The parents of Madeleine McCann have hired a team of private investigators to search for her in Morocco amid concerns that Portuguese police are failing to examine fresh sightings.
On the 150th day since Madeleine disappeared, it emerged that a millionaire benefactor is paying tens of thousands of pounds a week for a private security firm to re-interview witnesses and investigate pedophile networks in Morocco.
The McCanns are convinced that Madeleine could have been smuggled to north Africa after four independent sightings of a girl matching her description.
They want the police inquiry refocused onto the search for their daughter and are determined to clear their names after nearly a month of frenzied speculation by Portuguese police and press about their alleged involvement in the death of their daughter. Last week their lawyers made a formal application to the prosecutor for access to a 4,000-page 10-volume police dossier, which would include details of forensics, witness statements and a reconstruction of the night of Madeleine’s disappearance.
As part of their defense, a separate team of private investigators, Control Risks, has been taking independent witness statements from the McCanns and the seven friends with whom they dined on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance.
They hope the tactic will enable them to rebut persistent claims by the Portuguese police about “suspicious inconsistencies” in the statements their officers had taken.
Reports in Portugal suggest the public prosecutor will this week request further questioning of the couple and their holiday party.
The McCanns’ legal team is also considering conducting independent forensic tests on the hire car in which the Portuguese police claim they have found “bodily fluids” that are an 80% match to Madeleine’s. The car is being kept for the McCanns in the garage of tycoon John Geraghty, 68, in his villa near Praia da Luz.
Last week the McCanns faced further allegations in the Portuguese press. On Wednesday, senior officers said they were investigating two “unaccounted for” hours during a trip the couple made to Huelva, Spain on Aug. 3.
On Thursday an unnamed police source said detectives believed Kate McCann accidentally killed Madeleine in the couple’s holiday apartment while her husband played tennis. The child’s body was then stored in a fridge before being transported and disposed of in the hire car.
The McCanns described the latest accusations as “ludicrous.” A spokesman for the couple pointed out the trip to Huelva was conducted in the “full glare” of the world’s media, while the couple played tennis together with a coach on the day that Madeleine disappeared.
Kate and Gerry have now decided to take on the search for Madeleine themselves after concerns that the Portuguese police have given up. In Portugal, an investigation that initially boasted 945 officers has been scaled down to about 20.
The team of private investigators in Morocco is being paid for by Brian Kennedy, the £350m home improvements tycoon, who last week pledged to fund their fightback. Kennedy himself travelled to Rabat last week for a progress report.
The couple was disappointed last week when a photograph of a girl bearing similarities to Madeleine, taken by a Spanish tourist, turned out to be the daughter of a local olive farmer. They believe other leads, however, could prove more fruitful. On his blog yesterday, Gerry said: “Despite the disappointment, it is encouraging that people are being vigilant and have not stopped looking.”
The investigators recently reinterviewed Mari Olli, a Norwegian tourist who saw a girl matching Madeleine’s description at a gas station on the outskirts of Marrakesh six days after Madeleine’s disappearance. Olli said: “She was a sweet blonde girl who said something like, ‘Can I see mummy soon?’
“I’m almost certain it was Madeleine, but the Portuguese police never took me seriously. They never even took my statement. My only hope is that someone does something about it now and the little girl is found.”
When the McCanns visited Rabat in June to raise awareness about Madeleine’s disappearance, a source close to the ambassador told them that a second sighting had been made at the Ibis hotel opposite the gas station. Private investigators are still trying to track down the male witness, who is from Yorkshire.
The team is also looking at a third sighting, made by Jeannie Thompson, 56, from Devon. She says she saw a blonde girl looking “disheveled” as a man took photographs of her at a cafe in Marrakesh on May 11. She reported the sighting to British police, who took her statement, but has heard nothing since.
A fourth sighting was made in the village of Zaio in northern Morocco. Isabel Gonzalez, 60, says she saw a girl with blonde hair being dragged across the road by a Muslim woman. She said: “I am convinced the girl was her. But when I contacted Portuguese police they said they would not look into it because they believed Madeleine was already dead. It has caused a lot of pain in my heart.”
The Moroccan interior minister, police chief and the head of the secret service have promised the McCanns that “if the girl is here, she will be found.” A senior detective, however, said more prominence was given to local sightings. “Most tourists who say they have seen Madeleine cannot see the difference between a European girl and a Moroccan one, as in the case of the Spanish tourist.”
While cases of children being smuggled from Europe to north Africa are rare, the country has a reputation for child prostitution and sex tourism. A report by the UN economic and social council raised concerns about “men from other countries, particularly the Gulf states, looking for girl prostitutes.” It adds that El Hajeb, a town in central Morocco, is notorious for child prostitution.
The McCanns will today mark the 150th day since Madeleine’s disappearance by attending a church service near their home in Rothley, Leicestershire. “It is just another day without Madeleine,” a friend said.
The McCanns are now trying to keep life for their two-year-old twins, Sean and Amelie, as normal as possible. They have been told that Madeleine is on a “trip.” Gerry said: “Sean and Amelie have settled back into nursery, almost as if they have never been away.”
Last week the couple was given further encouragement after David Miliband, the foreign secretary, telephoned Gerry McCann. It is the first time he has contacted the couple since police accused them of being involved in their daughter’s death three weeks ago.