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Madeleine McCann: A new twist in the case?

Media in the United Kingdom and the European Union are reporting this morning that the parents of missing British toddler Madeleine McCann have been declared suspects in their daughter’s disappearance. Kate and Gerry McCann may be arrested as early as today.

Intrepid journalist Paulo Reis, who has been covering the McCann disappearance in minute detail since Madeleine vanished, stated baldly in his blog/online paper, Gazeta Digital: “KATE McCANN COULD BE CHARGE [sic] TODAY IN CONNECTION WITH MADELEINE’S DISAPPEARENCE [sic].”

Madeleine, age 4, was allegedly asleep in an apartment with her younger brother and sister while her parents dined several yards away on May 3, 2007 in Praia da Luz, in southwestern Portugal.

Documenting all the twists and turns in the investigation into Madeleine’s vanishing from Praia da Luz last May would require a separate weblog. There have been suspects aplenty and sightings of the child all across the European Union. Madeleine’s physician parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, have become grim celebrities, with the ear of no less than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (until recently that is, when it appeared as though Brown may have put some distance between himself and the couple). Multiple websites and personal profiles have been created by Americans, Britons, and Europeans alike. Message board and blog comment threads have been filled with speculation and painstaking analysis of every aspect of the truly troubling disappearance of the toddler from Leicester. A fairly concise and essentially neutral overview of the case so far can be found at Wikipedia — “Disappearance of Madeleine McCann.” [The Wikipedia entry on Madeleine’s disappearance has numerous legitimate sources of information linked in the notes.]

In the last few days, suspicion of the missing child’s parents has increased as the McCanns found themselves under heavy questioning by Portugal’s criminal investigation outfit, the Polícia Judiciária, or PJ. Early in the search for Madeleine the McCanns were naturally subject to suspicion, but by late July much of the public focus had turned away from the parents and towards some sketchy characters living near Praia da Luz at the time of the child’s disappearance.

Early today, a Portuguese language paper, Sol, reported that there was “fortes possibilidades” — a strong possibility — of Kate McCann becoming “arguida” — a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance, presumably in Madeleine’s death.

In a statement to news services such as Reuters and the AP, McCann family spokesperson David Hughes said that during Kate McCann’s continued questioning by the PJ she would no longer be done as a witness but a suspect, or “arguida.” The status of “arguida” is not quite as serious as the designation “suspect” might be in the UK or the United States. U.S. authorities, for instance, have become quite careful in the last decade or so about calling someone a suspect — many people accused of crimes have remained simply “persons of interest” right up to the moment they were in handcuffs. In Portugal, “arguida” is a legal designation that permits deeper questioning of the person under interrogation.

Fine distinctions between the meanings of “arguida” and “suspect” notwithstanding, the world press has seized on this development as a truly shocking turn of events. The McCann investigation was initially all but ignored by the American press, even as it was becoming a tremendously high-profile case across the Atlantic. The traditional media here in America are all over the story today.

Are the PJ out of other suspects and simply reverting to the most likely culprits? Statistically, harm is most often done to children by a caretaker or someone close to them. When some, including bloggers posting here at CrimeBlog.US, were hesitant to express too much suspicion of the McCanns, commentators frequently expressed the feeling that the couple was being cut too much slack.

It may be that there is forensic evidence pointing towards the McCanns, evidence that has only recently become available. This report from Reuters contained statements from another friend and spokesperson for the McCanns, Justine McGuinness:

“She will formally be declared a suspect,” said Justine McGuinness, a spokeswoman for the McCanns. “Kate knows it’s possible that she could get arrested.”

[. . .]

McGuinness said McCann had told her that police found blood in a car hired by her and her husband, Gerry, but there was no confirmation it was Madeleine’s blood. The car had been hired 25 days after Madeleine disappeared.

“They believe they have evidence to show in some way that she is involved in the death of her daughter, which of course is completely ludicrous,” McGuinness told BBC television.

If the McCanns are arrested in connection with their daughter’s mysterious disappearance, it will truly be an amazing turn of events. Kate and Gerry McCann haven’t just had the ear of the British Prime Minister, they’ve spoken to Pope Benedict XVI as well as sympathetic celebrities in Europe and the U.S.

After the initial outcry against their perceived lapse in leaving Madeleine and her siblings alone on May 3, public perception of the couple grew steadily more sympathetic. They became more comfortable as well, making multiple high-profile public statements. Gerry McCann even began to blog at FindMadeleine.com. His entry from September 6, 2007:

Day 126 – 06/09/2007

Everyone will know that Kate attended for interview as a witness with the Portuguese police today. This is only the second time Kate has been interviewed and although it was a long day, going on past midnight, this was shorter than my second interview which lasted 13 hours! The suggestion that Kate is involved in Madeleines disappearance is ludicrous. Anyone who knows anything about the 3rd May knows that Kate is completely innocent. We will fight this all the way and we will not stop looking for Madeleine.

Admittedly, there had been a strangely blasé tone to many of Gerry’s previous blog entries. He still sounded at times like a man on holiday. Gerry’s entry from September 4:

Day 123 – 03/09/2007

After dropping the twins off Kate and I popped into church for 10 minutes to pray for Madeleine. Spent most of the day going through mail, e-mails and I had a number of calls to make. It was good to spend some time with my family and Sean and Amelie certainly enjoyed their auntie’s dinner- sometimes it is hard to beat mince and ‘tatties’!

A bereft father struggling to keep his fear and anxiety at bay, or a tone-deaf narcissist unable to perceive the shallow nature of such a statement? There seemed to be an inappropriate, perfunctory, almost business-like tone to the post quoted above: Dropped off the kids, check — prayed for the missing kid, check — sorted mail, e-mail, phone calls, etc…. another day at the office.

The fact is, there have been many moments in the McCann investigation when there was “BREAKING NEWS” of one form or another. Blogging about the case slacked here at CrimeBlog.US in part because of this — entries would be half-written only to discover that a sighting of the missing girl was false, or that a new suspect was no longer a suspect.

Discussion of the McCann disappearance continued in comments left on blog posts, though. It was clear that many readers were daily seeking some new development, some sign that the little girl with the teardrop eye might one day come home again. Even as British posters gave the McCanns the benefit of the doubt and Portuguese readers seemed more and more cynical, suspicious of the situation, this hope for Madeleine still seemed to be one point on which the two views agreed.

This desire to find that hope inside this story brings up another spectre raised by heavy suspicion falling on Madeleine’s parents. Implied in allegations of new forensic evidence and naming Gerry and Kate suspects is a terrible conclusion — Portuguese authorities believe the child is dead, and that she may have been dead since May 3, 2007. If the McCanns being named ’suspects’ can be called a shocking development, this is the core reason for the shock. While there was a possibility that Madeleine had been abducted by a stranger, there existed a glimmer of hope that she might still be alive.

The possibility that both parents had a hand in her disappearance suggests strongly that Madeleine is long gone, and may never be found.

Even new suspicion directed at Madeleine’s parents may prove unfounded, in the end. Gerry and Kate, in that case, will have been through more hell than most parents could ever imagine.