alcoholic binges.” When asked about this recently by a friend, Kate groaned and said, “My God! I hope they don’t get the rest of that part of my life.”)
At first, she was not deeply impressed by Gerry, refusing even to go out with him. In 1996, she moved to New Zealand to work as an anesthesiologist in a hospital, and it was only when an impassioned Gerry followed her that the family realized the relationship was serious. They married in 1998 and settled initially in Glasgow.
There Kate shifted career course, abandoning anesthesiology for the regular hours and relatively modest pay of a general practitioner. “To be honest, I don’t think Kate is ambitious,” Philomena says. “The career wasn’t as important to her as having a family.”
That family, however, took years to materialize. There were two rounds of in-vitro fertilization, culminating in Madeleine: “As close to a perfect child as you can get,” says Gerry. Less than two years later another round resulted in the twins—born after a very difficult pregnancy, during which, Philomena says, Kate was confined to her bed for months and almost lost them.
“To be perfectly honest, Kate continued to work as a doctor simply for the economics of it,” says Philomena. “Even though she ended up working only one and a half days a week, that money made a big difference to them. Gerry could have managed to support them all, but it would have been difficult, a stretch for him.”
The press has regularly portrayed the couple as far wealthier. Huge emphasis has been put on the large, $1.2 million neo-Georgian-style house in Rothley, Leicestershire, into which the couple moved in 2006.
“People may think, Ooh, these rich middle-class McCanns,” John says bitterly. “Well, these rich middle-class McCanns have studied for donkey’s years, made loads of sacrifices, and put themselves through a lot of inconvenience to get where they are just now. For Catholics, we’ve got a strong Protestant work ethic!” He shakes his head when asked about how things used to be for the couple.
“Everything going for them, perfect family. And as we all know from great bits of literature, sometimes the fates intervene to ruin perfection,” he says. But philosophy fails him when he thinks of Madeleine. “This is our wee girl. My niece! Their darling daughter, for Christ’s sake!”
“So beautiful, astonishingly bright, and I’d have to say very charismatic. She would shine out of a crowd,” family friend Jon Corner says of the child. “So—God forgive me—maybe that’s part of the problem. That special quality. Some bastard picked up on that.”
As months went by, the McCanns turned desperate. There they were, still in Praia da Luz, with nothing to show for it. “We had been trying to persuade Kate to come home,” recalls Gerry’s sister Trish. “But they lived in dread that if Madeleine turned up in Portugal and they weren’t there, it would be horrible.”
Although initially reluctant, the McCanns finally informed the media of Madeleine’s unique right eye—a risky revelation. Whoever had taken the child now held a universally recognizable little girl.
Gerry understood that. But, he says, the iris “is Madeleine’s only true distinctive feature. Certainly we thought it was possible that this could potentially hurt her or”—he grimaces—“her abductor might do something to her eye.… But in terms of marketing, it was a good ploy.”
On the 100th day of her disappearance, however, the marketing of Madeleine came to a halt. On August 11, the police spokesman, Olegário de Sousa, gave an interview to the BBC in which he said clues had been found “that could point to the possible death of the little child.”
The McCanns were livid. They had entertained this idea, but their fears had been partially allayed during their July trip to see the U.S. attorney general. “We learned in Washington that there are plenty of cases where peoples’ children were discovered after two years!” says McGuinness. “And some cases where people’s children were discovered after four years.” That, she adds, is what “kept Kate going.”
But the police felt they had good reason to suspect the child was dead. They had borrowed a pair of springer spaniels trained by South Yorkshire police to smell particles of blood so minute they are invisible to humans. The animals seemed to have picked up the scent of a corpse on Kate’s trousers and on the key fob of the couple’s rental car. (The McCann camp claimed that as a doctor Kate had been near corpses, but since she is a general practitioner the press scoffed at the explanation.)
More than any other evidence, it was the surprising reaction of the dogs from Britain that led Portuguese police to declare the couple official suspects. The investigators thought they had other clues: there was DNA possibly belonging to Madeleine in the McCann car, rented 25 days after the child vanished, but as that car had at various times contained the missing girl’s hairbrushes and sandals, and the soiled diapers of her siblings, the evidence is not wholly conclusive. Moreover, forensic DNA specialist Nigel Hodge, who has investigated more than 1,000 criminal cases, tells me that, in very rare instances, “it is possible for sisters to have the same DNA profile.”
In mid-September, Kate and Gerry were brought in separately to a dingy four-story police station for questioning—Kate first, for 11 hours, and on the next day 7 more. The questioning was interminable, says Trish, who was at the station, in part because “there was no interpreter. At one point there were six people in front of Kate—cops and a lawyer—and they were all just speaking Portuguese!”
Finally, she adds, Kate was given a long list of interpreters, many of whom lived 200 miles away in Lisbon, and told to choose. “Kate was furious at that as well,” Trish recalls.
Over and over again, I am told by a McCann family member, Kate was shown footage of the dogs. It was the animals’ reaction to the scent inside the McCanns’ rental car that particularly interested the authorities.
But the police had more on their minds, as they informed Kate. From what they’d read of her diary, she was clearly a stressed-out mother. Her children were difficult to put to sleep, weren’t they? They needed sedatives to sleep, perhaps? Maybe that’s how Madeleine died? Will you confess, they asked.
Then the police went over a passage from the borrowed Bible found in Kate’s villa: verses in the second Book of Samuel, Chapter 12. The page containing the passage was crumpled. The verses in question deal with the illness and death of King David’s child, a tragedy that occurs after David “scorned the Lord.” Obviously such a page had meaning for her, the police said.
To compound matters, one of Kate’s lawyers, Carlos Pinto de Abreu, relayed to her that if she confessed to having inadvertently killed her daughter and disposing of the corpse, things might go easier. Her jail term might even be as little as two years.
“I’m not going to fucking lie!” Kate barked. The next day she stopped answering a fair number of police questions. “She had already answered some of them,” says Trish. “And her lawyer told her she didn’t have to answer questions.”
“As I suppose you know,” Pike, the trauma counselor, tells me, “the police told her during the interviews that her other two children might be taken away.”
It was time to go home, Gerry decided by September 9. But not alone.
“When Gerry and Kate were about to go home to Britain, Gerry phoned Sky News and said, ‘We’re going home on EasyJet, be on it!’ ” recalls Esther Addley, who has written incisively about the McCanns for The Guardian.
On the couple’s return, there was further pain to contend with. More than 17,000 people had signed a petition suggesting that Leicestershire social services investigate them for leaving their three small children completely alone in the villa.
‘At the time we did it, it was not irresponsible!” Gerry snaps. It is the one subject on which he is quite defensive, arguing first one way, then conceding the opposite: “Of course we feel guilty about not having been there, and that is just something we have to deal with for the rest of our lives. You are not asking anything we don’t think about on a daily basis. We live this 24 hours a day.” His lips twist as he struggles for composure. “But I can’t talk to you about the details of what happened. I live under threat from the Portuguese—if I do talk—of two years’ imprisonment.” He smiles grimly. “It seems to be the same sentence as disposing of a child’s body.”
The mayor of tiny Praia da Luz, Manuel Domingues Borba, announced just a few weeks ago that he for one “would never leave my children sleeping alone and go to dinner in a foreign country.” The McCanns, in his opinion, are “guilty of negligence at the very least.” The Portuguese police, under chief Alípio Ribeiro, are reviewing the case. Some of their detectives, I am told, will likely be flying to Britain soon to re-interview the McCanns, although no official request has yet been made. Should the McCanns actually be charged and tried, their legal strategy will be to focus, in part, on what they claim is the unreliability of evidence turned up by the dogs and to try to move the trial to Britain from Portugal. The McCanns live in perpetual limbo. There is no exit.
By early January there was more bad news: Correio da Manhã, a Portuguese newspaper, claimed that the Policia Judiciária were about to deliver an interim report suggesting the McCanns were “prime suspects” after all, who could have accidentally killed Madeleine and then disposed of her body. Or, the report added, perhaps the child was in fact abducted. In other words, eight months after the little girl vanished, the police still know nothing.
Lately, word has leaked out that the McCanns feel abandoned even by Gordon Brown, once their close ally. Their spokesman doesn’t quite deny this. “That was one of our backers who said it. We would never be that impolitic,” he says. “But it is true that we have requested a meeting with the prime minister to show him the strength of our case, to explain Kate and Gerry’s innocence—and yet all we’ve been offered is a medium-level-consular meeting, which we rejected.”
Occasionally their $1,200-an-hour lawyer Angus McBride, whose salary is defrayed by Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Scottish businessman Stephen Winyard, and Brian Kennedy, a multi-millionaire rugby-team owner, drops in on the British tabloids to protest headlines such as portuguese paper smear: “kate killed madeleine as gerry played tennis.”
For Kate, this is all too much. At nights, as her mother recently informed one newspaper, she awakes and thinks Madeleine has come home. While her husband and I talk, she ducks into the local Catholic church, unable, despite her earlier resolve, to face a single question.
Kate is fragile, I say to Gerry.
“That is undoubtedly true,” he concedes. “It’s very difficult to describe this situation. One month, three months, five months, five and a half months. And I know now that, probably, the chances of getting Madeleine back are slim. You know, it’s difficult. Very difficult.” He swallows hard. “You might never see her again. But still you have the hope. Still.”
On Sunday he will join his despairing wife in church, even though, as Gerry puts it, “I am not the most religious person in the world.” The whole McCann family is going to church more often, for that matter, even his skeptical older brother.
“What would you do when you’re desperate?” says John. “You start to ask the big questions again: Why does this happen?”
“And,” he says wearily, “I think there’s probably still no God