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The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann: How a 3-Year-Old Vanished and May Never Be Found
Madeleine McCann
True Crime

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann: How a 3-Year-Old Vanished and May Never Be Found

Three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared during a family holiday in Portugal. More than 15 years later, police may have their first significant break in the case.

Any parent's worst nightmare is something horrible happening to their child. For Gerry and Kate McCann, the nightmare began in 2007, with the disappearance of their 3-year-old daughter, Madeleine McCann. It has continued for more than 15 years, with no sign of ending.

There remains hope that her abductor will one day be identified and apprehended. However, it's unlikely that Madeleine, who would now be 19 years old, will be found alive.

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We'll return to May 3, 2007, and uncover what's known about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. But first, let’s try address another, less-tangible question: Why do cases of missing children grip the attention of the public?

From the Lindbergh baby to Etan Patz to JonBenét Ramsey, missing children hold our attention because they bring out both the best and the worst in us. Our hearts go out to the family, whom we wish we could help. But the lurid details of the case can be fascinating; we're able to treat a missing child as a topic of interest because the child isn't our own.

In some cases, there's a safe return, such as the 18-year kidnapping and imprisonment of Jaycee Lee Dugard. But in too many other instances, the child is never seen alive again.

Madeleine McCann Disappeared on a Family Vacation

Madeleine McCann

In late April 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann, of Rothley, England, and their three children (3-year-old Madeleine, and 2-year-old twins) traveled on holiday to Praia da Luz, Portugal. They stayed in a rental property at the Ocean Club.

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Visiting the region with friends, the adults established a rotating system of checking on the sleeping children while they enjoyed dinner, a mere hundred yards away from the apartment. The meal on May 3, 2007, was to be the last the group sheared on vacation. And, as we now know, it was the last the McCann family would enjoy before the unthinkable tragedy.

That hard, sad fact aside, the details of the case soon grow murky. We know that, around 9:05 p.m., Gerry McCann found Madeleine and her siblings sleeping safely in their room. However, by the time of the next check-in, about 10 p.m., Madeleine (or Maddie, as she was often called) was gone. Only her blanket and stuffed animal remained.

Maddie's absence was discovered by her mother, Kate McCann, who reportedly wailed so loudly that she was heard by diners at the restaurant. The police were summoned, beginning a search that, to varying degrees, continues to this day.

The Days After Madeleine McCann's Disappearance

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From "The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann" (Image: Netflix)

The property and surrounding areas were searched that night, and into the next day, by police, Madeleine McCann’s parents, their friends, and hotel staff and guests. No actionable evidence was found.

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Over the next few days, the search was expanded to include border police, airport staff, and hundreds of volunteers. It had become painfully clear that Madeleine had been kidnapped, and not simply wandered off. Portuguese authorities announced May 12, 2007, that they assumed Maddie was still alive. However, they had no evidence to help locate the girl, or a suspect.

Maddie’s parents described themselves as utterly beset by grief and despair. It was in these days that the disappearance of, and search, for Madeleine McCann captured the world's attention. The case spread through traditional media, like newspapers and TV broadcasts, but was fueled by then-fledgling social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

Evidence, and a Possible Suspect, Emerge

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Image: Netflix

In late May 2007, police in Portugal released a description of a suspicious man spotted near the resort on the evening of Maddie's disappearance. He was described as possibly carrying a child.

Unfortunately, police also had to admit that potential forensic evidence from the scene of the kidnapping might have been damaged or destroyed due to improper procedures.

RELATED: A Mother and 8-Year-Old Daughter Were Held Captive for 7 Weeks - Their Escape Was Unbelievable, But Just the Beginning

Then, in mid-September 2007, police found a perfect DNA match for Madeleine McCann in the trunk of a rented car, although they couldn't tie the vehicle to a positively identified person.

The McCanns were questioned as possible suspects that same month, but they were freely allowed to return to England. In November, Gerry McCann released a statement suggesting their family had been stalked by a predator for days before the kidnapping. In January 2008, the family released a composite sketch of the man they thought responsible for Maddie's abduction.

It wasn't until July 2008 that Portuguese authorities officially lifted the “arguido,” or “suspect” status of Maddie McCann’s parents.

Years Go By, and Madeleine McCann Remains Missing

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Digitally enhanced photo, showing what Maddie might look like at age 9

There were no breaks in the Madeleine McCann case for years. In 2009, police released a digitally enhanced photo that showed how Maddie may look at age 6. That same year, the McCann publicly expressed outrage that the search for their daughter had concluded in Portugal.

In 2011, the McCanns signed a deal for a tell-all book about the disappearance of their daughter, titled simply Madeleine. More digitally enhanced images were released the following year, showing Maddie aged up to 9 years old.

Then, in summer 2013, Scotland Yard announced new evidence in the Maddie McCann case. By the fall, detectives revealed they had identified as many as 41 possible suspects. There was a renewed sense that justice might come for Maddie’s kidnapper and, most likely, killer. Portuguese authorities reopened their own case, and began working with Scotland Yard.

However, a number of years then passed without any actionable updates. Police searched for new evidence, and interviewed and cleared a number of suspects, but didn't come up with anything substantial.

Finally, a Break in the Maddie McCann's Disappearance?

Well after it seemed there was no hope for justice in the case Madeleine McCann, a break came. It was in June 2020 that German police revealed a prime suspect: a 43-year-old man identified as Christian B., who was in prison there. Few other details were released.

As of 2022, Portuguese authorities also identified the German inmate, now known by his full name, Christian Brückner, as a likely suspect. However, he remains in German custody, and has not yet faced official charges in the kidnapping of Maddie McCann. Brückner is imprisoned on a rape conviction following a crime that took place in the same region of Portugal where Maddie McCann was last seen.


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