On Wednesday evening, the German and British authorities dropped a bombshell: They said a German man was under investigation on suspicion of the murder of Madeleine McCann, a 3-year-old British girl who disappeared from a hotel room in Portugal 13 years ago.
The disappearance of Madeleine, who was vacationing with her family in the seaside village of Praia da Luz, in Portugal’s Algarve region, sent shock waves across Europe, sparked an international manhunt and triggered years of speculation.
For years, as the child’s bright-eyed face was plastered across Britain’s tabloid press, rumors swirled about her whereabouts and what had happened that night. One British newspaper group later paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in libel damages over stories baselessly throwing suspicion on the girl’s parents. All the while, criticism mounted of the initial botched investigation by the Portuguese police.
Now, the announcement of an official suspect has thrust the case back into the international spotlight. Here is what we know about the recent developments.
Who is the suspect?
The 43-year-old man, whose identity was not immediately released by the police, was named in German press reports on Thursday as Christian B. He lived in Portugal in and around the Algarve region sporadically from 1995 to 2007.
The man, who is in a German prison serving a sentence for an unrelated sexual crime and for drug offenses, has a criminal record for sexual abuse of children, Christian Hoppe, a criminal investigator at Germany’s Federal Criminal Police, said on public television on Wednesday night. There are 17 crimes listed on his criminal record, according to Der Spiegel, and a local newspaper Braunschweiger Zeitung said he had been deported to Germany in 2017 on an European warrant for his arrest on a different crime.
He is known to have burgled hotels and vacation homes and dealt drugs, German police said in their statement, and held a number of odd jobs in the Lagos area, including in catering. The British and German police appealed for anyone with information about the man to come forward and released photographs of two vehicles — a Volkswagen camper van and a Jaguar sedan — which he used at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance.
The German authorities are appealing to anyone who has information that will shed light on the suspect’s whereabouts between 9:10 p.m. and 10 p.m. on May 3, 2007.
Detectives in London said they received their first tip about the German man after appealing to the public for information in 2017, on the 10-year anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance.
What happened on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance?
Her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, say they left Madeleine, who was about to turn 4, and her siblings, 2-year-old twins, in the apartment where they were staying while they ate in a nearby restaurant.
Mr. McCann returned to check on the children around 9 p.m., and found nothing amiss. But when his wife returned to check on them an hour later, at around 10 p.m., Madeleine was missing.
The police were called and a search began near the vacation apartment. In subsequent days, the manhunt grew to the surrounding area, but no trace of the girl was ever found. In 2011, in response to a request from the McCann family, David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, ordered the London police to review the investigation. A year later, British officers said there was a possibility the girl could still be alive.
Have suspects been named before?
Just days after Madeleine’s disappearance, a British-Portuguese man who lived with his mother a short distance from where the McCanns were staying was named by the Portuguese police as a suspect. He was never arrested, and a year later the Portuguese authorities said he was no longer considered a suspect.
For a time, Madeleine’s parents were also considered suspects by the Portuguese authorities, triggering theories about what role they may have played. They were formally cleared a year later.
In 2008, Alipio Ribeiro, the Portuguese police chief who was widely criticized for his handling of the case, resigned.
In 2014 the British police flew to Portugal to interview four additional suspects, the BBC reported, but returned without making any arrests.
What do the authorities and the family believe happened?
While Madeleine’s parents had long held out hope that their daughter might be found alive, the German authorities have made it clear that they believe the girl was killed.
German public prosecutors provided few details on Wednesday about what might have happened, but in an appearance Wednesday on an unsolved crimes TV show, Mr. Hoppe, of the German police, said the evidence they had amassed led “to the assumption that Madeleine was the victim of a homicide.”
On Thursday, the Braunschweig state prosecutor, Hans Christian Wolters, whose office is investigating the suspect, told reporters that based on evidence that led them to open the murder investigation, “We assume that the girl is dead.”
Clarence Mitchell, a spokesman for Madeleine’s parents, said in a radio interview on Thursday that the latest appeal by the police was the most specific one to date but noted that while the German police had classified the case as a murder investigation, the police in London were still referring to it as a missing persons case.
The McCann family did not speak publicly about the case on Wednesday, but did release a statement: “All we have ever wanted is to find her, uncover the truth and bring those responsible to justice. We will never give up hope of finding Madeleine alive, but whatever the outcome may be, we need to know as we need to find peace.”
Benjamin Mueller and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.