FEBRUARY 2008, NINE MONTHS AFTER MADDIE’S DISAPPEARANCE.
IT’S CARNIVAL SUNDAY. In the distance the shots of the hare hunters can be heard, resounding above the low-growing vegetation of the Barrocal.
On waking, I decide to stay at home. Recently, I’ve had no wish to go out, to go walking or to meet people. I yearn instead for peace and silence. That morning, the sun was shining, promise of a lovely day: but in the afternoon, the rain began to fall, ruining the fête and the parades.
From the window I admire the Algarve countryside: the pink and snowy-white of the almond trees contrasting with the blue of the sea that is glimpsed in the distance. Suddenly, the ringing of the telephone – more and more unusual of late – brings me out of my lethargy; I have to face reality.
From the receiver, a friendly voice, swinging between anger and sadness, asks me:
– How are you? Have you heard our national director’s interview?
I reply no and wonder what the clearly perceptible anxiety of my questioner is due to.
– He says we were precipitous. That placing the couple under investigation was premature….I wonder what’s come over him. He totally validated that decision. What is he intending to do? End the investigation?
He is alluding to the investigations undertaken after the disappearance of a little English girl of nearly four years of age during the night of May 3rd to 4th 2007, at the Ocean Club, one of the many tourist complexes in the village of Luz in Lagos, Portugal. She was called Madeleine Beth McCann and she was sleeping in a bedroom in the apartment block, beside her sister and her brother – twins aged 2 years. During this time, their parents were dining a hundred metres away with a group of friends and holiday companions. This news story was the beginning of a criminal investigation, unpublished in Portugal and, I think, in the rest of the world. Even so, the case benefited from unprecedented international media coverage. Numerous suggestions were put forward, mixing truth and lies; at the same time as regular information bulletins from the police, a campaign of disinformation was developed with the objective of discrediting the work of the investigators. For me, the investigations came to an end on October 2nd 2007, the date on which there seems to have been a new English ultimatum, incidentally on the same day that the Treaty of Lisbon was being discussed.
Considering the length of time I witnessed that media spectacle, including, at its height, “forcing,” by the McCann family with the disclosure of a photo-fit sketch of the alleged abductor, nothing more could have surprised me.
– Don’t worry, it’s carnival…
I follow the conversation as if it was nothing, but deep down, I have the feeling that the world is caving in.
After hanging up, I go back to contemplating the almond trees in flower, planted in the hard soil of the Algarve. I wonder if a body is resting under that earth and if God, in the end, is not a little precipitous in making these trees flower in the winter….And then I tell myself no. A memory comes to mind of the legend of this princess from a country in the north, married to a Moorish king. She spent her winter days pining for the snow of her country, which she missed. Then, the monarch had the idea of planting almond trees throughout the surrounding region. Thus, when winter arrived, from the castle window, the young woman could contemplate the white mantle of the flowering trees that covered the countryside, and her sadness was dispelled.
BRIEF DIGRESSION ON THE ALGARVE AND ITS INHABITANTS
From time immemorial, the Algarve has been a region open to the world. Its geostrategic position, its sky, its climate and the hospitality of its inhabitants have always attracted people from other regions. Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks passed through here; the Romans established themselves here and set up communication routes. Numerous relics; at Estói, Vilamoura, Abicada, Vila da Luz, witness to their presence. The influence of the Moors, who spread Al-Andalus (it is thus that they named the region) to the west of Cordoba, to Al-Gharb, remains very present in the Algarvian culture.
The history of the relationship between the Algarve and England is as ancient as it is turbulent. Between 1580 and 1640, when Portugal lost its independence and was integrated into the Spanish Empire, Faro was attacked by the troops of the Count of Essex. This latter seized, amongst other assets, some precious property – not less than 3,000 volumes – from the library of the Bishop of the Algarve, Jerónimo Osório. Amongst these books was a Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in Hebrew, printed in 1487 in Faro by Samuel Gacon, a Jewish publisher. This historic work (the first book printed in Portugal) is kept at the British Library in London. Later, the Algarvians will help the English to defend Gibraltar, a strategic place for the fleet of the British Royal Navy.
The Algarvians have always shown great independence, not hesitating to oppose any foreign domination attempt. In the 19th century, during the French invasion, the first reverses suffered by the Napoleonic troops were inflicted by the Algarvians. The population of Olhao rose up and drove the invaders back near Quelfes; young people of the town set out aboard a fragile barque to inform King John VI, then exiled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, of the liberation of his homeland. Portugal is a country of brave and warm-hearted people, rejecting arrogance and insults, proud of their identity and independence, even from the European Union. It is also a modern state that welcomes a great many investors and tourists and moreover plays an important and recognised diplomatic role. Throughout its history, Portugal has concluded pacts, signed treaties and built bilateral alliances with many countries: the Luso-British Alliance is a good example, proof of the vitality of relations between the two countries, and above all of a deep understanding.
Nowadays, the Algarve is focused on tourism; since the 1960s, it is mostly the British who come to stay there. It is on this welcoming soil that little Madeleine disappeared.
AN INVESTIGATION DESTINED FOR THE ARCHIVES
I feel it; with that television statement, the national director has the intention of preparing public opinion for the inevitable, that is to say, the end of the investigation and the closing of the case.
I get the impression that that decision was hatched on October 2nd and that all actions taken after that date were only a matter of form, with the sole purpose of sticking to the pre-established schedule. I fear that challenging all the previous work of the investigation is only a pretext for closing a case that was beginning to undermine the police judiciaire, the investigators and Portugal. Perhaps that was why it had to come to a close.
Placing Madeleine’s parents under investigation – Kate Healy and Gerald McCann as arguidos – must have marked a turning point in relations between the police in charge of the investigation and the couple. The Portuguese police officers began to consider the McCanns as potential suspects, which their British counterparts did not. At that time, the two police forces seemed to agree about exploring the hypothesis of the child’s death inside the apartment. But the English police – without any really practical justification – suddenly stepped back and gave up on following that track. We have always found it strange the way the couple were treated, even after they were placed under investigation, and we have often wondered how the McCanns could have had access to information that had not been made public.
I recall various moments in the investigation, and the memories come pouring out; I think of that little girl who was not yet four years old and who was denied the right to live.
It would seem that there are preparations to smother the case, that the importance of the evidence is being minimised, that it’s losing its force. Thus, the rights of that child are flouted, the rights of many other children. Who wants to get to that point? Who required my departure from the operational coordination of the investigation? Who is it who wishes to bring an end to the arguido status of the McCanns and Murat? Those who support the theory of abduction? Those who maintain – I’d go further and say that they are – that in England the suspects would already have been arrested? Or those who perpetuate the lie, in straying from the search for the material truth? The closing of the case certainly serves someone’s interests.
After my departure from Portimao on October 2nd 2007, I had decided to forget about this case. Perhaps the best thing to do, considering the forces at play. If the authorities of her own country were not worried any more about what had happened to that child and they satisfied themselves with the theory of abduction, why worry myself about it? It’s certainly not the unfortunate statement from a director of police (as perhaps inferred by the journalist) that will make the existing evidence be forgotten – I no longer think that was his intention. The only means of erasing the record of everything that was done would be the destruction of the official records. And then, our memory remains, that of all those set out on this investigation to discover the truth.
I receive another phone call: it’s my wife Sofia. She is worried about me, and has been since May 3rd of last year, for nine months now. Previously, our marriage already knew highs and lows; after that date, it was worse. I had become an absent father and husband. At the beginning I distanced myself from my family to protect them from the media pressure, but also because of the pace of work imposed by the investigation; now I live alone and I am seized by a certain bitterness; I can’t help feeling betrayed by the institution to which I dedicated myself for more than a quarter of a century. Nothing that happened to me seems justified to me, nothing makes sense. My family did not deserve that.
Sofia is shocked by the national director’s statements.
– Come and have dinner with me in Portimao. The children are with their grandparents. We can talk a little about all of that.
I decide to go. I need to hear some reassuring words.
From then on I carefully follow all the details. I become aware of the importance of statements from the national director, who had always maintained that all leads in the investigation must be explored and remain open. That they be left open is possible, but they have been explored.
Could the fact have been forgotten that we decided to constitute as arguido a couple suspected of the crime of concealing a body and simulating an abduction?
A short time later, in the course of a television interview, I hear my former professor of political science and constitutional rights, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, explaining the national director’s statement. I remember very well his course on the separation of power. He maintains that the director’s words have killed the investigation. The death of the investigation, once again! But this is about the death of a child! Yes, I affirm it, a child is dead! This certainty is not fed by vague assumptions, no, I base myself on facts, details, clues and evidence recorded in the official records. Many questions have been raised. But where are the answers?
In trying to find them, I think to myself that it would be judicious to go back to the beginning of the investigation – while it’s still clear in the memory – from the moment the little girl disappeared. So much has been said….It is time for the story to be told by the one who was responsible for its operational coordination and who lived it intensely in the company of men and women who constitute the élite of the police judiciaire.
THE PRUDENCE OF A DECISION
In Portimão, I meet chief inspector Tavares de Almeida, a member of the team I directed. We have known each other since we started in the police judiciaire. He is worried because of the national director’s statements; he heard that our work was going to be the object of an investigation. A request in that direction has allegedly already been placed before the national directorate of the police judiciaire. According to him, that would allow the truth to be re-established and would lead to recognition of the quality of our work.
During the five months that the investigations lasted, we had heard all sorts of comments, but we had got on with our job. We remind ourselves of everything that was accomplished, with a great deal of effort, rigour and honesty, and we are certain that nobody could have done better. That might seem presumptuous, but it’s just fair recognition of the conscientious attitude of all the police professionals who worked on the case.
– They can’t count! How can they accuse us of being precipitous when the couple were only declared suspects four months after the events! Don’t they know the principle of non-self-incrimination?
It is legally impossible to continue to take statements from someone as a witness if these statements risk later turning against him. While a witness is making a statement about an ongoing case and at a given moment it is realised that he could himself be involved in an illegal act, he is constituted arguido. Thus, from then on, he has rights and duties. Contrary to what one reads in the press – above all the English -, the arguido is protected and acquires the right to silence which no one can reproach him for – which would not be the case if he were being heard as a witness.
– I agree with you. If a mistake was made, it was in taking so long to make the couple arguidos. Too much politics, that’s what there was, too much politics and not enough policing.
– I’d say rather that the mistake was in treating the McCanns “with tweezers.” From the start of the investigation, we realised that certain things did not add up and yet, they continued to benefit from favourable treatment; that’s what’s not normal!
– Does the national director perhaps think that the couple only left Portugal because they had been placed under investigation?
– In fact, the McCanns stayed in Portugal as long as we stuck to the theory of abduction; from the moment that was placed in doubt, they talked about returning to England.
– From which can be concluded that their being placed under investigation gave them an excuse to leave the country…
– You know, certain English journalists consider Portugal to be a third world country. Of course, I don’t agree with that definition. And yet, if it’s not a third world country, why is the head of an ongoing investigation dismissed when the quality of his work is not in doubt….
– There is a lot of talk about the “politicising,” of the law….they forget the extent to which a police investigation can be influenced.
– It’s a matter of either: either the investigation is entrusted to trustworthy people, or, if things go wrong those responsible are replaced with more “reliable,” people.
– I don’t believe that was the main reason.
– There are always reasonable and perfectly legal arguments. In fact, those who should stand in the way of this almost political management of the investigation are the most senior police managers. They should object to any situation or action that risks bringing prejudice to the investigation and to its correct operation. They can’t agree to everything under the pretext of being afraid of losing their jobs.
– No, you are aware that you don’t direct the police according to personal interests but properly according to public interests. It is only thus that we can conceive of a police force in a democratic state.
– OK, but look where we are! You will see, soon the arguidos will be choosing who leads the investigation. Maybe that’s the modern way..
– The modern way….Rather self-interests, you mean! Deplorable!
– Speaking of deplorable, have you seen any of the Benfica game recently?
– It’s not football any more, it’s I don’t know what. Incidentally, you’ve met Gaivota?
Gaivota is the surname of a former Benfica player who was living in Portimão at the time of the investigation. A real companion who shared the good and the bad times with us. I remember his kindness, and the patience with which he showed his support for me.
– If he was still at Benfica, maybe their defence would be up to something.
BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE INVESTIGATION: THE CRISIS UNIT
Sofia is listening to our conversation. She knows the importance of the work carried out by Tavares de Almeida. It was he who kept the crisis unit operational throughout the investigation, until the departure of the last English police officer, when the McCann family returned to England. As if, from then on, it was no longer necessary to continue the investigations where the disappearance took place.
It was he who, nearly every day, opened the local office at 6 o’clock in the morning, not to leave it until after midnight. All the information passed through there: there we centralised all the data we received, emails, telephone calls, communications from the police officers working on the case. That room was the real nerve centre of the investigation. The bits of information were analysed there in order to distinguish those that were of real interest from the many others – reports or witness statements – raising pure speculation. A great deal of sorting out had to be done, notably concerning the eye-witnesses, who multiplied as the media coverage took on enormous proportions.
The English investigators occupied the adjoining room: between the two areas, information circulated in an uninterrupted flow. The British investigators participated in our meetings, taking notes in their record book, Major Incident Enquiry Officer’s Rough Book.
Another room was dedicated to dealing with information of a more practical nature, like, for example, the register of all paedophiles present in the region, in order to look for actual links to the case or the creation of diagrams of connections; difficult and meticulous work of great value, which was later sent to the crisis unit.
Amongst other duties, Tavares prepared the documents – many of which had to be translated – so as to allocate the jobs between the various teams who, on the ground, executed the operational orders for the proper management of this lengthy work of verification. The revolt they now feel is legitimate. They suffer a deep sense of injustice: not only did the police judiciaire not know how to protect them, but it called into question their reliability.
In the days following the national director’s statement, rumour had it that he himself was going to be dismissed. Once again the police judiciaire were in crisis; once again this crisis was going to be resolved by a series of resignations in the highest spheres of the hierarchy. Yet, stability is one of the essential conditions for the success of its mission, totally dedicated to the service of the community.
How come a criminal investigation – in this case, the research undertaken following the disappearance of a little English girl – could have upset so much, Portuguese justice, the police judiciaire, and compromised the cooperation that existed for such a long time between the police of the two countries?
What are the powers that made the investigation so difficult to the point of stopping it abruptly? In recounting its operation, perhaps a response could be outlined and new light thrown on the events.
I invite researchers in communication sciences to look into this case in order to understand how a dramatic event could be transformed into one of the most media covered happenings of our time.