On May 3, nine days before her fourth birthday, Madeleine McCann, a British girl on vacation with her parents in Portugal, disappeared. She hasn't been found in more than four months despite one of the most intensive and far-flung missing-person searches in history. This past spring and summer, Europe and much of the rest of the globe became fixated on the disappearance, which carries both the international breadth of the Diana tragedy and the hypersentimental, at times prurient fascination that Americans brought to the unsolved case of another little blond girl, JonBenét Ramsey.
The Pope and even bigger global celebrities--David Beckham and J.K. Rowling among them--have taken an interest in the search for Madeleine. People around the world have given more than $2 million to a private investigative fund begun by Drs. Kate Healy McCann and Gerry McCann, Madeleine's parents. Yet many Americans have only a vague sense of Madeleine's case and why it has mesmerized so many for so long. Only in the past few days, when it emerged that her parents might be charged with accidentally killing her, has Madeleine's image begun to appear with regularity in the U.S. media.
And so here are some answers--frustratingly blurry and contradictory as they are--to some key questions in the wide-open case.
1. Where's the girl?
THE MCCANNS, WHO LIVE IN CENTRAL England, had gone on vacation with a few friends to Praia da Luz (Beach of Light), a tourist town in southern Portugal. The resort they chose, the Ocean Club, had a reputation for being kid-friendly. On May 3, the group was dining at the resort's tapas bar while the kids slept. At about 10 p.m., Kate McCann has said, she went to check on Madeleine and her siblings, 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie. Madeleine was gone. The McCanns were not initially suspected; they have consistently denied any role in the disappearance.
Relations between the family and the Portuguese police were difficult from the first hours. Police believed that, like most missing young children, Madeleine had simply wandered off and would soon be found. Crucial time was lost to that assumption. The Spanish border is less than two hours from Praia da Luz, yet authorities did not search cars leaving Portugal or distribute a description of the girl.
Police have since investigated thousands of leads and theories, some quite elaborate, including the much discussed idea that an international ring of pedophiles stakes out children for days and then extracts them with military precision. Another possibility explored was that a desperate childless couple paid a professional kidnapper to find a child. The rise of Hollywood theories--a cabal of James Bond pedophiles?--stemmed from the lack of physical evidence.
2. So, did the parents do it?
ON SEPT. 7, PORTUGUESE AUTHORITIES named the couple as suspects. Three days later, officials apparently leaked word that Madeleine's DNA had been found in the trunk of a car her parents rented 25 days after the girl went missing. (The parents were still in Portugal at the time. Vowing not to return home without Madeleine, they stayed there until two days after being named suspects, when they returned to England.) At first, the DNA news seemed the first real break in the case in months, and a new theory presented itself: the McCanns wanted a night out with friends, so they drugged their little ones with painkillers or sedatives. Madeleine's dose was mismeasured, or she had an unexpected reaction. The parents somehow hid her corpse for weeks and then got the body out in the trunk of their rental car even though a phalanx of reporters was camped in Praia da Luz.
The McCanns called the theory ludicrous, and this time they got some help in their denials from Portuguese authorities: police chief Alipio Ribeiro said on Portuguese TV that DNA tests on the car were not conclusive.
3. At the very least, aren't the McCanns guilty of negligence?
MADELEINE AND HER SIBLINGS WERE ALONE in their room while Kate and Gerry ate and drank with seven friends. How much the nine vacationers drank is another point of dispute; the amounts range from the just over four bottles of wine claimed by the McCanns to the 14 bottles alleged in some Portuguese news reports. The Ocean Club offers babysitters, but neither the McCanns nor their friends hired one. Instead, they apparently agreed to check on their kids every half hour. Once again, there are conflicting reports about whether the checks were carried out with precise regularity.
The tapas bar is roughly a 400-ft. (120 m) walk from the apartment where the McCann kids were sleeping. But the view from the bar to the apartment--a residential building occupied by locals as well as Ocean Club guests--is obscured by a wall, and the walk requires a circuitous route around the pool. What's more, the McCanns' apartment was on the ground floor, and the couple had left the place unlocked.
4. How did the case of one missing girl become so well known?
WITH ALL THE RUMORS THESE DAYS ABOUT the McCanns, it's hard to recall the early days in May and June when they were granted much sympathy, particularly in Britain. They are an attractive, accomplished and devout couple. They were also savvy about our particular media moment, quickly launching a website and posting YouTube videos about Madeleine. They expressed regret for leaving the kids alone. Gerry started a blog, and they traveled as far as Africa to publicize Madeleine's case. The couple had a brief audience with the Pope, and Gerry flew to Washington to meet with then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
5. What happens next?
THE PORTUGUESE POLICE HAVE HANDED 3,000 pages of evidence to the district attorney, who in turn submitted them to a judge who must decide whether to bring charges against the parents. Given the usually glacial pace of the Portuguese justice system, the decision may not be quick. Meanwhile, the McCanns are back in England, surrounded by a resolutely supportive family. Some in Britain have called for the other McCann children to be removed to protective custody. Kate and Gerry won't allow that without a fight. They have hired top lawyers, including one who barred the extradition of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It was probably a bad p.r. move, but after months of global Madeleine news, it's clear it will take more than p.r. to figure out what happened to her.