Police in Germany believe they have found a likely suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in May 2007. Is this the spectacular breakthrough that has evaded justice officials across Europe for more than a decade? By DER SPIEGEL Staff
In early September 2019, police began investigating a missing person case. A girl, little Inga, a delicate 5-year-old with blond hair, disappeared in May 2015 in the countryside of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was a difficult case, but the police discovered a possible connection to the case of another missing girl – also a blonde, the most famous 3-year-old in Europe. Madeleine McCann, referred to as “Maddie,” disappeared in May 2007 in Portugal. Like Inga, she has never been found.
In the case of Inga, it is thought that a man named Christian B. played a role. His face could also match a police facial composite image in the Maddie case. But is he really the culprit? During the police search, they found a chat he had with another man. Christian B. had boasted that he wanted to abuse a girl and that they would never find the child again. Who was he talking about?
Was it just the crazy ramblings of a psychopath? Or was it a development that could turn into a major international sensation.
Nine months later, the answer is clear: a global sensation. German investigators are certain that they have solved one of the greatest mysteries in the history of crime: that of what happened to Maddie McCann in 2007.
The man they’re targeting is Christian B., 43. At the time of her disappearance, he was living in the area around Praia da Luz, the resort where the McCanns were spending their holidays. It was the very place where he has been accused of raping an elderly woman two years earlier. In 1994, he was convicted for the first time for sexually abusing a child. He was convicted a second time in 2016. He also collected child pornography. What started out as a bold conjecture has now become a strong suspicion.
Madeleine McCann was the daughter of two doctors from Leicestershire County, England, who had been on a family vacation in the Algarve at the time of her disappearance. She was last seen in her bed before her parents went to dinner with friends.
The incident attracted massive amounts of attention and people the world over followed every development. Whether one believed the father, the mother, whether her despair was real or not, whether Maddie was dead or still alive, and what to make of the many experts and their theories, the “Find Maddy” drama gripped all of England and half of Europe.
Celebrities like billionaire Richard Branson and Harry Potter creator Joanne K. Rowling, helped raise millions in reward money for any clues that might lead to finding the girl. Newspapers ran Maddie’s photo on their front pages and the pope even blessed a photo of her. It’s likely there has never been another case of a missing person that has received as much publicity as the McCann case – in part because her parents proved so adept at attracting a broader public interested in the investigation. They held press conferences, they ran a website and they launched a media campaign backed by the British government. The parents also conducted a European tour to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco, where they appealed for people to help and also to participate in the search.
A Case Haunted by Ambiguities
A pesky question also accompanied the search – that of whether there was a dark secret behind the parent’s dramatic appearances – if perhaps the child had died in an accident and the kidnapping had been invented to cover it up. Traces of blood had been found in the McCann’s car and everything remained so ambiguous that anything seemed possible.
Things had been quiet in the case for quite some time, and nothing excites the mind more than a mystery that apparently can never be solved. After a period of frustration, the case was largely forgotten. Maddie appeared to have gone down in history as one of those crimes that never gets solved. The media also lost interest. Every “whodunit?” crime novel needs a solution, but there didn’t appear to be one here.
At least until now.
There is much to suggest that the mystery has been solved. The answer is to be found in Germany – both the solution to the crime and also redemption for parents Kate and Gerald, who have been to hell and back through the loss of their child and then through the purgatory of insinuations and public distrust. Now that the waiting, the hoping, the fears and desperation may be coming to and, and given that all of that could soon be replaced by a sad certainty, the McCanns are no longer making appearances on camera. They sent word through Scotland Yard that they finally want to know what happened so that they can finally find peace.
The person who is believed to have destroyed their lives is named Christian B., a man with a troubled life behind him. He grew up in a home, graduated from a lower secondary school and quit his vocational training. He moved from job to job and place to place, and the only constants in his a muddle of a life have
He was already on the run at the point he broke off his vocational training course. In 1994, the Würzburg district court slapped him with a two-year sentence as a juvenile for the sexual abuse of a child. Before he had to begin his jail sentence, he took off together with his girlfriend to Portugal’s Algarve region. They had no plans. B. struggled to make ends meet, and money was always tight.
At one job, he sold ads for a German newspaper. He installed awnings at another. He eventually was extradited from Portugal and forced to serve his sentence in Germany, but he returned to the country once he was released from jail. This time around, he worked as a waiter, a bartender and a car salesman. At one point, he collected golf balls on a course next to his house and sold them. When he and a friend tried to steal diesel fuel from a marina, he was caught and had to serve 258 days in jail.
He Took What He Could Get
The only success he had in Portugal was with women. He has a slim figure and pale blue eyes and he was a bit of a dandy. He wore suits and drove an old Jaguar he could barely afford. In the 2000s, he had a string of new girlfriends, always for short stints. It didn’t seem to make any difference to B. if he was having sex with children, young women, old women or whether the sex was violent or voluntary.
He took what he could get, and the sleeping Maddie was presumably also his victim.
Investigators are convinced today that B. entered holiday resorts and hotels and committed thefts there. He reportedly told one acquaintance that he would climb up buildings and crawl into rooms where “someone was sleeping.”
Kate and Gerald McCann had traveled with three other couples to the OceanClub, a holiday resort in Praia da Luz. On the evening of May 3, 2007, they met with friends at a tapas bar. Maddie and her two smaller siblings remained in their room, where they were sleeping. At 10 p.m., Kate McCann opened the door to her worst nightmare: Maddie had disappeared. Her mother said a window had been left open. That night, the police searched the resort but were unable to find Maddie anywhere.
Already on the morning after her disappearance, Maddie’s parents phoned friends and acquaintances, searching for and finding allies. One knew a news anchor, another lived on the same street as the brother of then chancellor of the Exchequer and later prime minister Gordon Brown.
The British government provided the family with the help of Clarence Mitchell, the director of its Media Monitoring Unit. As an adviser and campaign manager, the former BBC reporter helped turn the criminal case into a world event and Maddie’s parents into the main protagonists in the dramatic search operation. On May 30, the McCann’s flew in a private jet belonging to a British multimillionaire to visit the pope.
By that point, the case had become a major political issue. British entrepreneur Brian Kennedy, who supported the McCanns, publicly criticized the Portuguese police, saying it had taken them too long to mobilize. Gordon Brown, who had just become prime minister, also applied pressure on investigators to release statements about one suspect’s appearance.
As the world followed Maddie’s case more closely, facts became difficult to distinguish from fiction. There were supposed Maddie sightings everywhere – in Malta, in Morocco, Belgium and Switzerland. It became difficult to distinguish between serious clues, sheer invention and self-importance.
The story began to turn at the beginning of August 2007. The McCanns were now threatening to drown in the maelstrom caused by the media frenzy. Police had found traces in the family’s vacation apartment that suggested Maddie may have died there. They also found traces of blood in the rental car.
Were the heartbreaking performances just a diversion from their own guilt?
New details of the investigation leaked out and were spread by the press, including, for example, that Kate McCann testified that she and her friends drank three or four bottles of wine at the tapas bar. A Portuguese newspaper reported that the investigators had received a bill indicating there had been 14 bottles. Now people were no longer thinking what “poor parents” these were, but were instead asking “what kind of parents are they?”
Guilty on Suspicion
There were also claims the parents had given their children sedatives that evening. “Did you sedate Maddie?” asked the British tabloid The Sun. Speculation arose that Maddie had died of an overdose. In early September of that year, the McCanns were even officially declared suspects by the Portuguese police. The operation that Kate and Gerald McCann had started to save their child was now tearing them apart.
The investigating prosecutor stated on Sept. 20 that there was no reason for further questioning of the McCanns because there had been no new findings. The Portuguese authorities then dropped the case in July 2008. But the shadow it cast over the McCanns never went away. The tabloids didn’t need any proof – they were guilty on suspicion.
During that period, Christian B. was commuting back and forth between Germany and Portugal. He alternated between living with his former girlfriend in Dresden, Germany, with an acquaintance in Augsburg, in his home in Praia da Luz and then again in a trailer in Hannover and in an allotment garden in Braunschweig. He worked at a car repair shop in Hannover, at a corner store in Braunschweig and lived off of welfare in the times in-between.
Nothing seemed stable in his life – he changed girlfriends, jobs and the crimes he committed on a whim. In 2011, he was handed down a suspended sentence of one year and nine months, a result of having started a drug operation in 2007 to supply marijuana to the German island resort of Sylt.
As Christian B. strayed through life without any fixed abode, social stability or moral inhibitions, the investigation into Maddie’s disappearance picked up again in 2011. This time in England. In May 2011, then Prime Minister David Cameron ordered that everything be reviewed again – every page in the file. Maddie’s parents had requested as much in a letter to him.
Operation Grange, a 37-member special commission, systematically went through all 100,000 pages that police and private investigators in Britain and Portugal had compiled.
A “Revelation Moment”
In October 2013, Andy Redwood, who was leading the Metropolitan Police investigation in Britain, declared a “revelation moment.” A girlfriend of the McCanns had testified in 2007 that she had seen a man in the apartment complex at around 9:15 p.m. who was carrying a small child in pajamas on his arm. The Scotland Yard investigators found the man, questioned him and than removed him from the list of suspects because it was his own child whom he had picked up from the resort’s late-night babysitting service.
This then pushed testimony made by a married Irish couple to the forefront. They had initially been considered unimportant by investigators in 2007 because what they said didn’t seem to fit into the time frame. The couple said they had seen a man with a blonde child in his arms at about 10 p.m. He had walked from the resort to the beach.
And the investigators had also come across eyewitness testimonies: The day before Maddie’s disappearance, two blond men had attracted attention near the apartment the McCanns were staying in because they appeared to be scouting the site. They had looked repeatedly in the direction of the apartment and had allegedly spoken in German or Dutch.
That led chief investigator Redwood to present the results together with Gerald and Kate McCann in “File XY … Unsolved.” The switchboard received more than 500 tips during and after the broadcast. But nothing came of them. One person did submit a tip about Christian B., but the resulting report from police in Braunschweig to the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation was apparently not acted upon, much to the consternation of the local investigators.
Instead, B. was prosecuted again for a different crime: The district court of Braunschweig wanted to send him to prison in early 2016 in a case involving the sexual abuse of a child, but he once again flew to Portugal only to be extradited back to Germany in 2017. In December 2019, the Braunschweig regional court sentenced him in the case of the elderly woman he allegedly assaulted, tortured and raped in 2005 in her home in Portugal. The judgment in that case has not been finalized yet. A single hair proved the key piece of evidence and Christian B. is now being held in a prison in Kiel, Germany. He could soon be facing additional charges.
In December 2017, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) received two tips from Scotland Yard in the Maddie case. One of them directed suspicion to Christian B. An informant, likely a former colleague from Portugal, claimed to have recognized him from the police sketches.
Investigators with the BKA’s Department SO25 set up a special commission that began its work with the utmost secrecy. The proceedings in the Maddie case were conducted by the public prosecutor’s office in Braunschweig because B. had his last official residence there. They are investigating B. on suspicions of murder, with a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s offices saying the assumption is that the girl is dead.
The waiting, the hoping, the fears and desperation could soon be replaced by a sad certainty.
So far, investigators have built the case against Christian B. on the basis of circumstantial evidence. B. knew his way around Praia da Luz and apparently specialized in break-ins. He has also abused children in the past. The authorities also believe they know which mobile phone he used on May 3, 2007, “with a probability bordering on certainty.” The girl disappeared between 9:10 p.m. and 10 p.m. Calls were made during that period of time on the mobile phone in Praia da Luz. He cancelled his car registration the day after Maddie’s disappearance.
What’s lacking is concrete evidence. The BKA has distributed photos of a VW Transporter van that B. might have been driving on the day of the crime. It has also released the number of the mobile phone the suspect used that night to call a stranger from Praia da Luz. They have requested help from possible witnesses to fill in the gap between what is known about Christian B. and what is believed to be true about him.
Profilers at the BKA describe B. in their report as a psychopath who is capable of anything. A man who nevertheless – or precisely because of this – had a charismatic aura and impressed the people around him. Most felt exploited, taken for a ride and cheated afterward.
They paint a picture of a manipulative narcissist who could appear charming, but was only trying to get money he would never pay back or sexual gratification.
“He was very engaging, dominant and sociable, he seemed like a hopeless dreamer who always had big plans,” says one companion. “I knew he was up to no good. Drugs and such. But I had no idea that he had sexually abused children.”
The man says it was no secret that the police were always after B. One former girlfriend had regularly called the police because Christian B. had allegedly beaten her.
Officials found numerous references to his preferences on hard drives – and violence often played a role.
It was conspicuous that Christian B. had boasted about a sudden financial windfall after he returned from Portugal in 2007. Friends remember him telling them that he had found cash in a pile of clothes, large sums of money, after breaking into a home in Algarve. In addition to a mobile home, he also used the money to buy a derelict factory property in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Apart from money, Christian. B. was likely interested mostly in sex. Officials found numerous references to his preferences on hard drives – and violence often played a role. The investigators also discovered child porn. Witnesses testifying in the regional court in Braunschweig during his trial there claimed they had seen sex videos with animals and also ones in which B. raped women.
In a chat with an acquaintance in September 2013, Christian B. wrote that he wanted to “capture something small and use it for a few days.” The other replied that this would be dangerous. And B. countered: “Oh, if the evidence is destroyed afterwards.” Notes about the chat are in the investigation files of the Stendal police in Saxony-Anhalt, which prosecutors, BKA investigators, lawyers and future police officers studying at the police academy evaluated.
The random way in which Christian B. apparently chose victims for his sex drive and the brutality he apparently subjected them to also occupied investigators in the case of the 5-year-old Inga G. from Saxony-Anhalt. She had visited a facility of the Diakonisches Werk, a Protestant charity organization, in Stendal with her parents and disappeared in May 2015. At the time, B. was living around 90 kilometers away in an old house in Neuwegersleben. In addition to child porn, investigators also found children’s clothes for girls in a trailer on the property, although B. had no family.
The authorities believe that Christian B. knew an employee of the Diakonie facility near which Inga disappeared. The uncertainty could end for her parents in much the same way as for the parents of Maddie. There is no comfort, no hope. But there is the prospect of truth, of certainty. That, though, is far more than they have head until now.