The McCanns had been back home in Rothley for three days, and they decided that it was time to be a normal family again. With the twins strapped into their child seats and their mother, Kate, sitting between them, Gerry McCann slowly drove the family's turquoise VW Touran out of the gates of their country home, "The Orchard," past an army of photographers and TV crews and across to the community playground. The police had sealed off the playground so that the McCanns could enjoy a few hours' respite from the stress of their daily lives and spend a little quality time together as a family.
Rothley, in County Leicestershire, is the perfect place for the god-fearing McCanns. Its roughly 3,000, mostly affluent residents have settled here to gain a little distance from the stresses of modern life. It is an idyllic country town, with its war memorial, carefully trimmed, green hedges, golf course and cricket club.
Julie Martin stands at the bar in a local pub, the Old Crown, and orders a glass of rosé. She is one of the local residents who placed flowers and letters in front of the war memorial as an expression of sympathy for little Madeleine McCann, who disappeared from her family's vacation apartment in the Portuguese seaside resort of Praia da Luz on May 3. Despite an unprecedented search effort and an outpouring of sympathy from across the world, the girl still remains missing today.
"I'm still hoping for a happy end," says Martin. But she is also beginning to lose hope, now that the McCanns have returned to Rothley and the Portuguese police are apparently trying to prove that not only is the little girl dead, but that her parents -- possibly with the help of accomplices -- are responsible for disposing of the body.
Portuguese investigators have summarized their conclusions in a report several thousand pages long, which has now been submitted to Public Prosecutor José Cunha de Magalhães e Meneses and Judge Pedro dos Anjos Frias, who have until the end of this week to wade through the massive document. They will present their assessment of the case to another public prosecutor, Luís Bilro Verão, in Évora, about 170 kilometers (106 miles) away. Verão will then decide whether there is enough evidence to file charges against the McCanns or whether the police will have to begin a new investigation.
Until then, new rumors will continue to surface, rumors the police have apparently been leaking to the tabloids: traces of blood supposedly found on the windowsill and floor in the apartment where the McCanns stayed at the Ocean Club Resort; blood and large amounts of Maddie's blonde hair that supposedly showed up in the gray Renault Scenic that the McCanns only rented 25 days after their daughter's disappearance, when they decided to move from the resort to a villa on the outskirts of Praia da Luz. It is difficult to tell which stories are simply made up and which ones are based on credible evidence. The Portuguese justice system is even more tight-lipped than elsewhere in the world. In a new twist, the police apparently want to confiscate the mother's diary and Maddie's favorite pink stuffed animal, which Kate McCann often holds tightly in public like some protective shield.
The tide of public opinion has now started to turn against the family from Rothley. "Did you sedate Maddie?," asks The Sun, the notorious British tabloid, referring to the speculation that Kate McCann, a doctor, may have given her daughter an overdose of a sedative. The McCanns say the accusation is "completely ludicrous."
The Portuguese police apparently base their suspicions on the traces of blood and hair in the rental car. But this information is not very revealing, says Alec Jeffreys, the British professor who developed the process of genetic fingerprinting in the 1980s. "If all you have to go by is an incomplete DNA profile, you'll run into problems," he says. "Identifying this profile with Madeleine would be problematic, because members of the family with similar DNA were also in the vehicle," -- namely, the missing girl's two siblings.
A special laboratory in Birmingham was supposed to analyze the material from the rental car. But, as Chief Inspector Olegária Sousa told SPIEGEL, the lab has only provided the Portuguese police with a portion of the results.
The police are also suspicious about the fact that on May 3, the night of Maddie's disappearance, the McCanns had left their three small children alone in a ground-floor apartment while they had dinner with friends at "Tapas," a bar about 80 meters (262 feet) away. They had declined to use the resort's free babysitting service, later claiming that they didn't want to leave their children in the care of strangers.
The apartment, on the ground floor of a three-story building, was not visible from the bar. In other words, it would have been impossible for the McCanns to see someone leaving the house carrying one of the children. A wall conceals the view of the windows and the two doors from the nearby bar. To check up on their children, the McCanns had to walk along a paved path around a swimming pool and through landscaped gardens before reaching apartment number 5A.
Police Suspect the McCanns
The police are apparently convinced that Madeleine died in the apartment sometime between 6 p.m., when she was last seen eating ice cream, and 8:30 p.m., when the parents arrived at the restaurant.
The British press speculates that one of two things might have happened: either the mother, Kate, slapped the girl, who then hit her head and died from the consequences, or a sedative led to her death. Driven by the fear of losing the twins and ruining their medical careers, as well as the prospect of a prison sentence of indeterminate length, the McCanns -- so go the speculations -- decided to conceal the girl's body until they could decide what to do with it. Then, 25 days later, the tabloids claim, they disposed of the corpse.
In early September, Portuguese authorities confronted Kate McCann with this version of the story and attempted to wring a confession from her. "They are basically saying, 'If you confess Madeleine had an accident,' and that I panicked and hid the body in a bag for a month then got rid of it in a hire car, I'd get two or three years' suspended sentence," Kate McCann told the Sunday Mirror after the 16-hour interrogation.
Kate McCann had gone from being a distraught mother to the main suspect in the Maddie case. The McCanns were permitted to leave Portugal and travel home to Rothley, but only on the condition that they would return to Portugal within five days, if summoned.
Instead of dropping off their Budget rental car containing the ominous traces of blood and hair at the airport in the southern Portuguese city of Faro, the McCanns left it in an unknown location. If necessary, they said, they would order their own forensic tests.
They continue to live on their estate, where they now give the impression that they are on the run.
Gerry McCann insists that the evidence was cooked and makes it clear that he wouldn't put much past the Portuguese.
"We could never possibly have imagined being put in this unbearable situation," he writes on the Web site FindMadeleine.com. He also writes that he looks forward to the chance to clear his name.
But where is Maddie?
In Praia da Luz, a freshly paved road now runs from the resort where the McCanns vacationed down to the beach. "Nossa Senhora da Luz," a whitewashed church with ochre detailing, towers over the shoreline. A few days after Maddie disappeared José Pacheco, a Catholic priest, gave the McCanns the keys to the church when they told him that they wanted to seek comfort in prayer.
Pacheco reads the evening mass at the church in Portuguese, while Anglican Father Haynes Hubbard reads the morning mass in English. A photo of Maddie hangs in the church next to a Gothic arch framing a golden altarpiece and a red cardboard heart. It looks as though the pictures of the saints, adorned with flowers, had already accepted the girl into their midst.
There are rumors in Praia da Luz that the McCanns buried Maddie's body near the church, perhaps even in the long-closed cemetery. The police plan to excavate and break open a paved path. When Maddie disappeared the area was a construction site where new sewage lines were being laid.
Father Hubbard believes that the suspicion against the parents is unfounded. "I got to know a man, Gerry, and his wife, Kate, who long to have their daughter back. We wept together and begged God for his help." Hubbard, sweating in a short-sleeved shirt, wears dark sunglasses to block the glaring sun.
He stands firm in his faith, he says -- in God and in the McCanns.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan