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Madeleine McCann: time to forget?



Original Source: TELEGRAPH: 24  APRIL 2011
By Olga Craig 7:00AM BST 24 Apr 2011

As the fourth anniversary of Madeleine McCann's disappearance approaches - and coincides with a new book written by her mother, Kate - Olga Craig returns to Praia da Luz to see how the Portuguese resort has put the incident behind it

It is the spiritual sanctuary to which Kate and Gerry McCann return time and time again with each passing year. Usually their visits are in private, occasionally with close relatives. But it is here, in the tiny, white-washed 17th-century church of Our Lady of Light, overlooking the sea in Praia da Luz on the Algarve, where the couple feel closest to Madeleine, their cherished oldest child, who next month will have been missing for four years. Here is where Kate, especially, in the words of parish priest Father Haynes Hubbard, her Portuguese pastor and confidant, “comes back to cling to the hope that their daughter will come home”.

The church has always been where the McCanns and their supporters have gathered, particularly during those dark days following May 3 2007 when Madeleine, then just days short of her fourth birthday, vanished from the family’s holiday apartment in the seaside village. It has been here they have found succour and strength. Here that they still hope one day to return to give thanks and salvation for the safe return of their child, who will turn eight next month.

Yet today, as another agonising anniversary looms for the McCanns, there is, surely, something missing? While the congregation prays daily for Madeleine, the photographs of the little girl, forever frozen in time as the chubby-cheeked, gap-toothed toddler she was when she vanished, are nowhere to be seen. Once, they adorned the walls and pews. “Find Madeleine” posters, replaced when they faded, were pinned near the altar and yellow and green ribbons, symbols of the campaign launched to search for her, adorned the porch. Now there are none.

“There are pictures of Madeleine in the church,” Fr Hubbard says hesitantly. “But you can’t see them, they are hidden. They are not on display. People were hurt and scarred by everything that was said and done and it has frightened them off. Many are now cautious to openly display their hope.”

He is wary; uncomfortable, perhaps. He chooses his words with care. For while he – and many in his congregation – continue to pray in hope rather than in despair, the sad truth is that Madeleine McCann has become an awkward, painful and, perhaps unpalatably, at times taboo topic in Praia da Luz. Tragically, though perhaps understandably, the overwhelming atmosphere here is of a community uncomfortable with its connection to a lost little girl. Some have simply airbrushed her from memory while others, who at the time were highly vocal in the “Find Maddy” campaign, now distance themselves.

A few, one suspects, feel guilty that the locals did not handle the disappearance in a more organised – and less hysterical – manner. As Inez Lopes, editor of the local newspaper, Algarve Resident, points out: “People want to move on, not be forever attached to or identified with Madeleine. Of course we still feel for the McCanns but we want to be associated with a happier place. Frankly, it was an isolated incident that could have happened anywhere in the world. Right now Portugal is in the grip of a financial crisis. In Praia da Luz the feeling is that it has hurt our local economy. Tourism was affected by it, businesses closed. I don’t think the local business community can be blamed for wanting to return to being nothing more than a holidaymakers’ haven.”

Many of the principal characters in the case – which saw the McCanns by turn being comforted and protected by the Portuguese and expatriate communities alike as grieving parents; then vilified and shunned when they were, wrongly, accused of being involved in the disappearance – have moved on. Others want to banish all reminders of Madeleine’s existence and some openly display anger that this once prosperous tourist town is now synonymous with the abduction and possible murder of a child. Just a month ago, fresh posters were either torn down or had paint splattered over them within 24 hours. Reluctantly the McCanns have accepted that their campaign reminders are no longer welcomed by many locals.

And while no one would deny that the McCanns have borne the brunt of the anguish and opprobrium, they are not alone in that suffering. Within weeks of Madeleine’s disappearance Robert Murat, a British expatriate who had made Praia da Luz his home, was under investigation. The villa he shared with his elderly mother Jenny was searched by police and sniffer dogs and its grounds dug up. Mr Murat was questioned repeatedly by police and became the public scapegoat for the international outrage over Madeleine’s abduction. He was vilified in print, spat at in the streets and besieged in his home. In time, he too was exonerated. The scars of his public savaging, however, remain. These days he is rarely seen in public in Praia da Luz. He has since married his long-term girlfriend Michaela (she, too, was wrongly accused of involvement) who eight months ago gave birth to their son, Benjamin.

“No one wanted to know how I felt, or what I was going through at the time,” he says with an understandable trace of bitterness. “From my perspective, I have a new life with my wife and baby son.”

None the less, Mr Murat and his family have found it difficult to return to anonymity. “It’s still talked about here. All the time. But everyone is more cautious, less willing to take events at face value,” says Tuck Price, a close friend of Mr Murat and his staunchest supporter when he was wrongly accused. “Madeleine’s disappearance is an uncomfortable reminder that perhaps we had all become too complacent. Just last week I had my four-year-old nephew and his 12-year-old sister staying. And yes, I was more vigilant. I kept a closer eye on them than maybe I would have before Madeleine disappeared.’’

Mr Murat’s aunt and uncle, Sally and Ralph Everleigh, were also hounded during the spell he was under suspicion. Though they were never accused of any involvement they were harassed and cold-shouldered: for nothing more than being deemed guilty by association. “It was a horrendous time,” Mrs Everleigh recalls. “Our house was bugged, our phones tapped. Of course the McCanns have suffered a tragedy that they will never be able to come to terms with. How could they? But the stress of the whole situation made my husband ill. We suffered in our own way.” Little wonder, then, that each year, as the May 3 anniversary approaches, the couple leave their home and spend a few weeks in Gibraltar to escape the attention.

There are many in the tourism trade, too, whose businesses have been affected by what Ms Lopes describes as the “double whammy of the recession and the Maddy effect”. Several shops are boarded up and closed, and the resort seems a little more shabby, a little more down-at-heel. Restaurant owners mutter or grimace dismissively when asked how they have been affected. “Badly,” is the morose, monosyllabic response of one café owner. “We don’t want to talk about it,” say most. “We want the holidaymakers back.” It hasn’t helped, naturally, that Portugal’s weather is currently unseasonably poor. Last week, Praia da Luz was lashed with torrential rain, its few tourists forced to huddle in cafés clad in sou’westers and gumboots.

Mrs Ruth McCann (no relation) who owned the 5a apartment that was rented to the McCanns through the Ocean Club complex from where Madeleine was snatched, has tried for two years to sell. Though she dropped the price to £255,000 (£50,000 less than similar properties sell for) she didn’t have a single inquiry. The flat has lain unoccupied since the McCanns left it to return to their Leicestershire home in Rothely in September 2007. And it shows. The varnish on its front door has become faded and stripped by the sun; its garden is overgrown and the hedge, in contrast to those adjacent, is unkempt and bedraggled. “I keep asking the Ocean people to cut it,” says Ian Fenn who inherited the apartment above from his mother, Pamela, who died last month.

Mr Fenn, who lives in England, visits the flat monthly and has witnessed its transformation from white-washed holiday home to a ghoulish, run-down tourist attraction. “There are always tourists who stand outside and get their friends to take their photograph outside 5a,” he says wearily. “They find some ghastly attraction in being pictured at the spot when a little girl was abducted. Gerry McCann did come up to apologise to my mother for all the unwanted attention – which was incredibly kind as he has endured a grief and pain that no parent should ever have to withstand.”

There have been subtle changes, too, in the Ocean complex. On the night their daughter was snatched, the McCanns and seven other British couples in their party, dined in the complex, leaving all their children – in adjacent apartments – alone. They did not lock the doors, fearing the children would be trapped should a fire break out. Neither did they pay for a baby-sitting service, saying they didn’t want to leave their children with strangers. Instead, in a decision that will forever haunt the couple, they opted to take turns checking on all the sleeping children at half-hourly intervals. Today, the dining area has been turned into a pizzeria and is no longer open in the evenings. And though the McCanns have received world-wide sympathy, they know that those fateful decisions will always be questioned.

In the complex several British families, hoping to escape what they believed would be brisk Easter weather at home, were holidaying in the Ocean complex last week. Mike and Liz Atwood from Birmingham and their three children – Toby, 12, Lucy, nine, and four-year-old Tom – were among the few who braved the pool during the brief spells when the monsoon-like rains ceased. The family has holidayed in Praia da Luz many times and though Madeleine’s disappearance disturbed them, they have opted to return each year.

“But, of course, we are more vigilant,” Mrs Atwood admits. “This is a friendly, family-orientated resort and the Portuguese are well-known for how lovingly they treat children. But we just don’t let the kids out of our sight. We wouldn’t dream of going out for dinner and leaving them alone. I don’t mean to be critical of the McCanns. All parents can empathise with how grief-stricken they are. How bitterly they regret those decisions. They are paying a dear and heavy price and no one would wish it upon them. It has certainly made us be more attentive.”

On Praia da Luz’s beach, too, parents keep a keen eye on their children. Between heavy showers, as some played in the sand clad in stout boots and raincoats, their mothers shivered on the sea front watching them. “I don’t even want to sit in the café where it’s warm,” one said. “I would rather get wet and cold and know they are safe.”

Among the local Portuguese community too there have been many whose lives have changed immeasurably since Madeleine's disappearance. None more so, perhaps, than Gonçalo Amaral, who initially headed the botched and woefully inadequate police investigation. Since being dropped from the case, he has become a thorn in the McCanns’ side. While Kate awaits the launch of her own book on May 12 (Madeleine’s birthday) in which she tells the story from her perspective, and the proceeds from which will hopefully boost the vastly depleted Find Madeleine campaign, she and husband Gerry face a renewed legal battle with Amaral. They had already clashed over his sensationalised and dubious account of events, cryptically entitled The Truth of The Lie in which he attempted to justify his decision to brand the couple as suspects, which the McCanns called “mistaken” and aired his highly speculative theory that Madeleine died in apartment 5a. When he was barred from publishing it, he set about writing another which is also timed to launch near Madeleine’s birthday.

This weekend, while he refused to comment on his book, his wife Sonia defended his decision to publish a second. “Gonçalo has worked hard on this book,” she said. “He has spent days and nights assessing the evidence. In it he will say his investigation was cut short and he will explain what he would have done if he had been allowed to continue.” The timing of the publication, she insisted, was “coincidental. We are not trying to cash in on the anniversary”.

None the less, the timing will be hurtful for the McCanns who had hoped their court battles had dissuaded him from further comment. “It’s just one more painful thing they must face,” says one relative. “Quite why he wants to hound them when it has been proved definitively that they are completely innocent, no one knows.”

This weekend, while the congregation of Our Lady of Light held traditional Easter services, doubtless many said silent prayers for Madeleine, although she was not mentioned by name. Many will leave the village for the anniversary, others intend to make an appearance at the vigil in the church on May 3. In their home town of Rothely, Kate and Gerry will be steeling themselves to attend their fourth service that marks yet another year without a trace of Madeleine.

Both vigils will be emotion-filled. Prayers will be said, fervent hopes for a happy outcome – which, with the passing of time, becomes ever less likely – voiced. In Praia da Luz, however, quietly and behind the scenes, one man will spend the day remembering Madeleine in a more practical way. David Edgar, the Ulster-born ex-police officer whose Alpha Group Investigations has taken over the search, will hope that the anniversary – and publication of Kate’s book – will jog a long-forgotten memory.

That finally there will be a resolution to what has become an enduring mystery: the whereabouts of Madeleine McCann.

From Kate McCanns Book "Madeleine" page 75 Comment about Mrs Fenn

Mrs Fenn page 75

Then a lady appeared on a balcony – I’m fairly certain this was about 11pm, before the police arrived – and, in a plummy voice, inquired, ‘Can someone tell me what all the noise is about?’ I explained as clearly as I was able, given the state I was in, that my little girl had been stolen from her bed, to which she casually responded, ‘Oh, I see,’ almost as if she’d just been told that a can of beans had fallen off a kitchen shelf. I remember feeling both shocked and angry at this woefully inadequate and apparently unconcerned reaction. I recollect that in our outrage, Fiona and I shouted back something rather short and to the point.



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