A Nightmare Deepens

Date Published 09.16.07
Yesterday I overheard two mechanics at Jiffy Lube discussing the Madeleine McCann case. “Discussing” isn’t the right word -- obsessively analyzing the fine details would be more like it.

A strange side effect of writing about true crime is that I can no longer gauge how large a case looms in the public consciousness. I research many cases, often times obscure ones, and after reading every published word about a case the details burrow deeply and become a lead story in my mind.

I actually experience a split second of surprise when I bump into a friend and they want to discuss Madeleine McCann and not, say, Crystal Arensdorf, who disappeared six years ago from a Dubuque, Iowa bar and whose case, virtually unheard of, is currently an obsession of mine.

I knew the McCann case was big, but it wasn’t until I watched two young mechanics ignore a car engine to argue the definition of “bodily fluids” that I realized how big.

If it’s possible you’re alive and don’t know, here are the basic facts: Madeleine McCann, 3, vanished from her family’s rented apartment at the Ocean Club, in Praia da Luz, Portugal, on May 3. The British girl was vacationing with her younger twin siblings and her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, who are doctors. It was the sixth night of a week-long vacation, and on this night, as on earlier ones, the McCanns left the three children in bed and unsupervised in a ground floor apartment while they ate dinner with friends at a tapas restaurant some 100 yards away.

The McCanns and their friends checked periodically on Madeleine and her siblings - they say every thirty minutes. They kept the patio windows at the rear of the apartment shut but unlocked so they could peek in more easily. During a check around 10 p.m. Kate discovered Madeleine was missing.

The case quickly gathered into a potent international storm for a variety of reasons. The lack of clues was frustrating. Controversy erupted over whether or not Kate and Gerry should have ever left the children unattended in the apartment. (The consensus is no, and Kate has expressed regret over the decision). Portugal’s secrecy laws in criminal investigations fueled speculation and innuendo. Suspects emerged, only to be abandoned; possible Madeleine sightings stirred excitement until, one by one, they didn’t check out. Kate McCann, a devout Catholic, met Pope Benedict in Rome and had a photograph of Madeleine blessed by him.

By early September Madeleine had been gone for four months and the Portuguese police appeared no closer to finding her than on the night she disappeared. Public sympathy lay solidly with the McCanns. That all changed when detectives hauled the couple in for further questioning and, in a stunning turn of events, emerged to label them “arguidos,” or official suspects. On September 9 the McCanns returned to England for the first time since their daughter disappeared.

Reports of what evidence, if any, the Portuguese police have against the McCanns change rapidly. Sources continue to dispute each other. Most reports agree on the following alleged red flags: a cadaver dog picked up a "scent of death" on Kate McCann; traces of blood, invisible to the naked eye, are said to have been found in the apartment and matched to Madeleine; most significantly, "biological fluids" with an 80 per cent match to Madeleine's DNA were allegedly found under the carpet in the trunk of the Renault Scenic the McCanns rented 25 days after the disappearance.

The Portuguese police appear to believe that Madeleine was killed accidentally and her parents hid her body for several weeks before using their rental car to dispose of it.

To accept the Portuguese police’s version of events you must accept the following:

1. That Kate and Gerry McCann, neither of whom has a previous allegation of child abuse, criminal record, or history of psychopathy in their past, killed their eldest daughter, either intentionally or by accident, then promptly went to dinner, where they drank wine, chatted with friends, and even participated in a trivia quiz game.

2. That they hid their child’s body for 25 days, despite the constant scrutiny of police and an international media storm that they encouraged. Putting aside the logic-defying heartlessness such a maneuver would require – I can’t think of a single other case where parents concealed the corpse of their child for any length of time - the real question is, how do you successfully conceal a decomposing body in the heat of a Portuguese summer?

3. That, instead of fleeing to the safety of England, the McCanns stayed put and very visible in Portugal to plead for their daughter’s return, all the while knowing that her body was stashed nearby. After 25 days, with their every move now being recorded by hundreds of international cameras, they decided to transport her body to their rental car and take a ride. I don’t know what the Portuguese police believe happened after that.

It’s probably obvious by now I think the McCanns are innocent.

Message boards are currently awash in suspicion, most pointing to the fact that the couple left their children unattended as evidence they were bad parents and thus potentially homicidal. But I think the fact that the couple left their children unattended is the reason they’re innocent.

It can’t be a coincidence that the child left unsupervised is the one abducted. It’s unlikely an intruder was trying doorknobs, found the McCann’s apartment open, noticed the children were alone and spontaneously decided to abduct Madeleine.

I think it’s significant that Madeleine disappeared on the sixth night of the vacation. The family reportedly stuck to the same routine every day. They booked a table at the same tapas restaurant every night at 8:30 p.m., and checked on the children every thirty minutes like clockwork. Unfortunately, they essentially telegraphed to any interested observer when their children were alone.

Who might the observer be? My guess is the culprit will turn out to be an employee of the hotel, or possibly someone doing contract work that required him to be in the vicinity that week. It has to be someone who could learn a lot about the family’s routine without seeming out of place - bellboy, waiter, or maintenance worker.

Also interesting but not widely reported are two break-ins that occurred at the same complex in the weeks before Madeleine disappeared. One was in the apartment directly above the McCann's, and both break-ins are thought to be by people who had keys, suggesting an inside job.

It's often said that the single worst nightmare is the loss of a child. Probably the only thing worse is to be wrongly accused for that loss. Gerry McCann was likely referring to that when he recently talked about the "unending nightmare" of their lives. It's getting more difficult to imagine a positive outcome for Madeleine McCann, but I'm hoping that in the very least the Portuguese police stop conjuring outlandish scenarios and exonerate her parents, bringing them a tiny measure of relief in what must be considerable, nonstop pain.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.