What happened to Madeleine McCann? That question has vexed investigators since 2007, when the British child vanished at a Portugal resort on a family vacation.
Madeleine’s case is being featured in the Netflix series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, which streamed on March 15, 2019. The child vanished at a Portugal resort while her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, were at dinner. Throughout the years, authorities have named some people “arguidos” (suspects), including the parents, only to later clear them. You can read police records in the case here.
Madeleine was only 3-years-old when she vanished and became one of the highest-profile missing person’s cases in the world. The family has shared videos about their child and continuing search for Madeleine on their YouTube channel. In 2017, on the 10th anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance, Gerry McCann told BBC: “I think that day and the poignancy of it, we don’t tend to go back to the time because it’s so draining, but inevitably on anniversaries and on her birthday, they are the hardest days. By far.”
Here are five popular theories on what happened to Madeleine McCann:
1. A Burglary That Went Awry
The possibility that Madeleine might have woken up and been killed or kidnapped in a burglary gone wrong has been seriously explored by authorities. Indeed, two other apartments were burglarized at the resort two weeks before Madeleine disappeared, according to UK Telegraph.
According to Sky News, in 2014, the Metropolitan Police, through the Portuguese police, “questioned four local suspects on this theory.”
According to the Telegraph, police were investigating this alleged “gang of thieves” who worked in the area. One member of the group worked at the report where Madeleine disappeared from her bedroom while her parents dined a short distance away with other adults at a tapas restaurant in 2007.
“Mobile calls between the men on the night of her disappearance have placed the men at the scene,” Telegraph reported of three men. The men were named as Jose Carlos da Silva; Ricardo Rodrigues; and Paulo Ribeiro, according to Telegraph. Express reports that da Silva drove tourists to their apartments for his job and lived near Madeleine’s apartment. He called in sick the night the girl disappeared, Express reported. Rodrigues, then a teen, lived 500 yards from Madeleine’s apartment.
Authorities had tracked mobile phones in the area around the time Madeleine disappeared, and these suspects had mobile phone contact during that time frame. However, Telegraph reports, they were declared suspects but then released. The men maintained they did not kidnap Madeleine, according to Telegraph.
Scotland Yard officials reported the men were ruled out by the investigation, Express reports. The men have expressed their innocence, with da Silva telling Express, “This whole investigation has been ridiculous. They have been wasting their time. They have caused a lot of upset for nothing and wasted everyone’s time.” Rodriguez told Express he was innocent, adding, “All I want to do is earn enough to eat and live a quiet life.”
Carlos Anjos, the former head of the Policia Judiciaria officers’ union, told Panorama that he didn’t think the burglary theory made sense because “not even a wallet disappeared, no television disappeared, nothing else disappeared. A child disappeared.”
2. Madeleine Was a Victim of Sexual Trafficking
One theory holds that the pretty child was targeted by sex traffickers. These theories center on Morocco and Belgium. According to the Independent, one theory held that a Belgium pedophile ring wanted a “young girl.”
Others theorize the children was taken to Morocco for sex trafficking purposes, and some reports filtered back from that country that people had seen a girl resembling Madeleine in that country, which the McCanns later visited in their search, Independent reports.
No Madeleine sightings have ever been verified.
3. That Madeleine Drowned
One theory that has been floated: That Madeleine wasn’t murdered but, rather, that she wandered out of the apartment looking for her parents on her own.
Then, she either drowned or somehow met her end in the elements surrounding the resort without the intervention of foul play. This is a popular theory on Reddit discussion threads. For example, one Reddit user wrote, “read a theory on here once that Madeline walked off (maybe in search of her parents) and either drowned or got hurt and died. I tend to believe that theory the most.”
Another Reddit user wrote, “I think she woke up, left the apartment and wandered off. She either died either by drowning in the ocean (kids her age love water) or by some other form of misadventure. I do not think foul play was involved.”
However, the lack of a body points against this theory.
4. The Pedophile Theory
One of the theories explored by police: That a pedophile/sex offender living in the area took Madeleine, molested her, and then murdered her to cover up his tracks. The Independent reported at one point that it was believed that 38 known sex offenders lived in the area and there were other sexual assaults of tourists’ children.
According to Sky News, this theory was given some currency because “witnesses saw several suspicious men watching the McCanns’ apartment on the day she disappeared and in the days leading up to it.”
The British news site reports that Portuguese detectives were interested in a series of other sexual attacks against British tourists staying in villas in the Algarve coastal area leading up to 2007. There was a suspect in those attacks at one point: a former waiter at the resort named Euclides Monteiro. He is now deceased. However, DNA later ruled him out in the string of attacks.
According to Portugal Resident, Monteiro had fallen under suspicion because he once worked at the resort, his mobile phone indicated he was in the area, and he had been “sacked for petty thieving.” He was described as a heroin addict who would burglarize apartments.
Another man who made the suspect list for this theory: Raymond Hewlett. According to Irish Mirror, Hewlett was convicted UK pedophile who lived near the resort. He died in Germany of cancer in 2010.
There is no known public evidence connecting the men to Madeleine’s disappearance, however.
A British expatriate named Robert Murat won a libel case against multiple British newspapers after he was named a suspect, but then cleared, in Madeleine’s case. He lived nearby with his mother.
5. A Discredited Theory That the Parents Faked Madeleine McCann’s Abduction Led to a Libel Suit
At one point during the case, the parents fell under suspicion of Portuguese police and even were given the label arguido: “suspect.” In 2008, though, the police removed the McCanns’ arguido status, the Independent reports. Over the years, Gerry has expressed frustration over the investigation.
Some online critics trolled the McCanns for leaving their children (briefly) unattended, but prosecutors found that the parents “could not have foreseen that, in the resort in which they had chosen to spend a brief holiday, they would be placing the lives of any of their children in danger,” reports The Sun.
The general theory held that the McCanns allegedly killed their daughter by accident – maybe by sedating her so she would sleep while they went to the restaurant – and then covered this up. Another variation of this unproven theory held that the child might have died from an accident while left unattended, and the McCanns didn’t want that known. However, there is no evidence that’s been presented to back these theories up, and the McCanns deny any involvement in what happened to Madeleine. They have never been arrested nor formally accused of any wrongdoing and have long ago been cleared as suspects.
Blood and cadaver dogs alerted only in the family’s apartment, reported the Independent. However, that evidence was questioned for its reliability, and a partial DNA match that could have been Madeleine’s in the trunk of the couple’s rental car could not be verified for certain.
The Independent reports that the McCanns went so far in 2007 as to hire forensic specialists to disprove speculation that they might have sedated their children. They used hair samples from Madeleine’s siblings.
They are the authors of a book about their daughter’s disappearance.
The Guardian reported that the Portuguese police file showed “that days before the McCanns were formally named as suspects, a British scientist had warned that tests on DNA recovered from the family’s hire car were inconclusive.” In addition, the news site, reports, Kate McCann “refused to answer 48 questions about her daughter, apparently fearing they were intended to implicate her in the girl’s disappearance.”
British authorities later reopened the case and launched a massive investigation, but they’ve never solved the riddle of Madeleine’s disappearance.
It’s not just online trolls or the news media who have challenged the McCanns since their daughter disappeared.
The McCanns sued the ex-police chief in Portugal Goncalo Amaral, after he wrote a book in which he claimed they faked Madeleine’s abduction. They stated the claim was false, and they won a libel judgment against him, BBC reported.
“It was entirely focused on the effect of the libels on our other children and the damage that was done to the search for Madeleine,” the spokesperson for Kate and Gerry McCann told BBC.
The network reported that a court ordered Amaral to stop publishing the book, and quoted Kate McCann as telling the court, “It was very painful to read and I also felt anxious and fearful because of the damage I felt it was doing here in Portugal.”
The McCanns are both doctors. According to the Sun, they were both born in 1968 and live in Rothley, Leicestershire. “They are Roman Catholics. Kate Healy is from Huyton, near Liverpool and graduated in 1992 with a degree in medicine from the University of Dundee,” Sun reported.
“We need her back where she belongs,” Gerry said in a video appeal posted to YouTube. “Someone knows what happened to her… someone’s holding information that would bring her back to her family…it’s not too late. Please pass this information on to us.”
Gerald Patrick McCann “was born in Glasgow and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a BSc in physiology/sports science in 1989. In 1992 he qualified in medicine and in 2002 obtained his MD,” the Sun reported, adding, “Since 2005 he has been a consultant cardiologist at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester.” They met in 1993 in Glasgow and dated for five years before marrying.
However, over the years, the parents have been reviled by some on social media and in the public.
According to the Atlantic, on the night Madeleine disappeared, the parents were at a restaurant located only 180 feet away with their friends, and they said they all took turns checking on the children about every 30 minutes.
Around 10 p.m., the article says, Kate McCann went to check on her children and noticed that Madeleine was missing. The only thing on her bed: “a fuzzy pink toy named Cuddle Cat.” The girl has not been seen since, and it’s unclear what happened to her.
To BBC, Gerry explained, “You adapt and you have a new normality. At some point you’ve got to realise that time is not frozen.” The couple still buys Christmas and birthday presents for Madeleine, they said in the interview.