Detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann say they have had an “overwhelming response” to a televised appeal broadcast on Monday which included e-fits of a man believed to be a key suspect. It comes after a radical shift in what police believe happened on the night she went missing.
Police said they had received over 118 calls after a new appeal that saw e-fits of a white man of medium build, who is thought to have been seen with a child in his arms on the night Madeleine disappeared.
The new images, broadcast on Monday night as part of an appeal on BBC Crimewatch, were drawn up five years ago by a private detective agency but they were never publicly released as Portuguese police were working on a theory that the three-year-old had been snatched 45 minutes earlier.
The man, believed to be in his 30s, was spotted by a holidaying Irish family at about 10pm just minutes from the apartment at the Algarve resort in Praia de Luz where Kate and Gerry McCann had been staying.
Martin Smith and his family left Portugal the day after the disappearance and only later realised the significance of the man walking towards the ocean with the young girl wearing pyjamas in his arms.
The man’s importance only emerged after Scotland Yard pored through tens of thousands of documents compiled by Portuguese and British police and private detectives hired by the family during the six years that she has been missing.
Police are focusing on the man in the e-fit after ruling out another person of interest – a dark-haired man spotted walking away from the apartment with a child at around 9.15pm on May 3, 2007.
That man – who had been a focus of police inquiries for years – has been identified as an innocent British holidaymaker who had been collecting his own daughter from a crèche at the resort. He had been spotted by Jane Tanner, a member of the so-called “Tapas Nine”, friends of the McCann family who had been eating together at a resort in the Portuguese town after putting their children to bed.
“Our focus in terms of understanding what happened on the night of May 3 has now given us a shift of emphasis,” said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, who is leading the inquiry. “We are almost certain that the man seen by Jane Tanner is not Madeleine’s abductor.
“It takes us through to a position at 10pm when we see another man who is walking towards the ocean, close by to the apartment, with a young child in his arms.”
In another new line of enquiry broadcast on Monday, police said the disappearance had "all the hallmarks of a pre-planned abduction".
The review – part of an £5m operation after the McCanns made a direct appeal to the Prime Minister in 2011 – has led to what police believe is the most detailed picture so far of what happened on the night of the abduction. The police team has scrutinised the key 90-minute period when the McCanns joined their friends for dinner culminating in Kate McCann’s discovery that her daughter was missing at about 10pm.
After the Crimewatch appeal, Det Chief Insp Redwood said the investigation had an “overwhelming response from the public” with a flurry of calls including many from holidaymakers that were on the resort in 2007. He added: “There are still people out there who can help us with key information"
Scotland Yard is also investigating sightings of unknown blonde men around the resort in the days and hours before the three-year-old was snatched. Police said the sightings, including men believed to be speaking German, suggested preparation and planning.
DCI Redwood said there had been a four-fold increase in burglaries in the area in the months before the attack and could not rule out that Madeleine had disturbed someone who had broken into the apartment where she was sleeping. In the 17 days before she was snatched, there was an attempted burglary and burglary in the same block where the family were staying.
Police said on Monday night they were also trying to trace a number of people going door-to-door collecting money in a potentially bogus charity scam.
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