We are concerned here with the case of three year old Madeleine McCann who disappeared from apartment 5A at the Ocean Club holiday complex at Praia da Luz in Portugal on the 3rd May 2007. Her disappearance became the biggest story in the British media throughout the summer of 2007, particularly when her parents Gerry and Kate McCann were named as official suspects in the case on the 7th September 2007 and are still regarded by the Polícia Judiciária as the prime suspects in the case. Of course both parents claim that they are innocent of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance and are fervent in their belief that Madelaine is alive and 'out there somewhere'.
1. Metodo 3 and Clarence Mitchell
Following their elevation to arguido status in early September the McCanns decided to engage the services of Metodo 3, a Barcelona based agency run by one Francisco Marco, to carry out their own investigation. Naturally it costs money to hire private detectives, but fortunately the McCann family have a benefactor in the form of the double-glazing multi-millionaire Brian Kennedy, who is reportedly footing the bill for the six-month contract which might turn out to be as much as £750,000. It was however certainly the case that Kennedy's money was paying for the services of Clarence Mitchell, ex-BBC News reporter and former Downing Street spin doctor, who left his government job on the 18th September to take up the role of chief spokesman for the McCanns.
According to the News of the World, Metodo 3 were a "CRACK new team of private eyes" who "have NEVER FAILED to find a missing person they've hunted", who would be "using all their significant resources across several countries" whilst they had "dozens of agents worldwide" who would be "working on the mystery for the McCanns, with more on standby". Clarence Mitchell also expressed "every confidence in Metodo 3", explaining that "they can get to places faster and work quicker than anyone else and have the capacity to work worldwide."
However as the Daily Telegraph noted, Metodo was in fact "a small family-run agency" which had been established some twenty-three years previously by Marco's mother, Marita Fernandez. The Evening Standard even checked their accounts for 2005 and found that, apart from having made a loss, at that time the agency employed only twelve people, although apparently this had since risen to a complement of twenty-seven. (There was the little matter of the 1995 police raid on their offices and charges of illegal phone tapping and industrial espionage, but these do not of course matter as the charges were later dismissed, being judged to be nothing more than a case of police entrapment.) As to the agency's claim that they had a "100 per cent" success rate in abduction cases and had reunited twenty-three missing children and teenagers with their families, when the Sunday Telegraph tried to obtain some more detail on these cases from Francisco Marco, he was apparently to busy to respond to their questions.
One must presume that Francisco Marco was simply reluctant to admit that his agency actually hadn't done that much in the personal investigation line. As Marco himself claimed during an interview in 2003, as far as his agency was concerned "Our focus is companies", or as Manuel Marlaska, a journalist from the Spanish magazine Interviu put it, "Most of their work is to do with investigating company fraud", which would explain why their senior employees are all lawyers.
With their wealth of experience in investigating company fraud Metodo 3 were soon convinced that Madelaine had been abducted to order by an organised gang of Moroccan paedophiles, and so spent their time running arround Morocco tracking down various sightings of blonde haired girls. Of course this did not prevent them from rushing off to Bosnia to chase up another sighting of another blonde haired girl having a tantrum outside a local supermarket. None of which proved anything other than the fact that all blonde toddlers look like Madelaine McCann from a distance. Soon however, all these red herrings were to become a thing of the past.
2. The Silves sighting
It was on the 18th November that the Sunday Mirror proclaimed the startling conclusion reached by the Metodo 3 agency; 'MADELEINE ALIVE? WE'RE 100% CERTAIN', as it reported on the claim put forward by Francisco Marco, that his agency had identified a "new witness" who had contacted their hotline. Apparently "a woman had come forward with vital new information" having seen "a little girl matching Madeleine's description inside a stationary van in central Portugal two days after she was snatched". She was apparently "sitting next to a woman while a man stood outside the vehicle, at a spot about 90 miles from ... Praia da Luz." The paper also reported how a third man had "been involved" in that he had been "acting as a spotter who watched the McCanns' routine", whilst the Sunday Mirror claimed that it had been "told the identities of all three suspects but has chosen not to print them so as not to jeopardise the inquiry".
As far as Francisco Marco was concerned, he believed that that "the sighting is the breakthrough we've been waiting for" and was therfore confidently asserting that his agency were "100 per cent sure" that Madeleine was alive and that they were "very, very close to finding the kidnapper." There were, of course, those that immediately pointed put that if Metodo 3 were that close to "finding the kidnapper", why were they making the information public and thereby giving notice to the kidnappers that they were hot on their trail.
However by the following day the story had changed somewhat, as on the 19th November the Daily Express ran a story under the headline 'Madeleine: Why We Know She Is Alive', in which the "new witness" claimed to have seen "a woman drive up to a man waiting for her in another car and hand him over a young child wrapped in a blanket". Whereas in the first version, the girl had simply been sitting in a stationary van, this time round she was being "handed over" and "bundled" into a waiting car, although the location remained somewhere in "central Portugal" some 100 miles from Praia da Luz. It soon emerged that the unnamed witness had identified the blonde woman as Michaela Walczuch, who was none other than a certain Robert Murat's girlfriend, hence the headline 'Murat's Girl Had Maddie' in The Sun or 'Murat's Girl Had Maddy' from the Daily Mirror. There were now claims that there was "another man" with Walczuch who was outside the parked car as the handover took place, a suggestion which might have cleared up some of the discrepancies between the two versions so far.
However if the further report in the Daily Mirror was to be believed ('Maddy: Murat and friends accused') Metodo 3 were now working on the theory that Robert Murat, his girlfriend Michaela Walczuch and her estranged husband Luis Antonio were all "part of an organised ring". No doubt these were indeed the "three suspects" the Sunday Mirror earlier felt obliged not to name, and since Luis Antonio had apparently once worked at the Ocean Club as a pool cleaner this naturally clinched the whole deal.
By the end of the day on the 20th the Daily Telegraph had added the story 'Madeleine McCann 'given to child trafficker'' in which it confirmed the claim from Metodo 3 that "this could have been the moment that Madeleine was handed over by the original abductors to a group who then took her out of the country" and that the agency was now "focusing their search on the town of Silves". However the Telegraph also gave a slightly different version of events, in which the handover had been witnessed by a male Portuguese trucker rather than a woman, and had occurred during the day by the side of a quiet road on the outskirts of Silves, which is a town only twenty-five miles from Praia da Luz and isn't in central Portugal. The unnamed trucker had apparently reported the sighting "several weeks ago" to a telephone hotline set up by the agency in Spain.
Clarence Mitchell was on hand to explain that the "witness who claims to have seen Madeleine being transferred was thoroughly interviewed face to face by an investigator from Metodo 3 and was deemed to be a credible witness" and that a "team of detectives from Metodo 3 are currently in the Algarve following up the lead". There was however no explanation as to how this "credible witness" had apparently changed gender over the course of twenty-four hours or why the location of this supposed sighting had moved from central to southern Portugal, or indeed why the agency had waited several weeks before making announcing this startling new discovery to the world.
3. Robert and Michaela
Robert Murat was of course the man questioned by the Polícia Judiciária on the 14th May 2007, made an official suspect on the following day, and then released on the grounds that they couldn't find a single piece of evidence that connected him to Madelaine McCann. As to Michaela Walczuch, she met Murat whilst they were both working at the Remax estate agency in Lagos after which they set up their own property firm together called Romigen. During this time they had an affair which was blamed for the breakdown of Murat's marriage. (His wife Dawn returned to the UK with their daughter Sofia.)
Despite her affair with Murat, Michaela Walczuch remained with her husband Antonio, for the sake of their eight-year-old daughter. As far as the Daily Mail was concerned this was a "tawdry love tangle", or quite possibly simply the kind of perfectly sensible arrangement that rational adults sometimes make when relationships go wrong.
4. The Zaio sighting
On the 20th November another 'witness' emerged in the form of Isabel Gonzalez, a resident of the Spanish enclave of Melilla, who had been in the Moroccan town of Zaio on the 15th June. It was there that she claimed to have seen "a little blonde girl being dragged across the street by a north African woman wearing a headscarf". Naturally she was sure that the girl was Madeleine, and so called on her husband to stop the car, and began searching the nearby streets in a bid to confront the woman. Although she failed in her quest, she did come across a "European looking couple" and "after seeing the news reports" became "convinced the woman was Murat's girlfriend". Although she admitted that she had never seen the "blonde woman" with "Madeleine" she had "always connected the two events".
As it turned out this was the very same Isabel Gonzalez who had earlier featured in the Daily Express of the 29th September under the headline 'Madeleine: Stolen by People Smugglers' who claimed to have seen a girl who "was blonde, with pale skin" and concluded that she must have been Madeleine because "everyone else in the area is dark-skinned and dark-haired". There was no mention at that time of any blonde woman who might or might not have been Michaela Walczuch, or that said woman was in anyway connected with her alleged sighting of Madeleine.
This increasing fascination with Walczuch prompted the Portugese newspaper Correio da Manha to report that Michaela Walczuch had been at a Jehovah's Witness prayer meeting in Lagos at the time that Madeleine McCann disappeared and was in Lagos having her car repaired when the witness claimed that she was in Silves. Clearly little of what had been reported in the past few days made sense if the new prime suspect had an alibi, and so The Sun ran a story under the headline 'Maddie:The false alibi' (repeated in much of the British tabloid press). The Sun referred to the statement made by Tiofilo Castelo, a member of the Algarve Regional Association of the Jehovah's Witnesses, that Walczuch had been thrown out of the church for its equivalent of 'conduct unbecoming' (presumably for indulging in an adulterous affair), whilst other members of the Lagos congregation claimed not to have seen Walczuch at their meeting on the 3rd May. No one appeared to be terribly convinced by reports that the Polícia Judiciária had already questioned Ms Walczuch twice, and concluded that she could account for her movements and were satisfied that she had played no part in Madelaine's disappearance.
4. The Nanny and the Prowler
Matters then became even more heated in the Sunday Express on the 25th November under the headline 'Madeleine: Nanny Names Murat as 'Prowler''. The paper reported that Metodo 3 had found yet another "new witness" who had worked as a nanny at the Ocean Club in Praia da Luz. Apparently some six months before Madeleine disappeared, this nanny had been babysitting at the very same holiday flat in which the McCanns later stayed. One evening (the exact date is uncertain) she left a baby sleeping (or perhaps a six year old boy, reports differ) in the apartment "while she went to get something to eat", and on her return disturbed a prowler trying to climb in through the ground-floor window of apartment 5A who saw her coming and fled shouting, "No, no".
According to the Express, Metodo 3 "declined to comment" on the latest development, however a "source close to the investigation" (that is Metodo 3) explained that the prowler "was trying to get in through the exact same window which police believe Madeleine’s abductors may have used. It happened six months before Madeleine disappeared and she did report it to her bosses at the club. She later gave detectives a detailed description of the man who the detectives say is identical to Robert Murat. The information has been passed on to police in Britain and Portugal." (We shall note here in passing, that if Madeleine’s abductors "used" the window, they used it to get 'out of', rather than 'in to' the apartment.)
Now all of this sounded strangely familiar, and for good reason, as
almost a month previously on the 31st October the British press (the Express included), had ran the story about the nanny who had disturbed a prowler who had fled shouting "No, no". However in the previous version she had left the apartment "because she received a phone call from her bosses to say there was a problem with rats" and had spotted something she thought was a rat in the bushes "in the darkness near to the apartment". The rat turned out to be a man's shoe, but as she challenged the man, he shouted "No, no" and fled. The nanny (identified this time as 'M.H.') said that the prowler "looked like a local" and wore light-coloured trousers and a blue check shirt. This time around it was said that the nanny had informed the British police in June, and that they in turn had passed the details on to the Portugese.
Note how, apart from the discrepancy over the nanny's motivation for leaving her charge alone; in the first version of the tale the nanny simply spotted someone who was "in the darkness near the apartment", and in the second he is trying to climb in through the window of the apartment, and how the prowler simply "looked like a local" in the first report which a few weeks later became someone who was "identical to Robert Murat".
Not to be outdone the Sunday Mirror chipped in with the tale of Karen Sixsmith who had apparently been staying at the Ocean Club in March 2007. She received a knock on the door one evening at 12.30pm and found a man and a woman representing the Jehovah's Witnesses. According to Ms Sixsmith "I just can't get it out of my head that it may have been Murat and his girlfriend on my doorstep." Or indeed it "may have been" some other couple entirely, but never mind that, the paper also had "another witness" who claimed to have seen pornography on Murat's laptop four years ago. Clearly the shocking revelation that an adult male in possession of a computer would have material of an erotic nature on his hard drive warranted serious investigation.
5. The Lagos sighting
It was only to be a matter of a few days before yet another significant "new witness" emerged, this time in the Daily Mirror on the 28th November. Under the headline 'I saw Maddy dragged away by vicious man' it reported on how a British expatriate named George Burke had seen a girl who looked "remarkably like Madeleine" being dragged along a road leading to Lagos marina at 6am on the 4th May, and claimed an 'Exclusive' over what it described as a "crucial lead" in the case. Presumably this was the very same George Burke who had earlier featured in the Daily Mirror months previously on the 7th May when he reported a sighting of a couple who had "scurried" down a road towards a railway station with a blonde toddler in tow but said that "It was 6am and pitch black I couldn't be certain it was her."
Of course by the time the Daily Mirror decided to revive this report as an 'Exclusive' the male half of the couple had become a "vicious-looking man" who, together with his female companion, had "a Madeleine lookalike" in tow being "cruelly dragged towards a marina". As it happens the same the Lagos road leads to both the railway station and marina. Naturally if you saw a couple scurrying down this road you would assume they were in a hurry to catch a train, but obviously it would be far more dramatic to assume that the marina was their destination as this fitted the belief of Metodo 3 that there was "a strong chance Madeleine was taken by boat from the marina and is still alive somewhere."
Of course cynics might well have noted that since Madeleine disappeared sometime before 10pm on the 3rd May, and Lagos is only fifteen minutes drive away from Luz, that had it been the abductors intention to spirit her away to Morroco by sea, she would have been halfway to the Rif Mountains eight hours later rather than being dragged down some street in Lagos. The Mirror however chose not to take this line, nor question how this sighting fitted in with the earlier reports of the "handover" at Silves, a mere half an hour's drive away on the following day. They did however report the claim by Metodo 3 that Portuguese police "did not take his report seriously", although quite how they knew that the Polícia Judiciária hadn't spoken to staff at the railway station or the security guards manning the gates of the marina was a mystery to all.
6. Recycling old news
The practice of repackaging of old news wasn't confined to the Mirror as The Sun similarly printed the story of a British tourist named Amanda Mills who had spotted a "skulking figure a WEEK before Maddie ... disappeared on May 3 in Praia da Luz". According to Amanda this suspicious looking individual "appeared to be trying to break in through a bedroom window" and that he "tried to wheel away a children’s buggy", but "ran off" when she "made a loud noise". Ms Mills gave a full statement to Essex police two days after Maddie went missing and was now expressing her astonishment that she had yet to be interviewed by Portuguese police. As always Clarence Mitchell was on hand to offer his opinion, stating that "Amanda is at the top of Metodo 3's list. This could be crucial." One must presume that Mitchell had forgotten that reports of the "British mother" who "saw a man trying to steal a pram" had already featured in the press way back on the 9th May 2007. Of course, when you put it that way, it doesn't sound half as "crucial", as presumably like many other places, Portugal has its complement of individuals who steal that which is not nailed down.
The Sunday Mirror of the 3rd December then returned to the fray with the headline 'New Maddy witnesses come forward', claiming that "suspect Robert Murat is back in the frame after two new witnesses say they saw him the night the four-year-old disappeared" and also claimed that Metodo 3 had received a "tip-off" that Murat had "connections to the criminal underworld and was working as a police informant".
At least this revelation allowed The Sun to dust off the story of nanny Charlotte Pennington, who had previously featured in the papers back on the 25th September 2007 with her claim to have seen Murat at the Ocean Club complex at 10.30pm that night, and also permitted the Daily Mail to claim that there were 'Six cracks in Murat's alibi as witnesses line up to cast doubt on original Madeleine suspect'.
7. The Law of the Land
Now as it so happens it is "illegal in Portugal for anyone except the police or court-approved expert to carry out an investigation into a crime". Indeed the previous agency hired by the McCanns were Control Risk Group, who were always at pains to insist that they had no operatives on the ground in Portugal, in order to make it clear that they were staying on the right side of the law.
If the reports in the Daily Mail of the 21st November were to be believed the Polícia Judiciária were quite aware of the presence of Spanish detectives in their country, but as far as they were concerned Metodo 3 were "ineffectual and without credibility" and were simply "only covering old ground". (An opinion, incidentally, that is also shared by the Morrocan authorities.) They did not appear to be particularly bothered by Metodo's activities, since as far as they were concerned, the agency was only speaking to witnesses whose evidence had already been excluded from consideration and were therefore not part of the case. They did however remind Metodo 3 that "If they speak to any witness who has been named in this case or gain access to any evidence relating to the case they are committing a crime and could be obstructing justice".
Given Clarence Mitchell's insistence that "Everything M3 does on this case is within the law", this gives rise to the strange Catch-22 that if Metodo-3 commit a crime when they "gain access to any evidence relating to the case" then presumably they are ensuring that their activities in Portugal are such that they don't gain access to any evidence.
8. Media Maninpulation
It remains curious how there has been a steady series of stories implicating Robert Murat in the disappearance of Madelaine McCann. There is however, what one might describe as a pattern emerging. Old witnesses suddenly become new witnesses, who having spoken to Metodo 3 suddenly appear to have recalled some additional information that now puts the name of Robert Murat in the frame.
As for Robert Murat is concerned, he has pleaded with the McCanns to stop their 'smear campaign' against him, whilst his lawyer Francisco Pagarete went even further, being quoted in the Portuguese newspaper 24 Horas as calling on "somebody to curse" the McCanns, in order "to make them pay for having left three children unprotected" and described Metodo 3 as "mercenaries" who were simply persecuting his client. There was even the suggestion in the Daily Telegraph of the 26th November that perhaps the McCanns themselves were also unhappy with Metodo 3, as they referred to what they described as a "source close to the couple", who claimed that the McCanns now "conceded that they might have been sold a pup" and that Metodo 3 "don't have a lot of experience with this type of investigation". Which of course may well be true, or may well simply be a case of setting up plausible deniability at some future date.
What is doubly curious is that none of the above has brought Metodo 3 one step closer actually finding Madelaine McCann which is, ostensibly, what it is they were hired to do. Indeed, irrespective of whatever one might believe about Murat's involvement in any abduction, one of the few things we can say for certain is that neither Murat nor Walczuch now have Madelaine in their possession, and even if they had any information regarding Madelaine's whereabouts, Metodo 3 is obviously in no position to get that information. The whole exercise therefore seems entirely pointless unless one accepts the fact that the agency is simply acting as a feed for dubious stories to the British press, and that what we are seeing is nothing more than a co-ordinated disinformation campaign designed to implicate Robert Murat and therefore by implication, exonerate the McCanns. And as Clarence Mitchell has made clear; "We continue to work closely with Metodo 3 and collectively are always careful about what detail enters the public domain for operational reasons"; which is probably the closest we shall get to an admission that he is indeed the architect behind the whole scam.
Of course, whether any of this will actually convince anyone is another matter. One detects an increasing tone of cynicism amongst the public as each new story rolls in. The various reactions to the Mail's latest story on the appearance of yet more 'new witnesses' to discredit Murat's alibi, include such comments posted by the Great British Public as; "Pull the other one!"; "Seven months on and another load of rubbish"; "Amazing what the Madeleine Fund money can buy."; and "Did they see Elvis Presley riding Shergar as well?"
Somebody might need to remind Clarence Mitchell about Abraham Lincoln's famous dictum about fooling people.
This opinionated article is based on reports from BBC News and the British press in the period between the 20th November 2007 and the 3rd December. It is of course, only a small fraction of the story of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, but having tracked the tale since the beginning it has become clear that to try and tell the whole story in one single article would simply be to overwhelming.