Madeleine McCann disappeared on May 3, 2007. The youngster vanished from Apartment 5A of the Ocean Club resort in Praia da Luz, Portugal, while her parents – Kate and Gerry McCann – ate dinner at a tapas restaurant with seven friends just metres away. The case shocked the world and the youngster’s face would soon become one of the most recognisable in modern history as parents from all four corners of the world held their breath hoping to learn Maddie had returned safely.
But 13 years on and she has not been found.
Within 72 hours of the three-year-old’s disappearance, investigative journalist and former detective in the Surrey Police Mark Williams-Thomas was in Praia da Luz, watching the heartbreaking case unfold.
The specialist in major crimes and child abuse detailed how he believes British police would have handled the case if they were in charge from day one.
He told Express.co.uk exclusively: “It’s crucial to get house-to-house done really quickly, particularly in an area like that – if you’re doing house-to-house in central London you’re dealing with people who are living there, whereas in Praia da Luz you’re dealing with a transient community who are largely holidayers.
Mark Williams-Thomas spoke to Express.co.uk
Madeleine disappeared on May 3, 2007
“Therefore 24 hours can make a significant difference in terms of somebody being there or not being there.
“The British police, we’ve had considerable experience dealing with critical time-sensitive cases, in particular, child abductions.
“We’ve learnt from major mistakes we’ve made in cases in the past.”
The 49-year-old, who has worked on major missing person cases in the past, detailed the steps he thinks British police would have taken from the moment they got on the scene that fateful night.
He added: “The initial British officer that would have attended would be very aware how to deal with a critical incident.
READ MORE: Madeleine McCann: Image ‘fixed indelibly’ in Gerry’s memory from hour before disappearance
Millions around-the-world campaigned to find the three-year-old
“So the first stance for any police officer to attend a scene like that is to treat it as suspicious. It would have been a critical situation because of the age of the child, the child would immediately become vulnerable.
“The information you are being given from the parents would make it a suspicious crime – that child has vanished from that room by thoughts of a third party involvement.
“The very first thing you would do as the first officer on the scene is call for a CID (Criminal Investigation Department) and you would ask for the duty officer to be told.
“You would then, of course, preserve the crime scene – now that would have, to some degree, already been interfered with because prior to arriving the family and perhaps even the Mark Warner staff would have been searching around.”
The leading crime investigator, who released his book ‘Hunting Killers’ in 2019, says British police officers would have a checklist to then follow over the crucial first 24 hours.
He added: “As soon as the police arrived, they would have secured the crime scene and got everybody out of there so it was as sterile as you could make it.
Madeleine McCann: Why Kate questions if apartment ‘was breeze to raid’ [EXPLAINED]
Madeleine McCann: Kate claimed only ONE person ‘knows what happened’ [REVEALED]
Madeleine McCann: Why Kate McCann feared ‘someone was watching’ [REVEALED]
Mark Williams-Thomas detailed how a British investigation may have looked
Kate and Gerry McCann still don’t know what happened to their daughter
“Then there is a very coordinated, almost a checklist, that they would then go through in terms of critical situations like this.
“The most important thing is that they would treat it as being a suspected homicide or child abduction, so you treat it as the most serious scenario and you can always then reduce it with new information.
“It is very difficult to escalate it because you potentially lose evidence.
“The senior investigating officer’s manual would be very clear – treat it as a critical incident until such time there is sufficient information to suggest you should reduce it or deal with it otherwise.”
Mr Williams-Thomas, who also hosts his weekly ‘The Detective’ podcast, explained how he thinks things would have escalated from there.
He continued: “That, therefore, would have required forensics, house-to-house, statement-taking and a clear media strategy.
Campaigns to find Maddie have run for 13 years
Kate and Gerry McCann show the outfit the youngster was wearing
“One of the most important things is to, as quickly as possible, get out information into the public domain.
“We of course now have the Child AMBER Alert system, but it didn’t exist as it does now in 2007, but there was still the media – newspapers, radio and television.
“We would have had a very, very clear media strategy – put the information out about the disappearance, and crucially, what she was wearing.
“I would want to know what she was wearing, what did she disappear in?”
Crucially, according to Mr Williams-Thomas, British police would have been identifying known local sex offenders “within days”.
He added: “So she’s gone missing, your first protocol would be has she wandered off, and you can eliminate that pretty quickly, probably within an hour, possibly within a few minutes.
Maddie disappeared from Apartment 5A of the Ocean Club resort
“Then you start thinking ‘who is the third party that could potentially be involved?’
“Within a matter of days, we would be looking for and trying to identify known local sex offenders.
“When you are dealing with a child abduction or the sexual abuse of children where there is a third party involved, you’re immediately drawn to local sex offenders or sex offenders who would travel to that location.
“They are going to be your heightened risk.”
Having worked on the Sarah Payne case in 2000, Mr Williams-Thomas says Surrey Police identified all the known sex offenders in the area over one weekend.
He added: “So when Sarah Payne went missing I was a Surrey officer and within a matter of days we were asked to visit all of our sex offenders in Surrey and we did.
The British Police continue to investigate the case
“I remember over one weekend I spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday visiting all the sex offenders in Surrey and it was a great exercise because we found out more about them.
“Within a matter of days sex offenders would be at the top of your persons of interest.
“All of these things are happening simultaneously, not in isolation, so the senior investigation officer would have a policy book and in that would be the decision-making calls they make.
“So you would have forensics, then separately house-to-house, and somebody overseeing potential suspects.”
In June this year authorities in Britain, Portugal and Germany released an appeal for information regarding a new prime suspect – known as Christian B – who was seen driving a camper van in the area off Praia da Luz around the time that Maddie went missing.
One month later, prosecutors in Germany revealed a heartbreaking twist to the investigation, announcing that Maddie is “assumed to be dead” and they have opened a murder investigation into the 43-year-old convicted sex offender.
Maddie was just three years old when she vanished
Kate and Gerry McCann have appealed for help over the years
But Mr Williams-Thomas believes a British strategy from day one would have identified someone like Christian B as a person of interest in 2007.
He added: “When looking at potential sex offenders, they would obviously come under the radar first of all, but then there would be some research that would also be done.
“So any databases that existed in the police force to look at other potential offenders who live nearby, they might not be convicted sex offenders, but they might have an MO that puts them in the throw.
“They might be a domestic burglar, who in the past committee an indecency act or somebody who’s stolen underwear on a washing line – children’s underwear.
“Something that would give you a cause to say ‘they are worth looking at’ – all of these people would be referred to as persons of interest, not suspects.
“Then each person of interest you do what is called a TIE – Trace Interview and Eliminate.”
German authorities have launched a murder investigation into a suspect
Christian B was a known criminal working in the area and had been arrested for theft just one year before Maddie disappeared.
A phone allegedly belonging to the suspect was “pinged” by a cell phone tower in Praia da Luz, close to where Madeleine disappeared, on the night she went missing.
The mystery call was received on a mobile phone that is believed to belong to the suspect at 7.32pm and finished at 8.02pm.
Madeleine was last seen at 9.05pm, when Gerry checked the room and left via the unlocked patio doors.
Authorities linked the suspect to an early Eighties VW T3 Westfalia campervan – with a white upper body and yellow skirting, registered in Portugal – which was pictured in the Algarve in 2007.
Scotland Yard said he was driving the vehicle in the Praia da Luz area in the days before Maddie’s disappearance and is believed to have been living in it for days or weeks before and after May 3.
The suspect has also been linked to a 1993 Jaguar XJR6 with a German number plate seen in Praia da Luz and surrounding areas in 2006 and 2007.
Relations between officials investigating the case have also become strained as Scotland Yard continues to treat their investigation as a “missing persons” case and stated that German authorities have not revealed evidence that Maddie is dead.