Sunday

Two years after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, her parents are desperately trying to keep her name and image alive

Published Date: 26 April 2009

By Jeremy Watson

THE beach is not busy, but it is healthily populated with spring sun-seekers lazing on the golden sands before the summer rush. The promenade-front bars and cafes hum with business as diners bask in the warmth of a late Algarve morning. The pretty fishing village of Praia da Luz is occupied with doing what it does best – providing holidaymakers from across Europe with a lazy vacation on one of the continent's most stunning coastlines.

Only inside the picturesque white-painted Catholic church of Nossa Senhora Da Luz, now so familiar from thousands of TV news bulletins and newspaper photographs, is there any sign that two years ago next Sunday the small community, residents and visitors alike, were hit by a cataclysmic event from which it has not yet fully recovered.

At the side of the altar is a poolside picture of Madeleine McCann, taken in the happy days before she disappeared from her resort bedroom on the evening of May 3. Lit by the reflected light flame of candles, it says simply: "Pray For Me."

On Sunday, as he did last year on the first anniversary of her disappearance, Father Haynes Q Hubbard, senior chaplain of the church where Madeleine's doctor parents Kate and Gerry McCann came to seek solace in the long weeks after their daughter went missing just 10 days before her fourth birthday, will hold a second "service of hope" in both Portuguese and English.

Haynes, understandably weary of fielding questions from journalists around the world, said last week it is the only thing he feels he can do: "We are doing it because nothing here has changed. It is two years on and Madeleine is still missing. But we should keep her memory alive."

More than 700 days since Madeleine disappeared from an apartment at the Ocean Club and from beside her sleeping younger brother and sister while her parents ate with friends in a Tapas bar just yards away, an answer to the mystery is yet to be uncovered.

This is despite one of the biggest searches for a missing child in history, involving hundreds of police and private detectives and an army of media from around the globe. No one involved in the case seems to be any wiser about what happened to Madeleine than they were in the minutes after she vanished, allegedly spirited away by an unknown abductor.

This weekend, the couple are in the US to record a one-hour special interview with Oprah Winfrey to be broadcast on May 3. Kate and Gerry will be quizzed by the US TV star in front of a live audience as part of their global campaign to keep Madeleine's name and image alive and to persuade police forces around the world to adopt more streamlined methods for issuing alerts when a young child goes missing.

Then, on May 7, Channel Four will broadcast a filmed reconstruction of the events of two years ago, in which 15 actors have been hired to play the parts of the principal characters. The crew and actors were given full access to the Mark Warner-run Ocean Club to make the film. A computer-enhanced image of what Madeleine could look like at age six has also been produced by forensic computer specialists used by the FBI to coincide with the broadcast. The angelic innocence remains along with the distinctive pigmentation stripe in her right eye that may, unfortunately, fade with age.

So, in the past two years has the McCanns' campaign on improving child safety achieved any results? And how long can such a campaign be sustained in the face of dwindling cash reserves?

In Praia da Luz, there is little open hostility to the McCanns, but feelings nevertheless run high among both the large expatriate community and local Portuguese residents who depend on tourism for a living. They feel that the media spotlight should be turned away from their village.

One English bar owner who helped in the initial search for the three-year-old girl, but did not want his name used, said: "We have to move on. Of course, everyone still has sympathy for the family; no-one is indifferent to what happened. How could you be? But we don't want Praia to be evermore associated with what happened. This was a nice and safe place before she went missing and it is a nice, safe place now.

"We all lost some business in the year after it happened and we did well to get through it. Our main problem now is the strength of the euro, so we don't really need any more negative publicity."

Images of missing Madeleine are now hard to find in the town. "There are a couple of billboards out at the moment linked with the TV reconstruction, but that's about it."

One sited on the main road into the village was defaced just one day after being erected. Paint was splattered across the poster and the Find Madeleine campaign number was obscured. When Gerry McCann visited earlier this month, along with Jane Tanner and Matthew Oldfield, two members of the 'Tapas Seven', to advise on the reconstruction, it was reported that Madeleine's father was heckled by former Ocean Club employees who had lost their jobs due to a downturn in trade.

Concerns over money are also besetting the Find Madeleine campaign. On his first return visit to Praia da Luz since his and his wife's official "arguido" suspect status was lifted last year, Gerry McCann revealed that the fund was running out. Earlier this year, newspaper reports said the fund had dipped to £600,000.

"There's still money in it," McCann said. "It won't dry up in the next few months, but probably by the end of the year at the rate we are running."

The published accounts from last year detail where the money, swelled by a £550,000 libel payment from a group of British newspapers found to have defamed the couple and a £375,000 award to the Tapas Seven, has gone. In the first year, it includes £250,000 spent on private investigators, including the Madrid-based Metodo 3 agency, whose head claimed he would find Madeleine within three months.

Another £133,000 went on campaign management at a time when the couple were being besieged by the world's media, largely spent on public relations advisers. Legal fees swallowed up £120,000, £88,000 went on posters and television and newspaper advertising. There were also the costs of the couple's travels to publicise their campaign for an improved child alerts system.

What the couple want is for the Amber Alert system used widely in the United States to be introduced across Europe. Their supporters have been critical of the 12 hours it took for Portuguese police to alert Spanish border officials located just two hours away by road that Madeleine was missing.

The system was introduced in the mid-1990s after the horrific capture and murder of a young Texan girl. Once police are alerted that a child has vanished, the details of the child are sent immediately to broadcasters and flashed up on motorway signs. It has been credited with saving the lives of around 400 children.

The McCanns lobbied the European parliament to introduce Amber Alert in Europe. Although the EU failed to order a union-wide system, it recommended member states to set up their own systems. France, Greece and, earlier this month, Ireland, have agreed to set up national Amber Alert systems, but, in the UK, the decision has been left to individual police forces.

For the McCanns, the EU recommendation was at least step forward in the absence of any information about Madeleine herself. Spokesman Clarence Mitchell, putting the best gloss he could on the EU decision, said: "Whether it is a centralised system or individual national alerts, all Kate and Gerry want to see is better and quicker cooperation between countries.

"When a child goes missing, every minute counts. Kate and Gerry will continue to push for the best possible alert system for children. How that happens is something for ministers to agree on."

Next weekend, the McCanns are expected to mark the anniversary at home in Rothley, Leicestershire, in private with their now four-year-old twins Sean and Amelie. Back in Praia da Luz, in the church where prayers have been said for centuries for missing fishermen, Father Hubbard is expected to once again read out Kate's message of hope that one day her daughter will be found. At 9.15pm, a new candle will be lit at the time her parents believe she vanished. "We continue to hope because there is nothing to the contrary," he said. "The only thing we can do is hold hands, weep and pray."

Where are they now?

Robert Murat

Employed by the Portuguese police at the scene as a translator, this property consultant who lived close with his mother to the Ocean Club was given "arguido" – official suspect – status by investigators. The status was revoked and Murat, 35, sued newspapers for £600,000 libel damages.

Goncalo Amaral

Amaral was the senior investigating officer but was turfed off the case after alleging Madeleine's parents were involved. Last year, he brought out his version of events in a book, The Truth Of The Lie, which was not published in English but has reportedly sold thousands of copies on the continent. He claims Madeleine died in a "tragic accident" in the apartment.

Jane Tanner

One of the 'Tapas Seven' whose testimony supports the theory that Madeleine was abducted. Tanner travelled to Praia da Luz this month to help with the reconstruction as she says she saw a barefoot girl being carried from the apartment but did not regard it as unusual at the time. Last year, she said: "I wake up to that image every day. I see him there, striding away, carrying Madeleine and I try desperately to remember more detail."
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Source: Scotsman