Madeleine McCann vanished from a holiday home in Portugal aged 3. A vast police operation, several false leads and allegations, and more than one libel settlement followed. But German police now suspect an individual.
May 3: Madeleine McCann disappears, from a holiday home in Praia da Luz in the Algarve in Portugal. She was on holiday with her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, her siblings and family friends, and had last been seen in her bed in the hotel room. Her mother returned from dinner with a group of friends around 10 p.m. to find "Maddie" was missing. Police, staff and guests search through the night to no avail. Despite the rapid mobilization, criticism of the immediate response during the "golden hours" immediately after a suspected kidnapping would follow. Some evidence at the crime scene was lost, coordination with other authorities like border police and highway surveillance companies was sluggish, an Interpol missing persons alert was only issued five days after the disappearance.
May 15: A British-born man is named as the first "arguido" or suspect by local police. Robert Murat's home was searched, his pool drained, and two associates of his were questioned. One of these associates later fell victim of an arson attack, with his car torched and the Portuguese command "speak" spray-painted in red on the pavement. He was cleared of all involvement by July 21, 2008, and would receive hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel cases from various British newspapers. Also on May 15, Gerry and Kate McCann set up a private fundraising initiative — Madeleine's Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned Ltd — attracting donors ranging from the News of the World tabloid newspaper through to J.K. Rowling and Wayne Rooney's wife, Coleen.
May 30: Kate and Gerry McCann visit the Vatican and are received by then-Pope Benedict XVI, who blesses both the parents and a photo of the missing Maddie.
June: Police, the McCanns, and the media quickly broadened the search around Europe, given McCann's disappearance from a popular holiday destination. Early appeals focus in no small part on Germany, owing to its large contingent of regular Algarve vacationers. A German journalist became the first to ask the family directly if they were involved on June 6 at a press conference in Berlin. Subsequent reports, broadly unsubstantiated, follow in the Portuguese press and swiftly travel on to the UK.
August: Police in Portugal indicate for the first time that Maddie McCann could be dead.
September 7: Gerry and Kate McCann are both formally given "arguido" status, with police suspecting she may have died in an accident and that the parents sought to hide the body. Both were questioned at length. According to Kate McCann, she was offered a lenient 2-year sentence if she admitted to the version of events they suspected. Despite the status as suspects, the McCann's are allowed to leave the country and do so on September 9. Newspaper speculation of definitive DNA evidence in the McCann's car persists, the family launches a libel suit against a Portuguese paper, but prosecutors later declare they have "no new evidence" justifying further questioning of the parents.
October 2: Chief Inspector Goncalo Amaral is removed from the investigation after he had alleged that British police were selective in what assistance they had offered and as his conduct in a previous, failed missing person investigation in the area came under legal scrutiny. Paulo Rebelo takes over the inquiry.
2008 — Case closed in Portugal, police and McCann's begin to clash in court
March: The McCann's accept 550,000 pounds (€610,000 at today's exchange rate, or $690,000) and a front-page apology from tabloid The Daily Express for allegations they were involved in their daughter's suspected death.
July 21: Portuguese authorities declare the case closed and unsolved, releasing thousands of pages of information concluding that they could not reach "any lucid, sensible, serious, and honest conclusions about the circumstances." Gerry and Kate McCann, and Robert Mural, are declared no longer to be suspects.
July 24: Former chief investigator Goncalo Amaral publishes a book sticking to the theory that the McCann's had concocted an abduction story to cover up the accidental death of their daughter. Entitled "Maddie: The Truth of the Lie," it would become the cornerstone of a lengthy libel action by the McCann's against Amaral, which began in 2009 and ultimately went to Portugal's Supreme Court twice. Although the McCann's briefly won damages, these were overturned at appeal and not reinstated; a brief injunction against further sales of the book was also overturned at appeal. The case finally concluded in 2017.
2009-13 — Cold case relaunched; first in UK, then Europe
May 2009: The McCann's appear on the Oprah Winfrey talk show in the US, appealing to their child's potential kidnapper to release her if she still lives.
March and April 2010: Kate and Gerry McCann criticize the release of previously unseen files to British papers. A month later, Gerry McCann speaks of his frustration that the case is no longer being investigated.
May 2011: Kate McCann launches the first of three books with her version of events, called "Madeleine: Our Daughter's Disappearance and the Continuing Search for Her." Updates would follow in 2012 and 2015.
May 12, 2011: Britain's Metropolitan Police announce, after appeals from Maddie's parents, that they would launch an investigative review of the case, after a request from the interior ministry (Home Office). Then-Prime Minister David Cameron had also pledged a renewed investigation.
July 2013: The "investigative review" status is changed to that of an investigation, with input from Portuguese authorities, who continue to formally lead the investigation. The British Home Office funds the probe which would go on to cost more than 10 million pounds. Scotland Yard said it had identified "new evidence and new witnesses" to justify restarting the case in full. Portugal formally reopens its case file later that year.
October 2013: Maddie's case is featured for the first time on popular unsolved crime show "Aktenzeichen XY" (roughly translated as "Case File XY") on German television channel ZDF. The parents make an emotional appeal for anyone who thinks they might know or have seen something to come forward. As Christian Hoppe of Germany's investigative police force, the BKA, said on a fresh edition of the show on June 3, 2020, the first links to the new official suspect emerged after that show.
2014-2020 — Slow progress towards a formal suspect
June 2014: A fresh search for evidence at three sites near Maddie's last know location turn up empty.
April 2017: Almost a decade on, British police insist they are not dropping the case, with four investigators still assigned to Operation Grange.
October 2017: Fresh reports emerge of a new "critical line of inquiry" in the investigation, but police decline to name further details. They do announce renewed funding for the probe. One of the leads hinted at concerns mobile phone records from Praia da Luz on the night of the crime. It has since transpired that the fresh suspect is being treated as such in part because of a call from a Portuguese phone number taken in Praia da Luz on the night of Maddie's disappearance. Police are appealing for the caller to come forward as a suspected key witness. The caller's number was +351916510683.
April 2019: Netflix run a documentary series about the case; the McCann's do not participate, accusing the makers of the show of running the risk of jeopardizing ongoing investigations.
June 3 2020: The BKA formally announces that a known sex criminal facing a separate jail sentence in Germany is now being investigated on suspicion of murder. It does not name the 43-year-old but says he lived out of a mobile home in the Algarve at the time of Maddie's disappearance. Local newspapers in the Braunschweig area where the unnamed prisoner is based subsequently report that the details given by police appear to indicate a man recently convicted of raping and robbing a 72-year-old American woman, also in Portugal, in 2005. DNA linked him to that case in 2018. His age would appear to roughly match eyewitness reports of a man appearing to be in his 30s, who was spied at the scene carrying a young girl around the time of Maddie's disappearance. Although German police say they are investigating a potential murder, British investigators stress they are still treating the case as a "missing persons" investigation, as they still lack definitive proof that the girl is either alive or dead.