last updated: 14 March 2017 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 812 words)
Madeleine Beth McCann was born 12 May 2003 and disappeared on the evening of 3 May 2007 in Praia da Luz, Portugal.
It’s approaching ten years since the nearly-four-year-old disappeared while on a family holiday, and the facts in that first sentence are still pretty much all we can be certain about. Yet somehow, despite there being so few facts—or maybe because there are so few facts—ten years after she was last seen, the disappearance of Madeleine is perhaps the mystery of our time.
And it is probably a mark of how embedded this case has become in the public consciousness that I don’t need to explain the background. Of all the children who have disappeared in the last ten years, you know Madeleine’s name.
When something happens, a question we all tend to ask is: who did it? However, for Madeleine McCann, the question is not who, but rather what? What happened on that night.
There are many theories about who is guilty—there is a whole cottage industry that spends much of its time speculating—but the larger questions is rarely asked: guilty of what? For there to be guilt, there first needs to be a crime, and so far—in connection with the child’s disappearance—there’s little firm evidence that a crime was committed.
There’s simply the absence of a child who was present a few hours earlier. That absence certainly implies a crime, but it’s not evidence of a crime.
The Few Facts
While we don’t know how Madeleine disappeared, there are some facts from that evening that can be verified by people other than Madeleine’s parents:
- Madeleine was last seen at 6 PM when her mother picked her up from the Kids’ Club run by the resort at which the family were staying.
- At 8:30 PM the parents left the apartment to join their friends in a nearby tapas restaurant.
- At 10 PM, the mother went to check on the children and found Madeleine missing. Madeleine’s two siblings, both two-years-old at the time, were still present.
- At 10:10 PM, the parents asked for the police to be called.
- At 10:30 PM, the resort activated its missing child protocol.
- At 11:10 PM, the first gendarme arrived at the resort.
There is no corroboration, but the parents say:
- The three children (Madeleine and her two siblings) were put to bed at 7 PM.
- The three children shared a room (it was a two bedroom apartment).
- The three children were left alone in the apartment when the parents went to dinner.
So What Actually Happened?
In truth, no one knows what happened to Madeleine between 6 PM and 10 PM on the evening of 3 May 2007. But excluding alien abduction, there are three—and only three—possible options.
These three options are not equally possible nor equally probable (and the order in which these options are laid out should not be taken as implying any hierarchy of likelihood).
option #1: Madeleine’s parents are responsible for her disappearance
The first possibility is that the parents were responsible for the child’s disappearance.
The parents were the people (or at least the mother was the person) to last see the child before her disappearance. Statistically, children who come to harm are usually harmed/killed by their parents, a close family member, or a parent’s new partner. That statistic doesn’t imply guilt in this case, but is does give the first logical line of enquiry.
And as an aside, if the parents were responsible for the child’s disappearance, that does not of necessity mean that the child has come to harm.
option #2: Madeleine walked away from the apartment
The second option is perhaps the most simple: Madeleine woke and went looking for her parents.
According to the parents, Madeleine and her siblings were left unattended in the apartment and the door at the back of the apartment was left unlocked. Assuming this to be true, it is therefore plausible that Madeleine awoke and left the apartment to look for her parents. The streets were largely deserted and as anyone who has ever spent time with a four-year-old will know, they can cover a lot of ground, very quickly.
Having wandered, what happened next? There are several possibilities, but one possibility is that she found the Atlantic Ocean (which was a few hundred yards away).
option #3: Madeleine was abducted
The third option is the version of events put forward by her parents: Madeleine was abducted from the apartment.
This is clearly a possible option. The apartment was left unlocked, so a kidnapper could have easily entered and left. But, apart from the missing child, there is little evidence to support the suggestion that Madeleine’s disappearance was an abduction.
It may seem very simplistic to boil down ten years to three alternatives, but there are no other possibilities: Madeleine disappeared in one of these three broad scenarios.