Wednesday, 19 August 2009The police hunt for Madeleine was a shambles from the outset.
Evidence was contaminated, Portugal's borders left wide open and the investigation fatally compromised in virtually every conceivable way by a local force ill-equipped to handle it.
It was bad enough for the McCanns that their child was snatched. It was worse luck still for it to happen in a backwater policed by incompetents.
In Britain and America, such an abduction would have triggered an almost instant police dragnet - sniffer dogs and helicopters would have scoured the area while the child's picture would have been handed to the Press and TV to make public as fast as possible.
Cops in Maddie suspect blunder
None of this happened. The Portuguese police decided an almost total LACK of publicity was the best option, to keep suspects in the dark about the investigation's progress. In the first and possibly most elementary blunder, police failed to seal off the crime scene - the McCanns' apartment - until 10am the morning after Madeleine went missing. Before then family, friends and a wide variety of police officers and "helpers" traipsed through the property, rendering any DNA clues found there as good as useless.
A friend of the McCanns said: "On the night Madeleine was taken there were loads of people in and out. Once it was obvious she had not wandered off it should have been immediately sealed.
"Then there were police officers smoking and dropping ash and butt ends."
Even one of the first officers to arrive admitted the area was "totally contaminated" within an hour because his bosses failed to secure it. The apartment was trampled "by the world and his dog", the cop, speaking anonymously, told The Sun.
"By the time we got there it was chaos," he said. "When we arrive and see our superiors on the scene we expect the situation to be under control. It was like they weren't even there.
"Family, friends, neighbours, staff, people off the street - everyone was in and out of the bedroom to check under the bed. The damage had been done."
His partner added: "Any disappearance should be treated as a potential crime. It's not brain surgery."
Leaks, smears ... now plane lies
Portugal's top forensic expert Jose Anes later said he doubted anyone would ever stand trial because the evidence was too contaminated for any safe prosecution.
One of the cops leading the search blamed the McCanns. Police chief Olegario Sousa said more than 20 people entered the apartment early on, touching furniture and opening and closing doors and windows.
He added: "The presence of so many people - especially in the room where the little girl slept with her brother and sister - could have at least complicated the work of the forensic team.
"At the very worst they would have destroyed all the evidence. This could prove to be fatal for the investigation."
The McCanns hit back via a friend, who said: "Of course the family are going to search the apartment. If your child goes missing, you search under beds, in wardrobes, behind doors - everywhere."
'At worst, we were naive'
Yet another gaffe within hours of the abduction only emerged months later.
Police allowed Robert Murat, who later became their first suspect, to sit in as translator at the first witness interviews. They never checked his background or his alibi - they used him simply because he spoke Portuguese. Regardless of Murat's innocence, the information he heard would have been like gold-dust for anyone constructing a cover story.
One of those quizzed was holidaymaker Bridget O'Donnell, an ex-BBC producer who worked on Crimewatch and was horrified by the amateurish investigation.
She was questioned the day after the kidnapping in her apartment near the McCanns'. Bridget said: "Murat was breathless, perhaps a little excited. He reminded me of a boy in my class at school who was bullied.
"Through Murat we answered a few questions and gave our details, which the policeman wrote down on the back of a bit of paper. No notebook.
"Then he pointed to the photocopied picture of Madeleine on the table. 'Is this your daughter?' he asked. 'Er, no,' we said. 'That's the girl you are meant to be searching for.' My heart sank for the McCanns."
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Worse was to come. It emerged that police failed to send Madeleine's bedding for forensic tests. By the time they revisited the apartment 24 hours after she was taken, cleaners had washed the sheets, blankets and pillowcase. Vital fibres from the abductor's clothing, or even their fingerprints, may have been lost.
Only hair samples were sent for testing at a Portuguese forensic lab. An insider there said half the evidence needed to find out what happened was not tested.
He said: "It is obvious it would have been good if they had sent sheets, blankets, pillows and even the mattress. Some important clue could have been found."
It took 48 hours for police to take witnesses' fingerprints. Some were carried out so shoddily they had to be redone.
To their horror the McCanns discovered another glaring error. The frontier with Spain is almost 100 miles from Praia da Luz, about 1 hour 45 minutes' drive. But border guards were only alerted to Madeleine's disappearance 12 HOURS later, giving her abductor ample time to flee with her to Spain and beyond.
Even more disgracefully it was 48 hours before police got round to searching vehicles at the border. Incredibly, weeks later the border was closed almost immediately after reports of a CAR being stolen.
Further errors eroded the McCanns' confidence in the investigation. With police keeping silent about any leads to avoid alerting suspects, Kate and Gerry were forced of their own accord to invite TV crews to their apartment to broadcast an appeal for information.
It was THEY, not police, who decided to release details of the pink and white Eeyore pyjamas Madeleine was wearing.
The mistakes went on and on.
A police description of Madeleine's suspected kidnapper was released, based on Jane Tanner's sighting of the man carrying a child outside the apartment.
Cops said he was 5ft 10in. But Tanner saw a man of about 5ft 7in - they had simply given out the wrong height in the description. It might have been crucial.
British crime experts remain convinced Portuguese police were simply not up to such a major investigation.
Retired Det Chief Supt Chris Stevenson - who nailed Ian Huntley for murdering Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman - conducted a three-day review of the Madeleine probe alongside other British crime experts for a TV documentary.
He insisted: "The intention was never to do a hatchet job on the Portuguese police - but the inescapable conclusion was that they were totally ill-equipped for the job.
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"If you don't immediately realise what you are dealing with, you can get caught and make major forensic errors.
"That's what appears to have happened in the Maddie case. This was a child missing from home but they didn't seem to have thought anything suspicious might have happened at first.
"In Britain we refer to this period immediately after a child vanishes as the 'golden hours'."
On Friday, May 4, the day after Madeleine's disappearance, police brought in sniffer dogs and finally alerted border authorities and the Spanish police.
'The guilt will never leave us'
Gerry and Kate, clearly distraught but maintaining their dignity, faced the Press outside apartment 5a. They realised right away that their most valuable aid in finding Madeleine was publicity. Kate was clutching Cuddle Cat for comfort.
Gerry said: "Words cannot describe the anguish and despair we are feeling as the parents of a beautiful daughter.
"We request anyone with any information relating to Madeleine's disappearance should please contact Portuguese police to help us get her back to safety.
"Please, if you have Madeleine, please let her come home to her mummy, daddy, brother and sister. Everyone can understand how distressing this current situation is."
Portuguese police, however - in a taste of what was to come - announced that under the country's secrecy laws they could not reveal any details of the investigation.
This vacuum of information was to result in unsubstantiated police theories and claims being leaked daily to the Portuguese Press and re-reported in Britain.
RELATIVES of missing Madeleine McCann said they were “heartened” by all the support they have received from the British Government.
Relatives including Madeleine's grandparents flew to Portugal. Britain's Ambassador to the country, John Stephen Buck, went to the resort, as did Craig Mayhew, director of Mark Warner UK Operations.
By Saturday, May 5, the McCanns' family were already expressing misgivings about the police. Madeleine's aunt Philomena McCann claimed they were playing down her disappearance and being "uncommunicative".
Gerry, by contrast, issued a new appeal and diplomatically thanked police for their efforts.
A smile that melts hearts
Despite their initial reluctance to face reality, detectives announced that they DID now believe Madeleine was abducted.
“It’s a great shame that people still want to make money out of Madeleine’s situation.”
They further revealed that they believed she was still alive, in Portugal and may have been kidnapped to be abused by paedophiles. They revealed they had a sketch of a "suspect".
It was one of a host of bold and unsubstantiated announcements they were to make.
The same day British holidaymaker Amanda Mills revealed that she saw a prowler tampering with bedroom window shutters yards from Madeleine's holiday flat days before she was abducted. The "weird" man, middle-aged, dark-skinned and unshaven, tried to grab a child's buggy but ran off when confronted.
Criticised ... police took hours to seal the crime scene
What seemed the first real breakthrough came on May 9. CCTV footage from a petrol station near Praia da Luz appeared to show a woman with a girl resembling Madeleine. Police were investigating the possibility she was snatched by two men and a woman. The CCTV footage, they said, was "the key".
The police hunt for Madeleine was a shambles from the outset. For several crucial days detectives failed even to take seriously the idea she had been abducted - a stance that infected every aspect of the probe.