LONDON (AP) — The family of missing British girl Madeleine McCann is seeking answers in the case after a key suspect was identified in Germany and as authorities there said Thursday they believe she is dead.
McCann was 3 at the time of her disappearance in May 2007 while she was on vacation with her family in Portugal.
U.K. and German authorities haven’t named the suspect but said he is 43 and currently in prison in Germany for another crime, and that he was in and around the Praia da Luz resort area on the Algarve coast at the time McCann disappeared. Though numerous suspects have come to light in the case previously, McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell said that it seems as if there is something different this time.
“In more than 13 years of working with the family I can’t recall the police being so specific about an individual,’’ Mitchell told Sky News. “He is not being named and the police are quite adamant they are not going to do that, certainly not yet, but they want very specific details around his movement in 2007, even down to phone calls he received the night before Madeleine went missing and the fact he changed the registration of his car the day after.’’
Hans Christian Wolters, a prosecutor in Braunschweig, Germany, told reporters investigators are operating on the assumption that McCann is dead.
“In connection with the disappearance of the then 3-year-old British girl Madeleine Beth McCann on May 3, 2007 from an apartment complex in Praia da Luz in Portugal, Braunschweig prosecutors are investigating a 43-year-old German citizen on suspicion of murder,” he told reporters.
“You can infer from that we assume the girl is dead.”
The long-running case of McCann, who vanished shortly before her fourth birthday, has mesmerized Britain for years. Her parents say Madeleine disappeared after they had left her and her twin siblings asleep in their holiday complex while they had dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant.
More than 600 people had been identified as being potentially significant, but officers were tipped off about the German suspect following a 2017 appeal, 10 years after the girl went missing.
Police said the suspect, described as white with short, blond hair and a slim build, was linked to a camper van seen in the Algarve in 2007 and was believed to be in the resort area in the days before and after May 3 that year.
Christian Hoppe of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office told German public broadcaster ZDF that the suspect, a German citizen, is currently imprisoned in Germany for a sexual crime. He spent numerous years in Portugal and has two previous convictions for “sexual contact with girls.”
Hoppe said German police aren’t ruling out a sexual motive. They said whoever abducted the girl may have broken into the holiday apartment and then spontaneously committed the kidnapping.
The suspect is being investigated on suspicion of murder by prosecutors in the German city of Braunschweig, where he was last registered before moving abroad.
Wolters wouldn’t give any other details of the suspect’s identity so as not to jeopardize the ongoing investigation.
The description, however, fits that of a 43-year-old man who was convicted in December of the 2005 rape of an American woman, who was 72 at the time, in her apartment in Portugal, the local Braunschweiger Zeitung newspaper reported.
Hoppe said the suspect in the McCann case lived between Lagos and Praia da Luz, was regularly in the Algarve region from between 1995 to 2007. The newspaper, which covered the recent rape trial, said that description and other details match the suspect in that case, who was linked to the 2005 attack recently by DNA.
The suspect denied the charges during the trial and the verdict is currently being appealed. The court didn’t answer an email seeking comment or answer its phones.
Police from Britain, Germany and Portugal launched a new joint appeal for information in the case Wednesday. They asked for anyone to come forward if they had seen two vehicles linked to the suspect — a Volkswagen camper van and a Jaguar. They also sought information on two Portuguese phone numbers, including one believed to have been used by the suspect on the day of Madeleine’s disappearance.
The family, as ever, as searching for answers.
“They do remain hopeful that she could still be found alive,” Mitchell said. “They’ve never given up on that hope, nor will they, until they are presented with any incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But they say that despite all that, whatever the outcome of this particular line of inquiry might be, they need to know as they need to find peace.”