The woman who called herself “Sweepyface,” caught outside her home , looked alarmed as the cameras closed around her like a vise. On Twitter, she was known for effectively accusing Madeleine McCann's parents of complicity in the 2007 disappearance of their three-year-old daughter.
Calling Gerry and Kate McCann the “worst of humankind,” she tweeted that they should “suffer” for the “rest of their miserable lives.” But here, in the soft light of day, she had shed such conviction and looked timid and fearful.
“Can we talk to you about your Twitter?” video shows a Sky News reporter asking the 63-year-old woman, named Brenda Leyland.
“No,” Leyland, called a “Twitter troll,” replied.
“Why are you attacking them so regularly?” the reporter charged, telling her police were investigating her tweets.
“I’m entitled to do what I want,” she said.
That was Thursday. Days later, after a public backlash caused by the Sky report, she was found dead at a Marriott hotel fewer than 20 miles from her house. The circumstances of her death are not clear. A coroner told the BBC her “death is not being treated as suspicious”. But her unmasking on TV and her death has sparked fresh questions over cyber-abuse, particularly involving trials-by-Twitter, and what sort of punishment online bullies deserve. In the realm of online anonymity, pervaded by ire-spitting handles like Sweepyface, has public identification, and shame, become the greatest punishment of all?
Sky News, which leveled its cameras on Leyland — then ran a story about her headlined “Gerry McCann says make example of web trolls” — was laconic after Leyland’s death. “We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland,” BBC quoted the cable network saying in a statement. “It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”
The story begins on a Thursday night in Portuguese resort. That was when the cherub-faced Madeleine McCann disappeared in what the Daily Telegraph would call the “most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history.” While her parents ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, the child suddenly vanished, and hasn’t been seen since. Portuguese police were reportedly initially suspicious of the couple — eliciting what the Guardian called “libelous insinuations” in the tabloids — but later cleared them of any suspicion.
The parents, who are doctors, continued looking for their daughter. “We’ll never give up on finding her, how could we?” the mother once said, according to the Guardian. “What parent would give up on their child?”
The Madeleine McCann case
The Madeleine McCann case
1/25 Madeleine McCann
One of the last photos of Madeleine before her disappearance
2/25 Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann was three when she was abducted during a family holiday in 2007
3/25 Top worn by a man that detectives investigate with connection to disappearance of Madeleine McCann
A computer generated image of the distinctive burgundy long sleeve top worn by a man that detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann are looking for
4/25 Apartment in Portugal from where Madeleine went missing
An aerial view of the Ocean Club apartments and pool where Madeleine McCann went missing
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
5/25 Kate McCann
Kate McCann speaks to the press outside the court house in Lisbon on 12 September 2013 following the first audience of the McCann couple's libel proceedings against former inspector Goncalo Amaral for a book written about the case of their missing daughter
6/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Kate McCann and Gerry McCann before the start of the 'Miles for Missing People' charity run in Regent's Park in London, 2011
7/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Kate and Gerry McCann make an appeal at a press conference in the holiday resort of Praia da Luz, Portugal 7 May 2007
8/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
The McCann's give an interview with a Spanish television channel at their home in Rothley
9/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Madeleine McCann was abducted in Portugal in May 2007
10/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Preliminary forensic analysis on samples recovered from the McCanns' hire car raised the possibility of a match with Madeleine's DNA profile, according to the leaked report
11/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Pope Benedict XVI blesses a photo of four-year-old abducted British girl Madeleine McCann, while meeting her parents Gerry and Kate McCann, after his weekly general audience at the Vatican, 2007
12/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Gerald McCann and Kate McCann speak to the press on 4 May 2007 at the Ocean club appartement hotel in Praia de Luz in Lagos after Madeline vanished while her parents were out to dinner
13/25 Portuguese police search for Madeleine
Dozens of Portuguese police aided by dogs search for missing three-year old British girl Madelaine McCann in front of the Ocean club appartment hotel in Praia de Luz in Lagos
14/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Gerald McCann and Kate McCann walk holding their two other children outside the Ocean club apartment hotel in Praia de Luz in May 2007
15/25 Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann pictured at the age of three, left, and as she might have looked aged nine
16/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
The parents of missing Madeleine McCann have described as "pure speculation" reports in the Portuguese press suggesting that a chief suspect in the disappearance of their daughter was killed in a tractor accident four years ago.
17/25 Tribute for missing Madeleine in Rothley, Leicesteshire
Three year old Cally prepares to add a yellow ribbon to a floral tribute for missing Madeleine McCann in Rothley in Leicesteshire, 2007
18/25 Support for the missing Madeleine
Everton captain Lee Carsley (L) leads his team onto the field, followed Mikel Arteta (C) and Manuel Fernandes (R) wearing Tshirts bearing a message of support for the missing British toddler Madeleine McCann, prior to the English Premiership match between Chelsea and Everton, at Stamford Bridge in London, 2007
19/25 Madeleine McCann
A poster appealing for information about Madeleine McCann at a Spanish railway station
20/25 BBC's Crimewatch reconstruction of Madeleine McCann's disappearance
Former porn star Mark Sloan (L) was cast in the BBC's Crimewatch reconstruction of Madeleine McCann's disappearance
21/25 Clarence Mitchell holds two artist's impression of the new suspect
McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell holds two artist's impression of the new suspect on 20 January 2008 in London. The description has come from British woman Gail Cooper, who was staying with her family close to the McCann's apartment in Portugal
22/25 Image of a woman sought in the case
Clarence Mitchell, the press spokesman for the McCann family, releases a photofit image of a woman sought in the search for missing Madeleine McCann
23/25 Suspect in disappearance of Madeleine McCann
Police released two e-fits of suspect in disappearance of Madeleine McCann
24/25 Raymond Hewlett
Convicted paedophile Raymond Hewlett, who is being sought in connection with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann
25/25 A picture of a suspect
An artist's impression of a suspicious man seen by a witness apparently watching the McCann family's apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, the day before Madeleine McCann went missing
But the grand jury of the Internet at their computers also wouldn’t give up on the case, and they were peddling a different narrative. It was in 2007, when social media and online gumshoe-ing were taking their first wobbly steps. Conspirators traded gossip in anonymous forums, released documentaries, dedicated Web sites and poured forth a torrent of speculative and highly-incendiary tweets.
“The campaign to indict the McCanns for the death of their own daughter was fought largely over the Internet, where normal decencies rarely apply,” wrote Ireland’s Sunday Independent in 2012. “… There’s a familiarity, even an intimacy, to online conversation which encourages strangers to feel that they have an investment in stories which actually belong to other people. Kate and Gerry were not only the ultimate victims of cyber bullying, but one of its original casualties too.”
Then after years of conspiracy and intrigue and baseless accusations, the Metropolitan Police told Skynews on Friday it was “investigating” a dossier of 80 pages of tweets, Facebook posts and other messages targeting the parents. Some of those messages said they should be tortured and would “burn in hell.”
Some of those messages were dispatched by a Twitter user who was apparently Brenda Leyland. “Q ‘how long must the McCanns suffer’,” she is alleged to have once tweeted. ‘For the rest of their miserable lives.”
Gerry McCann, who claimed people have threatened his children and wife, said he hadn’t seen Leyland’s tweets, but added in an interview with BBC that “something needs to be done about the abuse on the Internet. I think we probably need more people to be charged. … We need to make examples of people who are causing damage.”
Neighbours, according to a Daily Mail report, expressed surprise at both Leyland’s death — and that she was behind the Sweepyface account. “Brenda kept very much to herself, but people were surprised when she was accused of trolling the McCanns,” one said. “… I’m sure no one would have expected her to do something like this. People didn’t condone what she is said to have done.”
On Twitter, the response wasn’t nearly so tempered.
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