The Crucial Day, Part One

At 8.30 on the morning of May 4 a tired Kate and Gerry McCann, together with others of the Tapas group (some remained behind to baby sit), gathered outside the Ocean Club apartments to be taken by car to Portimao for the formal interview and statement-taking process. In contrast to the bedlam in Praia de Luz the previous night the relative calm of Portimao’s police headquarters offered a first opportunity for investigators to gain a clear picture of events on the evening of May 3 and find out more about the backgrounds, relationships and movements of the people involved.

Only when they had that information would a police team be in a position to formulate the detailed lines of a criminal inquiry rather than an emergency search exercise. As a PJ officer said, the initial reports from Praia de Luz indicated that “all hypotheses were open,” including, in the grim terminology of the police list, “woke and wandered,” accident/eventual death/hidden cadaver, bodily injuries resulting in death, negligent or intentional homicide, vengeance, kidnap for eventual ransom, sexual predation, and interrupted intruder.

In any inquiry each investigative possibility requires different management and a different allocation of resources and manpower, most of which has to be brought in from outside. A decision to concentrate on “woke and wandered,” for example, which included the chance of the child being seized and assaulted while missing, would require a high concentration of relatively unskilled manpower in the local area combined with intensive forensic work. Suggestions of an act of vengeance or malice, on the other hand, would need a totally different resource allocation, with much less manpower “on the ground” and a concentrated research effort into the actions and whereabouts of possible perpetrators. Accidental or other death at the hands of close associates, such as local employees, the holiday group itself or even the family, would require relatively limited, but very highly qualified, manpower and would need to concentrate on what a head of the PJ described as “pure investigation” – carefully analysing the whereabouts and statements of possible suspects and examining them over and over for conflicts and contradictions – “clues.” Lastly, abduction or kidnapping remains by far the most open-ended, intractable and resource-hungry line of enquiry, putting virtually limitless demands on police forces for as long as they can be afforded.

No sensible investigative effort, in any force, could make progress without this initial appraisal of evidence and weighting of possibilities and, even as the McCanns were preparing for their interviews, a police team in the recently established “crisis room” was brainstorming the affair accordingly. The trouble was that in this most extraordinary case they were losing control of planning, and the opportunity for cool analysis, almost before they had begun: control of events, and the determination of the future direction and scale of the investigation, was already slipping - or being taken - from their grasp.

Inspector Goncarlo Amaral, co-ordinator of the case, a man of considerable intelligence as well as instinct, about whom we shall hear more, sensed that something was happening but had no idea quite what it was. He was going over the ground in Praia de Luz while his juniors were conferring and organizing the statements in Portimao when he was taken aback by the sudden arrival at 10AM of the British Consul, present not only to confer but also,rather alarmingly, to express a view about the enquiry.

Amaral, who had apparently not been warned of his imminent arrival, let alone of his familiarity with events, gained the impression that the consul was “dissatisfied” with the police effort. But how could he be dissatisfied? How, in other words, wondered inspector Amaral, had he found out enough facts to make a critical appraisal of police performance?

Particularly in countries such as Spain and Portugal with historical overhangs - semi-fascist or fascist dictatorships in place until only a generation before, followed by a period of fluid and confusing constitutional change - police officers tend to have an instinct for detecting power relationships and the possibility of a “hot potato case” rather more developed that that of, for example, a Salford-based UK CID officer: without such an instinct in that environment, after all, you are unlikely to prosper as a policeman and sometimes you don’t even survive in your profession.
Inspector Amaral could “feel” the pressure in the case but couldn’t identify it or isolate it, having had virtually no information suggesting that anyone in the group had sought to go outside the investigation, far less that the process was taking place even then, with Gerry McCann making one of a huge number of significant phone calls on his mobile as Amaral was addressing the consul. Had the inspector had any idea of quite what was going on without his knowledge that slightly explosive countenance of his would have taken on an even darker hue.
Inspector Amaral enduring a difficult morning

He was soon, unfortunately for his blood pressure, to have to cope with more sharp surprises on both the power and media fronts, the twin towers of the McCann case. While his junior officers, assisted by interpreters, were taking Gerry McCann’s Portimao statement the inspector, having shaken free of the troublesome and well-briefed British consul, had then to greet a genuine bigwig, this time the deputy director of the PJ himself, hotfoot from Faro. His presence was yet another indication that the case, less than a day old, was threatening to burst uncontrollably out of its confines.
Inspector Amaral took him to the Ocean Club to keep him quiet, as one does with the Great and the Good - and discovered, to his acute consternation, that it was filling up with a Madeleine McCann media pack, something quite unheard of in the early stages of a Portuguese investigation. Had he known in addition that the British ambassador was arriving in Portimao to assist the holidaymakers on the day of their interrogation then his equilibrium might have suffered even more. As it was the morning was further enriched by calls from Portimao informing him that his officers had agreed to allow the Tapas group to come to headquarters in shifts (so that they could take turns to baby-sit) with the likely consequence of possible contamination of each others’ evidence. Amaral, who had already had to digest the unwelcome news that the potential crime scene, apartment 5A, had been trampled by hordes of outsiders before the police arrived and its points of entry disturbed and handled by the McCanns and their friends, found his cup was complete when he was informed that the translation process in the interviews was slowing the interrogation process up so much that all the significant witnesses had “too much time to think” before answering questions. It was not an auspicious beginning.

Gerry McCann gave his statement at eleven fifteen that morning and Kate McCann just after two in the afternoon. The two statements were virtually identical and, in a further confirmation that the officers’ fears about contamination were well-grounded, included hearsay descriptions of what other members of the group had been doing, rather than being confined to what they had actually seen for themselves. On the whole their contributions were relatively dry and factual with no mention of forced intrusion. Neither of them had any complaints about police performance in the previous twelve hours, although, of course, as parents of the missing child they were free to say what they wished. It is noteworthy also that in their statements there is no record of any of the supposedly clear but secret evidence of intrusion and abduction, such as the different position of the child’s soft toy or the condition of her bed, which Kate McCann in particular - until the opening of the police files - consistently implied had been provided to the police. Nevertheless they maintained that it was clearly an abduction.

Before leaving the police headquarters the couple were taken through their witness secrecy obligations under Portuguese law and made aware, yet again, of the official police view that publicity was likely to endanger their child. The McCanns neither protested nor demurred at these warnings. Late in the evening the process was finally over and they were driven back, with the usual nightmarishly high Portuguese traffic speeds doing nothing to calm their nerves, to arrive in Praia de Luz just before 10 PM. It had been a long and exhausting day.

The parents never gave a satisfactory explanation of Gerry’s independent activities, backed by his wife, on May 4, the beginnings of the "parallel investigation." Speaking of the immensely important decision to "bring in" the media Kate McCann seemed completely unaware of the significance and potential of their actions, as though it was a matter of no importance. She said that they had done so because "they didn't know what else to do," following this rather odd reasoning with one of her long Scouse-voiced chain of absurd non-sequiters which interviewers invariably allowed to pass unchallenged until they died away: "The feeling was absolute helplessness," she emoted helplessly, "you're absolutely desperate. I mean, this is our daughter who we love beyond words, and every second is like hours. Nothing can happen quick enough." Gerry at least acknowledged that "The Portuguese police were saying, 'No, no media,'" but like his wife used the "D" word in defence of his breach of the requirement - "but we were desperate at that point."

Gerry's ultimate motivation may never be known. As we have seen he was consistently described by friends and associates in Praia de Luz as a man who favoured action of any sort over reflection, although this seems extremely odd, even incompatible, with a doctor who specialised in cardiac diagnostics: act first and assess later in that field and you end up surrounded by dead bodies. The painstaking analysis of life and death possibilities preceding action that Gerry McCann must have regularly practised in his profession was apparently absent in Praia de Luz.

He later talked of wanting to “act” as a way of overcoming temporary shock and grief, apparently oblivious both to the egotistical implications of his statement and to the obvious argument that in this case the potential risks of independent – and publicity based – action may literally have been a matter of life and death for another person. “If we had stayed indoors,” he said later, once again with a somewhat eyebrow-raising emphasis on the "we", which excluded Madeleine, “locked ourselves away and waited, and waited, and waited for a month, we would be shells of the people we are. We are doing everything we can to try to become a family of five again.” Whatever one makes of such a view it clearly reflects his unusual certainty that his acts were capable of delivering Madeleine McCann up from her fate, and his refusal to accept even the possibility that her chances lay beyond his influence.

If he ever worried about taking independent action in a criminal case without any knowledge of investigation, or hesitated before taking irrevocable decisions regarding his child, he has not told us. Nor has he ever given any detailed explanation of why the Portuguese police approach – and particularly the cautions against the very initiatives which, as we shall see, he was already taking - was unacceptable to him. The ineffable Clarence Mitchell later said, “Everything we have done from the word go [in terms of the media] has been very carefully considered and thought through.” This was clearly not true, something which should hardly surprise us, given its source: the parents do not claim to have spent time on consideration, only desperation, or action for its own sake and there was no time or opportunity for the parents to “think things through” before acting: the eye witnesses, as we have seen, show that Gerry McCann moved from floor-rolling hysteria to compulsive telephone-based action without any interval for assessment and consideration.

And nor did he ever seek to justify, explain or even mention his failure to keep the police fully informed about his independent actions and, particularly, his briefing against them, behind their backs and above their heads, on May 4. It is in this failure, indeed, that the seeds of so much of the bitterness and distrust between the police and the parents lay. Carlos Anjos, the head of the Portuguese CID Officers Association, later spoke for many of them when he accused the parents of creating “a monster of information” which had damaged the case. His strictures then and thereafter were factual but one can sense underneath them an additional element of shock and betrayal at the way the parents had done things as much as what they had done.

As for the latter Anjos was categorical: “We were against this [publicity] from the start. And importantly, we were against the release of Madeleine McCann's photo all over the world. We thought the photos that were released should not show the distinct mark Maddie had in her eye. From our experience in criminal investigations this was a kidnap, which was what we believed...the revealing of such a distinct feature would put that person's life in danger.”
Photos with the feature were released by Gerry’s relatives on May 4: clearly in his conversations with them he had not seen fit to pass on the police warnings, let alone insist on compliance with them. A forgivable slip, with so much going on in his mind? Quite possibly. But such slips, with incalculable consequences for the fate of his own daughter, – and how many more of them might there be? - were, of course, consequences of his independent initiative and the major argument against it. He was playing with fire, fire which risked consuming someone other than himself.

As for the way, rather than the what, policemen have, as we have said, good instincts. Inspector Amaral knew that morning that conversations must have been taking place with outsiders of which he was ignorant, including, apparently, critical assessments of his own force’s operations. The effect on him and his colleagues of the ensuing discovery that the parents were briefing against the force to both the UK government (as Freedom of Information requests have since demonstrated) and to the media, while going through the charade of defending them or letting it be known that they “fully supported” the police – behaviour more typical of tricky politicians with their backs to the wall than crime-victims – can be imagined. The UK media may have been willing to play along with this game which was quite transparent to them, though held back from their readers, but police officers could soon see all too well what was happening.
Perhaps, if life had turned out differently Gerry McCann, once he had secured the future of his family financially and the rough edges had worn away, might have become one of those medical men with a talent for politics, a steady climber through the ranks of a Royal College, for instance, or a smooth and dedicated operator within the Byzantine government of the National Health Service, even, perhaps, an MP. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: it is a pity that his born talents as a politician, as a truly remarkable operator, first emerged in such tragic and potentially explosive circumstances, leaving a residue of profound distrust in those who failed to believe in him, both in Portugal and beyond. And those who underestimated this apparently naive and uncultured Glaswegian were to regret it.

In the last analysis the McCanns' initial behaviour in this regard – mainly Gerry’s – remains a mystery, haunted by virtual silence, perhaps silence to himself as much as others. Behind it lie the unfathomable possibilities of darkness and self-doubt, qualities which are anathema to Gerry McCann - doubt in continuing hindsight not about any of their actions on the evening of May 3 but on the possible consequences of what they did afterwards. How could stealing the initiative from the police ever have helped to recover the child in the long run? Whatever its weaknesses it was the only force with the power and resources to find the child, after all. Could the release of the photographs actually have harmed her? Even now the child may be lying dead somewhere because, yes, the attempted police embargo, based on experience and expertise and yet so casually breached by Gerry, was fully justified and a kidnapper rapidly got rid of this overwhelmingly recognisable burden. Where, indeed, did his certainty that he could isolate the weaknesses and improve on an entire country's police force derive from? Lastly, the “failure” of the investigation, the shelving of the case that was met with such satisfaction by the McCanns and their spokesman, but which amounted to an admission that the Portuguese would never find their child – was that really a desirable outcome and had the conflict between the parents and the police contributed to it?

In any case, on May 4, it was Gerry’s decision to act, not assess or consider, and Gerry McCann was acting, as we shall see, on a significant scale.