The big breaks in Madeleine McCann case that have come to nothing

The big breaks in the Madeleine McCann case… that have led us no closer to finding her: As reservoir search turns up ‘relevant clue’, a look at key moments that promised to turn the investigation on its head – to no avail

  • It’s been 16 years since three-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished from resort

It’s been 16 years since three-year-old Madeleine McCann was snatched from her bed at an Algarve holiday resort. 

For more than a decade, her anguished parents Gerry and Kate have waited in vain for any news – any clue – that their little girl is somehow alive after all this time.

And there have been moments – when police named suspects or members of the public had reported potential sightings – where they allowed themselves to think there was a chance they might have some answers.

But none of the tip-offs have turned out to be correct and the main suspect in the case, convicted rapist Christian Brueckner, has still not been charged in connection with Madeleine’s disappearance.

It has been a case filled with false starts and false hopes, with thousands of bogus sightings of Madeleine from Dorset to as far away as New Zealand.  

And with the latest three-day search for Madeleine at a reservoir in Portugal resulting in a ‘relevant clue’ being found following a tip-off from one of Brueckner’s former friends, her parents once again face months of agony as they wait for the results.

Here, MailOnline takes a look at the key moments in Madeleine’s case that promised to turn the investigation on its head – but to no avail.

It’s been 16 years since three-year-old Madeleine McCann was snatched from her bed at an Algarve holiday resort

For more than a decade, her anguished parents Gerry and Kate (pictured together in 2017) have waited in vain for any news – any clue – that their little girl is somehow alive after all this time

May 2007: Madeleine disappears from her room

Madeleine was on holiday with her parents in Praia de Luz in Portugal when she disappeared just days before her fourth birthday.

On the night of May 3, her parents put her to bed with her two younger twin siblings, Sean and Amelie, before going out for dinner with friends nearby.

The group had organised a rotation to check up on the children every 30 minutes. At 9pm the children were there. At 9:30pm one of the friends found a door wide open. And it was around 10pm that Madeleine’s mother Kate found her daughter’s bed empty.

Police, friends and resort staff helped in searching the area. Days turned into months and hundreds of police officers were called in to support the search – without luck.

A huge publicity campaign led by the family, and with contributions from the likes of J.K. Rowling, leads to the naming of first suspects. 

Kate and Gerry McCann make an appeal for their three year old Madeleine’s return in 2007

September 2007: Portuguese police astonishingly name Gerry and Kate McCann as suspects

Four months after their daughter’s disappearance, grief-stricken Gerry and Kate McCann were named as suspects in the case and endured hours of gruelling interrogations.

Portuguese detectives had claimed they had found incriminating DNA evidence in the family’s holiday apartment and, crucially, the boot of their hire car which they rented 25 days after Madeleine vanished.

British scientists had already warned the Portuguese that the forensic evidence was far from conclusive and the DNA could have come from almost anyone.

And it was later revealed that the police had tried to force a confession from Gerry by confronting him with the false DNA ‘evidence’.

Four months after their daughter’s disappearance, grief-stricken Gerry and Kate McCann (pictured in Portugal on May 17, 2007 with their twins) were named as suspects in the case and enduring hours of gruelling interrogations

Kate was subjected to an 11-hour interview in which she faced a barrage of questions about the DNA evidence, her relationship with Madeleine and whether she ever sedated her children to make them sleep.

The Leicestershire GP angrily refused to answer a total of 48 questions.

Her husband, in an eight-hour interrogation, had to deny police suggestions that his wife suffered from depression and had wanted to give Madeleine to relatives to look after because she could not cope.

Police even asked him if the couple had taken out life insurance on three-year-old Madeleine.

Gerry said in a Spanish TV interview that October that he was ‘confident’ the couple would be ‘eliminated’ from inquiries. ‘I’m confident of that, because we have done nothing,’ he said. 

Madeleine McCann disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in 2007 

And with no evidence and no charges brought against the McCanns, Portuguese police removed the anguished parents as suspects in the case in July 2008.

Portuguese police chief Gonçalo Amaral who led the initial investigation and ordered the couple to be made official suspects was later taken off the case. 

In a major blow to the McCann’s, in July 2008, Portugal’s attorney general ended the investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance after they had failed to uncover any evidence. 

The case files – containing up to 30,000 pages – were turned over to private investigators working for Madeleine’s family who vowed to continue their search.

October 2013: Case reopens as police release new sketches of potential suspects

Hope was renewed for Madeleine’s family in October 2013 when the Met Police issued new sketches of potential suspects in the case, including of a man seen near the McCanns holiday apartment carrying a girl in pyjamas.

That same month, a BBC Crimewatch appeal led to almost 1,000 calls and emails from the public, with Kate and Gerry saying at the time saying they are ‘genuinely hopeful’ one will lead to a breakthrough. 

Several tourists who were in Praia da Luz on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance came forward, with two crucially naming the same man as a suspect.  

Days later, Portuguese police said they would reopen the case after ‘highly significant’ new evidence was identified by local detectives. 

The country’s attorney general said ‘new elements of evidence’ and new witnesses justified the continuation of the original investigation. 

Police in the UK and Portugal said they would work together on their investigations in parallel to pursue new leads.

Gerry McCann and Kate McCann hold pyjamas belonging to their daughter Amelie which are similar to the ones worn by their daughter, three-year-old Madeleine McCann, on the night she went missing as they make an appeal for the BBC’s Crimewatch programme in 2013

Two e-fit images of the same man seen in Praia da Luz on the night Madeleine disappeared were released by the Met Police in 2013

The Crimewatch special in 2013 revealed that police were now looking at Madeleine’s abduction as being at 10pm and not 9.15pm

Portuguese police later named Euclides Monteiro as a key suspect in the case. 

Monteiro was a heroin addict who was fired from his job in the restaurant at the Ocean’s Club in Praia da Luz a year before Madeleine went missing. 

But an investigation into whether Monteiro, who was run over by a tractor at the age of 40 in 2009, took Madeleine in revenge for losing his job, came to nothing. 

Police had identified him as their main suspect after mobile phone records indicated he was around the McCanns’ holiday apartment in Praia da Luz when Madeleine disappeared.

In January 2014, UK detectives flew to Portugal to conduct searches and interview people there in connection with Madeleine’s disappearance – but no arrests were ever made. 

At one point, police said they were conducting DNA tests on scraps of clothing found in a pit just feet away from where Madeleine vanished – but, again, the find came to nothing. 

And in the years that followed, despite hope that two police investigations and countless searches would lead to a breakthrough, there appeared to be little progress in finding answers.

In 2012, five years after Madeleine’s disappearance, her family issued an age progression efit photo to show what Madeleine may have looked like aged nine (right)

June 2020: German detectives say they ‘almost have enough evidence’ to charge suspect

There was a major breakthrough in the case in June 2022 when British and German authorities announced that they were investigating a 43-year-old German man in connection with Madeleine’s disappearance. 

Prosecutors said they had ‘almost enough evidence’ to charge the convicted paedophile with the kidnap and murder of Madeleine. UK authorities described the development as a ‘significant new line of enquiry’.

At the time, due to German privacy laws, the suspect was not allowed to be named but it can now be revealed that it was Brueckner – though he wasn’t formally named as an official suspect until April 2022.

Convicted rapist Brueckner, 44, was identified by German police in June 2020 with prosecutors saying they believed he had murdered Madeleine McCann. He has now been named an official suspect

Christian Brueckner (pictured) has been named as a key suspect in the case of Madeleine’s disappearance

Police revealed in 2020 that Brueckner had made a 30-minute phone call that located him in Praia da Luz just an hour before the Madeleine was last seen on May 3, 2007 – a revelation that detectives in Scotland Yard described as a ‘major breakthrough’ in the case.

The following day Brueckner, who had lived in Portugal’s Algarve region between 1997 and 2007 and had a house in Praia de Luz, suspiciously transferred the ownership of his Jaguar car to another person despite continuing to drive it, police said.

In July 2020, Portuguese authorities conducted searches of three wells and a hidden cellar related to the investigation, but a local law enforcement source said no new information was discovered.

Pictured: A well in the Algarve where Portuguese police searched for the body of Madeleine McCann in 2020 

April 2022: Police name Christian Bruckner as suspect

Brueckner was made the ‘official suspect’ in Madeleine’s disappearance in April last year – on the eve of the 15th anniversary of her disappearance. 

He was named by German prosecutors as the man ‘responsible’ for the girl’s kidnap and murder in June 2020 but was never named as an official suspect until last year.

Prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters, who is leading the McCann investigation in Germany, said at the time he has ‘concrete evidence’ Brueckner killed Madeleine. 

The decision to make Bruecker, a convicted paedophile who has been linked to four other child murders across Europe since 1996, an ‘arguido’ – or official suspect – brought new hope that one of the world’s most harrowing unsolved crimes could still be solved.

‘This reflects progress in the investigation, being conducted by the Portuguese, German and British authorities,’ the McCanns said at the time. ‘Even though the possibility may be slim, we have not given up hope that Madeleine is still alive and we will be reunited with her.’

Pictured: Christian Brueckner was filmed at the wheel of a battered VW campervan weeks before Madeleine was kidnapped

The German suspect had lived in a warehouse outside Praia da Luz for several years but moved into a campervan just before Madeleine vanished

Christian Brueckner

Brueckner was questioned by Portuguese authorities about Madeleine’s disappearance for the first time in April 2022 but he exercised his right to remain silent throughout the interview.

But one of Brueckner’s former lovers, Anastasia Meckesy said at the time the sex offender had confessed to her in 2013 that he knew what happened to Madeleine.

‘He said that he “knows what happened to little Maddie from England”,’ Meckesy said at the time. ‘Christian is a human pig. That’s how you should see him today. Today I know what he’s accused of.’

Brueckner, a convicted paedophile, is currently languishing in a German prison for the rape of a 72-year-old American tourist in Portugal just 18 months before Madeleine was abducted. 

His trial heard he planned the sex attack having broken into the victim’s house with a rope to tie her up. She was blindfolded and gagged before being raped and robbed.

According to German media, Brueckner was first convicted of child sex offences in Germany in 1994, aged 17. 

Pictured: Police officers seen carrying large blue bags away from a German allotment where  Brueckner allegedly lived in 2007

Slabs of building materials were removed from the allotment garden in Germany in July 2020  – where Christian Brueckner allegedly lived in the same year that Madeleine McCann vanished 

He was sentenced to two years in jail but was released early, travelling to the Algarve in 1995 as a backpacker, where he became involved in drug smuggling.

He then spent 12 years on the Algarve dealing drugs, burgling holiday homes before raping the American pensioner. The sex attack could be significant because the convicted paedophile had broken into her Praia da Luz holiday home to loot it – and police have long believed Madeleine may have been snatched during a burglary.

Indeed, Brueckner was known to break into Algarve hotel rooms and apartments to supplement his income from drug dealing, and left the south of Portugal suddenly in 2007 – the year Madeleine vanished – after more than a decade living there.

He is alleged to have admitted abducting Madeleine to a friend in a bar – and German investigators are said to firmly believe he killed the three-year-old. 

But more than three years after linking Brueckner to Madeleine’s disappearance, he has still not been charged regarding her abduction as prosecutors do not have enough evidence. 

February 2023: Mystery Polish woman declares she is missing Madeleine

In February, Julia Faustyna – better known as Julia Wendell – created an Instagram account called iammadeleinemccann. She started professing that she, then 21, was the missing British girl, despite her parents branding her claims ‘lies and manipulation’.

Appearing on US talk show Dr Phil, she said she started suspecting she was Madeleine last June – but did not provide any evidence.

Side-by-sides did show resemblance between Julia and Madeleine, but the lack of proof was leading the case nowhere.

She claimed that she could not remember large parts of her childhood and was not sure of her age. She said she had not seen her birth certificate – which her parents disputed.

Wendell’s unsubstantiated claims were supported by Dr Fia Johansson, a private investigator and psychic medium. She said Wendell had been trafficked from Poland to another country by an international sex group – again without evidence.

The development was put to rest in April 2023 after Wendell agreed to take a DNA test. The results showed the woman was, after all, from Poland, with some Lithuanian and Romanian heritage. 

Dr Johansson backed the findings but said ‘this story is much more complicated than a simple girl from a small town in Poland making a claim to get attention. She truly believed what she was saying, and with so many questions about her childhood it is easy to understand where she was coming from.’ 

Johansson’s (left) is pictured together with Julia Wendell (right)

The pair appear together again on US talk show Dr Phil on 27 March 2023

May 2023: New searches in Portugal 

In what the McCanns hoped would be a huge breakthrough in the case, detectives announced this month they would launch a search of a remote reservoir in the Algarve.

German authorities this month announced they would begin searching the Arade reservoir – which Bruecker called his ‘little paradise’ after receiving ‘certain tip-offs’.

The reservoir is located near the town of Silves, where a lorry driver had claimed to see a woman passing off a child resembling Madeleine’s description to a man two days after the toddler disappeared. 

Investigators cleared a large area of woodland at the reservoir and dug eight deep holes to collect samples, which have been sent for forensic and DNA testing in Germany.

Scientists are expected to have initial results next week, sources say, but it is feared it could take months for a full analysis to be completed.

An area of around 160 square feet had been flattened and cleared of grass and shrubs with several holes dug into the ground to a depth of around two feet during the latest Madeleine McCann search in the Algarve, Portugal, on May 25, 2023

Investigators searching the area around the reservoir in the Algarve on May 25

Investigators search the undergrowth near the Arade reservoir in the Algarve, Portugal, on May 25

Police are aiming to build up a picture of sole suspect Christian Brueckner’s life on the Algarve and the places he frequented as they search the Barragem reservoir in Silves, Portugal

The Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manha said a ‘relevant clue’ was found during the search on Thursday, leading police to focus on a specific area of the secluded beauty spot. 

Several items were removed from the site, which may or may not be of relevance to the investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, the publication said. They include a bra strap, pieces of clothing and plastic items.

But it remains to be seen as to whether any of the evidence will help the McCanns get some form of closure. 

The mystery of what happened to little Madeleine – and whether she is still alive – has captivated the world and seen the Met Police spend more than £14million in their investigation. But with every apparent breakthrough, there are still no answers.

Earlier this month, Gerry and Kate marked Madeleine’s 20th birthday – and 16 years since she disappeared – by saying they are ‘never going to give up’ with their search for their daughter.

They hold onto a glimmer of hope she could still be alive 16 years after she vanished without a trace. 

Madeleine’s great uncle Brian Kennedy said: ‘Sixteen years without someone and still not knowing where they are is a very long time. Even if it was bad news, in some ways, it would give us some closure. But with no closure there is still hope.’ 

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