The Policemen's Tales

It fell to the Portuguese Republican National Guard — the Guarda Nacional Republicana or GNR — to respond to the calls for help from Praia de Luz. The GNR is the gendarmerie of the Portuguese state, copied originally from the French model, its role being general policing and the maintenance of law and order, not criminal investigation. Before 2007 its international reputation was largely anonymous and uncontroversial, due perhaps to the relatively law abiding nature of the Portuguese people, both policemen and policed, rather than any special GNR qualities. As far as outsiders are concerned anecdotal evidence suggested that foreigners found this gendarmerie, despite its relatively low pay, rather more amicable and trustworthy than its neighbouring Spanish counterpart, with few of the stories of petty, but shady, exploitation of foreigners that continue to sour the reputation of its Spanish equivalent. Like all police forces in the EU it had for many years been drawn ever more closely into the network of European common policing standards.

Officer José María Batista Roque of the GNR and his colleague Nelson da Costa were on vehicle patrol near Odiaxere on the night of May 3. Working out of the Lagos GNR station under its commander Sergeant Antonio da Duarte Conceição both were highly experienced men with decades of service between them. The radio message they received from Lagos instructed them to proceed to Praia de Luz to investigate reports of a missing child. A further message was received while they were on their way: it had now been reported to Lagos that the child was extremely young and that there were serious concerns for her safety. Proceed with all urgency.

Their syrens announced their arrival around 11 PM. They quickly found their way to the throng in the main reception area of the Ocean Club. There they were greeted by a Mark Warner employee with language skills, M/S Sylvia Batista, and a distressed — he fell to his knees in front of the officers — Gerry McCann, who had left the apartment to meet them. The two police officers, Mr McCann, another of the Tapas group and Silvia Batista – to interpret - all drove up to apartment 5A, where Kate was waiting, and attempted to get a handle on just what was supposed to have happened.

It was not easy. Both Gerry McCann and some of the Tapas helping to make up the bustling crowd in the apartment talked of the disappearance as a possible abduction but none of them gave any clear information as to how they had formed this view so soon, or what evidence there was to suggest it. The views of the Tapas group were, of course, essentially worthless since none of them had any first-hand knowledge of the circumstances of the child's disappearance; the only first hand witness of the state of the apartment at 10 PM was Kate McCann.

Kate McCann said nothing. Whatever she had cried or shouted to friends and relatives about shutters, intrusion and the certainty of a kidnap she did not share with officer Roque. Instead Gerry McCann, still apparently in a state of shock and at times hardly coherent, spoke of an open window and raised shutter in the child’s bedroom but, crucially, according to the reports of the police officers, made no suggestion that it had been forced. In the middle of this confusion, with Sylvia Batista translating merely that Gerry McCann was “suggesting” a possible abduction, with the eyes of the frightened and agitated people in the room upon him and with the shouts from the searchers in the street in his ears, Officer Roque began at the beginning and searched the apartment.

He found nothing to suggest that apartment 5A was in fact a crime scene. Far from having been disturbed in any way the child’s siblings were still sleeping soundly; there was no evidence of forced entry; there was not a sign of even the minimal struggle that a child might put up, let alone any displaced furniture, evidence of injury or use of force, and, of course, no visible traces of an intruder. Roque reported matter of factly of his search: “I found nothing strange in the apartment.”

With one exception. Roque added that the bedclothes on Madeleine’s bed “were too tidy.” It appeared, he reported, “that she had been picked up, or had left the bed, with great care. There was a mark on the sheet that appeared to be made by a child’s body.”

What exactly Roque might have inferred from the bedding being "too tidy" he did not say but – and here we can read something between the lines of his factual statements, the twitching instincts, perhaps, of an experienced policeman — he gave the impression of being somehow troubled by the parents. Naturally they were “nervous and anxious,” he said, but at times he found their behaviour “unusual,” adding that, at one point, both of them knelt down on the floor of their bedroom and placed their heads on the bed, crying, although there were no tears. Clearly the whole scenario failed to form a consistent picture.

What about those “jemmied” shutters and the window through which a kidnapper might have entered? They hardly featured in officer Roque’s initial report at all, since almost nothing had been said about them and he had seen nothing to suggest they had been interfered with. Much later, when investigators' suspicions about the parents’ version of events had arisen, he was explicitly questioned about the bedroom window by his superiors. In response he replied that he only remembered that the window in the girl’s bedroom was closed, with the exterior blind raised “the width of a hand.” Officer Roque knew that such a gap could not have been occasioned from outside since, as we explain below, these shutters can only be rolled up from the inside. He remembered nothing about the curtains and reiterated merely that Gerry McCann, not the virtually silent Kate, had indicated through the interpreter that the “window and shutter” had been open when the disappearance was discovered.

The shutters which officer Roque looked at are of a type not normally seen in the UK. Their perforated metal slats form a roll in a housing above the window and are operated by a vertical webbing strap, like a car safety belt, in an aperture on the inside wall alongside the window. To raise them one pulls downwards on the webbing and they are lowered by pulling and releasing the strap which, via a ratchet system, enables them to unroll and drop to their full extent on the outside of the building.

These shutters feature two important security features. First of all they are always designed to fit snugly inside the exterior window recess and to descend the full drop to a window sill. This ensures that intruders cannot get their fingers under the shutter bottom to start lifting them: they must first insert a thin object, a screwdriver for example, or a knife to get the lift started, in colourful old-fashioned burglarese, a “jemmy.”

Secondly the ratchet system means that while the shutter can be lifted it cannot be rolled up from the outside since the roller remains in the locked position in its overhead housing unless released by the interior webbing strap. Attempts to raise it from outside, therefore, result in a heavy, unwieldy and sagging mass of metal which can only be held in a raised position by using props between sill and shutter. No evidence of the use of a jemmy or any tool was uncovered, then or later, and officer Roque could see that there was no distortion of the shutter and no sign of props: it had been opened from the inside. Nor was any evidence of the window itself being forced ever found.

Roque later reported quite frankly that his own feeling was that this was not an abduction, though he did not state whether he based his view purely on the absence of intruder evidence.

And he was not alone. His colleague, Officer da Costa, gave a similar report. After the meeting at reception he had, he said, searched the apartment with his colleague, opening all cupboards in the bedrooms, living room and kitchen and checking under the beds and in the fridge. He did not see anything strange during the search, he reported, and there was no sign of a break in.

In fact, unlike officer Roque, he could not remember the father even mentioning an abduction and the only comment that he remembered Kate McCann making was a tearful request for more police officers. Thus a second officer made his inquiries without a word from the key witness, Kate McCann, regarding what she had seen at 10PM.

Officer Roque searched outside the apartment while da Costa remained inside or at the door. It was then, he reported, that a woman, evidently Jane Tanner although the officer did not identify her, told him that earlier on she had seen someone carrying a child “and running”. Because of the pyjamas the child had been wearing, she said, it could have been Madeleine McCann. Only then, said officer da Costa, did abduction “begin to be talked about.”

His response to Jane Tanner was sceptical. If she had been able to see the pattern of the child’s pyjamas, he reasoned, then there must have been quite good light. So he asked her about the much more important question of what the person carrying the child looked like. She couldn’t tell him, replied Jane Tanner, since it was “very dark.” No, he reported, he did not find the “sighting” credible.

Officer da Costa stated that he neither saw nor heard any evidence to make him believe that an abduction had occurred; his personal view, he reported was that “it did not appear to be an abduction, but rather a normal disappearance where the child had left by her own means.” Again the impression is given that things didn’t form a picture to an experienced policeman, didn’t add up. The thing that stuck him particularly, and that he found “strange” was that the twins never woke up, despite the considerable noise in the apartment.

At around 11.15, only some quarter of an hour after his arrival, Roque contacted the Lagos police station and spoke to his superior Sergeant da Duarte Conceição, another veteran with twenty five years service. Despite his doubts and reservations he gave the sergeant a brief and relatively objective account of the facts, including that the father “had put forward a theory” that it could have been abduction and mentioned that a shutter could have been raised. With no sign of the child and no clues to indicate that she had wandered off Duarte now told the officer to preserve the apartment as a possible crime scene and wait with his colleague for him to join them. Then he set off at once for Praia de Luz.

He got to the Ocean Club just an hour after the arrival of his colleagues. By now talk of “the abduction” had strengthened among the UK group. Sergeant da Duarte Conceição was told immediately by Silvia Batista that the group were now describing it firmly as an abduction with Gerry McCann – neither hysterical nor rolling on the apartment floor at this time - joining her to emphasise the point. Not only that, added Silvia Batista, but the holiday group had printed photographs of the child and were already contacting the media to inform them of the “abduction.”

Contacting the media at midnight? But the narrative, according to friends and family, was that the media had only been contacted after the failings of the investigation had become clear and the parents had been left isolated and unsupported with “nothing happening” at 4.30 in the morning. It is hard to see any real cause for dissatisfaction with the police so soon – police who were doing their best to find their daughter.

What dissatisfaction could there be? The idea that the search effort could immediately be transferred from the local area to a far-away hunt for kidnappers with all the fashionable paraphernalia of closed borders and the rest of it was simply fanciful, both at the time and in hindsight. Leaving aside that there was no description of a vehicle or any third party to alert outside forces to and, indeed, absolutely nothing to suggest a kidnapping save the hearsay hunches of the Tapas group, how could resources have been switched away from Praia de Luz without risking the fate of the child?

The overwhelming need was to exhaust every local avenue in case the child was lying trapped somewhere in the darkness, in a gulley perhaps, or lying injured at the foot of a stone staircase, possibly with rapid loss of blood. And that is what the police, while increasingly mindful of other, remote, possibilities did.

Sergeant Duarte, just like the other two officers, could see nothing, literally nothing, to indicate that an abduction had taken place. And once again Kate McCann did not come forward to tell the sergeant what she had seen. Even so, after carrying out further searches, he contacted headquarters for more officers to attend the scene immediately, called in the nearest available dog team and contacted the criminal investigation police, the PJ, in Portimao.

And thereafter the search effort and investigation rapidly gathered pace. The additional officers from the GNR requested by sergeant Duarte soon arrived and, at about 12.40 AM, so did Inspector Pimental of the PJ together with a technical scene-of-crime officer. Despite the continued absence of any hard evidence to indicate that apartment 5A had been a crime location rather than merely the child’s temporary home, the apartment was cleared, the twins finally moved – still unconscious - and the family allocated alternative rooms so that a forensic search could be made.

The parents, reported the inspector, “looked quite tired and anguished,” particularly the mother. Not only anguished, but silent. For the fourth time that night Kate McCann, the only witness of value, failed to come forward and tell the police – this time in the person of a criminal investigator - what she had seen. Once again the story of the jemmied shutters and the evidence that made her “certain” that abduction, not a disappearance, had taken place – evidence that Kate McCann later alleged that she had given the Portuguese police but could not describe to the public - once again, her story went untold.

After the site had been isolated the inspector examined the flat with his specialist Barreiras. Both of them were critical of the free-for-all that had been allowed to continue in the apartment before their arrival due to the failure of the GNR officers to lock down the location. Statements and photographs were taken and the inside of the bedroom window was finger printed. While GNR officers remained on site to keep the apartment isolated tracker dogs began searching around 2.30 in the morning. Throughout the night the strengthened forces continued to search streets, gardens and car parks and now vehicles were being stopped for examination as well. Between 2 and 2.30 AM Portimao police headquarters, after liaising with the PJ officers at the scene, contacted Faro to ensure that outgoing flights from the airport were monitored while the GNR in Lagos were ordered to keep vehicles under observation for signs of the child.

At dawn Chief Inspector Tavares de Almeida of the Criminal Investigation Department in Portimao, after abandoning his planned holiday, began consideration of a further widening of the investigation. The first phase of the search for Madeleine McCann had finally ended and it was time to draw breath. It was around now, between 4.30 AM and 7, that the local search was temporarily wound down, three officers only continuing with the so-far fruitless effort while their colleagues got some badly needed rest. This was the period that the McCanns described as a time when “nothing was happening,” when, in Kate McCann’s words the investigation had all the urgency of a “search for a missing dog” - the comments a scurvy reward, it may be thought, for the efforts that the Portuguese had put in throughout the night to find the child of these strangers in their land.

It was also the period which finally prompted the despairing couple, neither of whom, of course, could have been aware of the full dimensions or any shortcomings, of the search effort – for how would they have known? - to call for full-scale outside media and political help via their friends and family.

Or so the narrative tells us.

From what we have seen above it is clear that the “narrative”, constructed by the parents and their friends, does not tally with the facts as reported by the police. The parents and the group had, despite their continued denials, in fact contacted the media, in the form of Sky News, long before there was any evidence of shortcomings in the investigation, probably within a very short time of contacting the police themselves, as the group finally admitted at their UK police interviews in April 2008; Kate McCann did not show the police the supposed evidence that “made it obvious” that it must have been an abduction; astonishingly, she did not tell any of the police, either the GNR or the criminal investigation officers of what she had seen, despite her frenzied phone calls though the night with the repeated and insistent claims of jemmying and forced entry. From all the evidence it is clear that the strategy of contacting the media and UK politicians, for whatever purposes, did not result from their response to police actions or failings but preceded them. The “narrative” is quite clearly, for whatever reason and making all allowances for the situation the parents found themselves in, an invention.

Many hectares of print have been covered with the criticisms and contemptuous insults directed at the Portuguese investigation and the decent and well-meaning officers who participated in that first night’s effort. Perhaps, in the light of the policemens’ tales it is best to stand back, take a deep breath and consider the simplest and most well-supported explanation of why the police “failed to isolate the crime scene” or immediately “broaden the search”.

They didn’t do so because none of them, despite their efforts, ever found anything to suggest an abduction had taken place, or was even likely. And almost certainly they were right: there was never any evidence of abduction to find.