Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann Image Credit: AFP

Praia de Luz seems like a gentle place. Its seafront has ruins of Roman-era baths, a family of immigrants from Lahore make a decent living hawking thin-crust pizzas in a pathway lined with cafes selling craft cold beers, and last week, there was still a decent smattering of tourists wandering about at the leisurely pace of those with little cares during their holiday breaks.

This region of southern Portugal — the Algarve — has long been popular with tourists who are drawn to its sandy beaches, long hours of sunshine and many golf courses.

Despite all that it has to offer, this seaside retreat is seared in the collective memory of millions of Britons and others for one enduring mystery — the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

Fifteen years ago, the quiet beachfront town seemed like the perfect place to relax for Kate and Gerry McCann from the Liverpool area. Maybe the couple – both medical professionals — relaxed too much. They made the fateful decision to leave their three children — Madeline, Amelie and Sean — asleep in their holiday apartment.

Today, that ground-floor apartment is shuttered, while white metal blinds are drawn on the windows. You can’t help but look at the ease with which someone with evil in their heart might scale a shoulder-high wall and ease through one of several apartment windows. Yes, it is a place where the hairs stand on the back of your neck and its inherent energy brings a shudder.

The McCann parents went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant some 100 metres away with friends, with the intent to return every 20 mins or so to check on the sleeping children.

They turned down an offer from the building management for babysitting.

Later that night of May 3, 2007, three-year-old year Madeleine went missing from her bed.

The horror of that moment would be hard to grasp for any parent. To this day, it still jolts.

The Portuguese police were notified. Within a day, the world’s press were encamped in the town looking at every angle, seeking any scrap, dissecting every moment.

Scotland Yard detectives flew in to offer assistance, the McCanns were questioned about why they left their children unattended, and Portuguese police officials held suspicions they were somehow involved. But they also named

Robert Murat, an Anglo-Portuguese man, as an official suspect, or “arguido”. He was cleared.

The mystery of her disappearance held sway over the coming month and, after 100 days, investigating officers publicly acknowledged that Madeleine could be dead.

Gerry and Kate are also named as official suspects — or arguidos — within the case. Things went from bad to worse when Goncalo Amaral, the Portuguese detective in charge of the inquiry, was removed from the case after criticising the Scotland Yard detectives.

Entire toolboxes — not just spanners — were thrown into the works of the case. It was a mess.

Within a year, Kate and Gerry were awarded £550,000 libel damages and front-page apologies from the Express Newspapers over allegations they were responsible for their daughter’s death.

Investigators were replaced by more senior officers. Entire salons of fine-tooth combs came up with nothing. And throughout the recriminations and lack of progress, little Madeleine remained missing.

She still is today.

The UK government funded Operation Grange to try and find her — the bill exceeded £10 million. Still nothing. But the police were making progress. Two years ago, Scotland Yard identified a German man as the main suspect — Christian Brückner.

The odd-job man, drifter and petty criminal lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the Algarve, sometimes in a camper van, sometimes in a rented farmhouse. But he harboured evil desires and acted out his depravities in a series of violent crimes against women of all ages. Those tabloid papers infatuated with the case would easily label him “a sicko” — and maybe that label fits.

Now serving a seven-year term in Germany for rape, the 45-year-old is accused of committing more crimes across several European countries starting in 2000.

Last month, he has been charged with five sex crimes that took place in Portugal, including two assaults on young children. The new charges do not relate to Madeleine’s case – but they do add heft to the belief in the public’s mind that he is the perpetrator. Naturally, he will have his day in court for guilt or innocence to be determined.

Brückner is serving time now in Germany for raping an elderly American woman in Praia da Luz in 2005.

The rapist’s lawyer has said the charges are based “almost exclusively on the statements of two dubious witnesses about the content of missing video recordings” and vows to fight them at every turn.

Fifteen years is a long time to seek justice. But any parent who has suffered the loss of a child knows only too well that the void never fills, the pain never eases, the love endures.

It will take a long time, if this case is ever finally resolved, for the pain of Madeleine’s loss to ease. Justice might indeed be done in courts, but justice can’t replace love. Nothing can.