Berlin — The mysterious disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann from a resort in Portugal 13 years ago gripped the world. Now the case has taken an unexpected turn, and for the first time there appears to be a solid lead, with the trail leading to Braunschweig, Germany.
For more than a decade it has remained officially a missing person case in Britain, but on Thursday the public prosecutor's office in Braunschweig said it had opened a murder investigation into a 43-year-old German manin McCann's death.
"We opened a murder investigation against the 43-year old German national, therefore you can conclude that we assume the girl is dead," a spokesman for the prosecutor's office told journalists.
McCann was just three years old when she disappeared in May 2007 from a holiday resort in Portugal's popular Algarve region where she was staying with her mother, father and younger brother and sister. The parents had gone to a nearby tapas bar on the night she vanished, leaving both children sleeping in the rental property.
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and the Public Prosecutor's Office announced Wednesday that the suspect in question has a number of previous convictions for sexual offenses, including some involving children. He is currently serving a prison sentence for a crime unrelated to McCann.
The prosecutor's office did not confirm the identity of the suspect on Thursday or say what he's currently in jail for, but the "Braunschweiger Zeitung" newspaper reported that "there are many indications" he's a man who was sentenced to seven years in prison at the end of 2019 for the rape of a 72-year-old American woman.
The newspaper said that while the conviction was only handed down last year, the rape took place in the same place in Portugal where McCann went missing, but about one-and-a-half years before the McCanns were there.
Information about the suspect had already been brought to the attention of authorities. They got tips in 2013 when the McCann case was featured on a German TV series on unsolved crimes, and British officers were tipped off about the German suspect following a 2017 appeal. But none of the information was sufficient to launch a formal investigation or make an arrest, German officials said.
According to the BKA the suspect lived regularly in the Algarve between 1995 and 2007, including several years in a house between Lagos and Praia da Luz, where the McCann family was staying in 2007.
The suspect had several jobs during this period, including in the restaurant business. According to the authorities, there are also indications he was involved in burglaries targeting hotel resorts and holiday apartments in the region, as well as drug dealing.
The BKA said Thursday that it was still hoping for further information on the case, and it published on its website, among other things, photos of a vehicle it said may have been used in the suspected murder, a Jaguar XJR 6 with German license plates.
The day after McCann disappeared, the Jaguar was re-registered to a new owner. The investigators also referred to a VW T3 Westfalia van with Portuguese license plates, in which the suspect is said to have lived at times. Both vehicles were in police custody as of Thursday.
Police in Britain, Portugal and across Europe have received innumerable tips over the years, and McCann's parents have turned to the public, and even the Pope at times, for support as they've come under suspicion themselves.
But every new clue, mysterious photo or lead of any kind since 2007 has eventually fizzled, until now.
Investigators said they believe the suspect abducted and killed McCann on May 3, 2007. Various German news outlets have identified him as "Christian B.," who was reportedly extradited to Germany from Portugal in 2017.
The German investigators, who are working in conjunction with London's Metropolitan Police and the criminal investigation department in Portugal, said they're still hoping for new tips from the public. They've asked anyone who lived in the Algarve or was there on vacation at the time to upload photos and video to a BKA online portal.
BKA lead investigator Christian Hoppe said it was still unclear how the abduction of McCann was carried out or where the child's body might be. He said it was possible the perpetrator broke into the McCann family's holiday apartment at the "Ocean Club" for a burglary and then spontaneously decided to abduct the girl.
The prosecutor's office said the suspect took a call on his Portuguese cell phone from another Portuguese number very close to the time of the abduction, and they appealed for anyone with information on who owned a specific phone number at the time to come forward. They said the caller was not in Praia de Luz at the time of the call, but called them "a very, very important witness," nevertheless.