Sun sets on week-long search for Madeleine McCann by British police
It began with British detectives on all fours scouring a hilly stretch of scrubland on the Algarve coast. But as the sun set on the first week of searches in Praia da Luz, the air of hopeful anticipation collapsed into acrimony as the parents of Madeleine McCann were forced yet again to plead for calm.
Police officers on Sunday night packed up and left a six-hectare (15-acre) site where they had focused their operations over the previous week. On Wednesday they will start again on two new areas near a campsite in the Portuguese village where Madeleine was last seen alive seven years ago.
For Kate and Gerry McCann, who were told by police not to visit Portugalwhile the searches were under way, the agony continues. As last week’s searches drew to a close, they defied orders to keep a low profile and appealed to people to “refrain from spreading rumours and speculation based on inaccurate press reporting”.
“We are kept updated on the ongoing work in Portugal and are encouraged by the progress,” the couple said. “Thank you for continuing to stand by us and supporting our efforts to get Madeleine home.”
The McCanns’ rare public statement came after a tortuous week when the face of their missing daughter was again splashed across the front pages of newspapers at home in Britain and in Portugal, after a team of about 50 police officers cordoned off a dense stretch of wasteland a short walk from the holiday apartment where Madeleine disappeared on 3 May 2007, shortly before her fourth birthday.
As the painstaking investigative work got under way, incremental developments came thick and fast. There was the chamber-like shaft beneath a scrap of corrugated iron where police found an item of clothing – but that later turned out to be a man’s sock. Then there was a makeshift grave discovered by officers using ground-penetrating radar, a laptop-sized tool that detects any disturbance in the ground below. After that, the searches delved into the resort’s underground sewerage network as detectives prised open at least three old manholes.
The police activity took place under the lenses of the World‘s media – and even when the work was concealed from the human eye, British and Portuguese media used a drone equipped with tiny cameras to ensure that nothing was left undocumented.
The insatiable appetite for details on the case has evidently not waned in the seven years since Madeleine went missing. But the tiny village of Praia da Luz is trying to move on. The little whitewashed church attended by the McCanns in 2007 has taken down its sun-bleached photograph of the then-three-year-old girl.
The mayor, Victor Mata, believes the locals here have come to terms with once again being the focus of the police investigation.
“What’s been happening in the past week hasn’t bothered anybody really. People can move freely, nobody’s lives have been turned upside down because of this,” he said. “The disruption is much less than we had foreseen.
“I don’t think it has in any way changed the image of Luz. It’s almost been uplifting in a sense, because all the press who have come from the UK have seen for themselves what a lovely place Luz is.”
The villagers here may have acquiesced for now, but Carlos Marques, the landlord of an ersatz English pub opposite the church Our Lady of Light, said locals would “explode” in protest if the operation spread to two other parts of Praia da Luz as the resort approaches the peak holiday season.
“It’s still nice and quiet here. What happened here once happened millions of times in other places like Britain,” he said. What does he think of the current searches? “Pfft. Bullshit. People here complain that what they are doing is a load of crap. Nothing is going to happen there.”
Marques is complimentary about the behaviour of the media this time around. “They don’t complain about journalists anymore. What is more the problem is the big TV cars sometimes here in the square, but up the side street nobody cares. Lots of people don’t get upset with people like you anymore.”
Portuguese police warned before the searches began that the operation would be halted if it was obstructed by the media, but those concerns turned out to be unfounded.
The massed ranks of photographers and camera crews appeared to be on their best behaviour, although one harassed local called in police after his garden was overrun with journalists who scaled his tree and trampled his lawn in the pursuit of a shot of the excavation work.
One foreign TV correspondent was stopped by police for chasing after Scotland Yard’s DCI Andy Redwood, but the vast majority of exchanges between journalists, police and locals were limited to a polite bom dia(good morning).
As the searches drew to a close for a seventh day, detectives appeared no closer to solving the mystery of what happened to Madeleine McCann.
The McCanns, meanwhile, are left once more to await news from the confines of their home in Rothley, Leicestershire, breaking their silence only to plead for calm in their very long and very public nightmare.