The case of Madeleine McCann, the British toddler who disappeared from a Portuguese holiday resort 16 years ago, unexpectedly lurched back into life this month when investigators launched a major search operation at a reservoir in the Algarve.
The initiative was instigated by German prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters, who said officials were acting on “certain tips” from Christian Brueckner, an incarcerated sex offender who lived in the area between 2000 and 2017. Mr Wolters has said he is “very confident” the 45 year-old holds the key to Madeleine’s disappearance.
With help from Portuguese police and with Scotland Yard detectives watching on, German investigators carried out a thorough search of the Barragem do Arade beauty spot in Silves.
They combed the shoreline and surrounding grasslands with sniffer dogs, rakes, spades and pickaxes, and inspected the water in a rigid-hull inflatable boat. A no-fly zone in place in the skies overhead allowed police drones to survey the region undisturbed.
The site is located approximately 48km (30 miles) northeast of the Ocean Club holiday resort at Praia da Luz in Lagos from which Madeleine vanished on 3 May 2007, sparking a huge investigation that attracted media attention and public interest across the world but which has so far still not yielded any definite answers.
The girl’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, have refused to give up hope, recently posting a poem remembering their lost daughter on their Find Madeleine website, reminding readers that she is “still missing… still very much missed”.
“The police investigation continues, and we await a breakthrough. Thank you to everyone for your support – it really helps,” they added.
Here’s a look at the family, whose lives have been defined by the mystery.
Parents Kate and Gerry McCann
Madeline’s mother was born Kate Marie Healy in Huyton near Liverpool in 1968.
After attending All Saints School in Anfield and Notre Dame High School in Everton Valley, she took a degree in medicine from the University of Dundee and graduated in 1992. Beginning her career by specialising in obstetrics, gynaecology and anaesthetics, she subsequently became a GP.
She met her future husband Gerald Patrick McCann in 1993 and they married in 1998. Madeleine, their eldest child, was born in 2003 and the couple had twins, Amelia and Sean, in 2005.
Mr McCann was born in Glasgow in 1968 and attended Holyrood RC Secondary School before graduating from the University of Glasgow with a bachelor of science degree in physiology and sports science in 1989.
He obtained his medical doctorate from the same institution in 2002 and has worked as a consultant cardiologist at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, since 2005, with the family setting up home in Rothley, Leicestershire.
After Madeleine’s disappearance from the family’s rented apartment complex – while her parents and a group of friends ate dinner at an open-air tapas restaurant, a member of the party checking on the otherwise-unattended children every half-hour – the McCanns led the public appeals for information and became fixtures on newspaper front pages and television screens.
They were also subjected to lurid tabloid allegations suggesting that they and their friends might be swingers or, as physicians, might have been in the habit of sedating their children. Others claimed to have spotted inconsistencies in their account of the night’s events, insinuating that they might have been involved in their daughter’s disappearance.
The intensity of the hostility towards the McCanns would later be described by Roy Greenslade of The Guardian as “no journalistic accident” and “a sustained campaign of vitriol against a grief-stricken family”.
The couple were interviewed as “arguidos” (suspects) by the Portuguese authorities in September 2007, with the parents told that police dogs had discovered DNA evidence from the missing girl in the boot of their holiday rental car. They vehemently denied the accusations against them and subsequently launched a libel action against one of the detectives who had gone on to write a book about the case.
After the family returned to England, chief inspector Tavares de Almeida of the Policia Judiciaria in Portimao signed a nine-page report alleging that Madeleine had died in the holiday apartment as a result of an accident (rather than been abducted by a stranger), that the tapas dinner and rota checks had been part of a planned cover-up, that the family’s friends had helped to mislead the police and that the McCanns had concealed her body and then faked a kidnapping.
That official suspicion lingered until July 2008 when Portugal’s attorney general, Fernando Jose Pinto Monteiro, announced that there was no evidence to link either the McCanns or another suspect, local man Robert Murat, to the disappearance after all and closed the case unsolved.
The McCanns refused to give up, issuing computer-generated images of how their daughter might look with the advancing years, publishing their own book, entitled simply Madeleine (2011), and endorsing a successful campaign to pressure then-prime minister David Cameron into reopening the case. He did so.
The result was Operation Grange, which saw officers return to Portugal in 2014 and investigate tens of thousands of documents at great expense, without definitively establishing the truth, causing the case to lie dormant for several years until Brueckner emerged as a new suspect in 2020.
Writing in Madeleine, Kate McCann discussed the toll the ordeal had taken on her devout Roman Catholic faith, stating: “There have been many times when I’ve felt God has deserted me or that He has let Madeleine down. I’ve occasionally doubted His existence altogether. And yes, I’ve been angry with Him.
“For now, though, at least, my anger towards God seems to have subsided. I believe in Him and I still feel His presence.”
Siblings Amelia and Sean McCann
Out of respect for their privacy, especially given their ages, Madeleine’s younger siblings have largely been shielded from the glare of the spotlight.
However, Amelie McCann, now 18, did join her parents in remembering her missing sister on the 16th anniversary of her disappearance on 7 May 2023.
Speaking publicly for the first time at a prayer meeting in Rothley, she said: “It’s nice that everyone is here together but it’s a sad occasion.”
Ms McCann reportedly joined in with chants including “Never never give up”, “leave no stone unturned”, “don’t forget about me” and “still missing, still missed”.
Her parents were among the 70-strong crowd in attendance but her brother Sean was not, preferring to remain off stage.
Rob Gladstone, leading prayers at the event, told his audience: “We are here this evening to show our loving concern for Madeleine and for all young children who have been taken away from their families against their will.
“We are also here to encourage one another to keep up hope and pray for a renewal of strength even after this long time.”
Reflecting on the importance of the twins in keeping their family unit together in a 2017 interview with the BBC’s Fiona Bruce, Gerry McCann said the ordeal had forced them to face “a new normality” in living without their daughter.
Kate McCann added: “What people do say is that you don’t realise how strong you are until you have no option.
“And I think that’s very true. Obviously massive events like this cause a lot of reaction, a lot of trauma and upset. But ultimately you have to keep going – and especially when you have got other children involved.
“Some of that is subconscious I think – your mind and body just take over to a certain extent. But if you can’t change something immediately, you have to go with it and do the best that you can.”
The couple also addressed the online abuse they have received, commenting: “I’m sure it is a very small minority of people who spend their time doing it, but it has totally inhibited what we do.
“Personally, we don’t use social media, although we have used it in Madeleine’s campaign.
“But for our twins who are growing up in an era where mobile technology is used all the time, we don’t want them not to be able to use it in the same way that their peers do.”
Ms McCann described the actions of some online commentators as shocking but said she preferred to focus on the support many more members of the public had offered the family.