If Kate McCann were seeking some consolation this week, as she began preparing to return home from the Portuguese resort that will define the rest of her life, then perhaps it was the belief that no catastrophe could ever come close to what she has experienced in the place where her family arrived for a week's peace and sunshine, 138 days ago. But, in a single, breathtaking moment yesterday, the world learnt there were to be no such certainties for the mother of Madeleine McCann. Shortly before 11am, Mrs McCann's spokeswoman, Justine McGuinness, revealed that the 39-year-old GP was being made an arguida – official suspect – in the case. And then she uttered the six short words which will be inconceivable to some who have followed this case and a confirmation of long-held suspicions to others. "Kate fears she will be charged," Ms McGuinness said.
There was to be more – much more – all day. Firm facts which seemed all the more extraordinary because of the utter absence of solid detail of any kind in this case since Madeleine vanished from apartment 5A at the Ocean Club in the white-washed resort of Praia da Luz, on the last night of the family's beach holiday in May. There was even an extraordinary suggestion last night that Mrs McCann had been offered a deal: to confess to killing Madeleine accidentally, in return for a lenient two-year sentence.
Late last night, Mr McCann, was also named as a suspect. As he left the police station by the same door his wife had exited 24 hours earlier, the couple’s lawyer said: "Today Kate and Gerry have both been declared arguidos with no bail conditions and no charges have been brought against them – the investigation continues.”
Detectives put it to Mrs McCann, during 10 hours of questioning late on Thursday, that Madeleine's blood had been found in a silver Renault Scenic she hired with her husband Gerry, 25 days after Madeleine went missing, Ms McGuiness disclosed.
Within an hour of that revelation, Mrs McCann was back at the police station from which she had emerged, palpably worn from 11 hours of questioning, at about 1am. There were cheers, and some unmistakeable boos.
And then, as the millions absorbed by this story held their breath and she faced 22 "difficult questions" relating to the case, Mrs McCann's sister-in-law simply telephoned Sky TV to relate the conversation she had just concluded with her brother, Gerry. "They're suggesting Kate has killed Madeleine and then kept the body and got rid of it," said Philomena McCann, who reported that Mr McCann was currently "lying down", exhausted. She also disclosed details of the "deal". If this were a film script, it would have been torn up for its lack of realism.
Mrs McCann left Portimao police station after five more hours of questions yesterday afternoon, minutes after her husband had arrived to face his own interview. Mrs McCann had not been charged last night, despite her own fears and suggestions from the couple's lawyer, Carlos Pinto de Abreu, that she might be.
The developments of the day led Mr McCann to use the website which has been the focus of the couple's extraordinary, global campaign to find their daughter, to declare their innocence. "Anyone who knows anything about the 3rd May knows that Kate is completely innocent," said Mr McCann. "We will fight this all the way and we will not stop looking for Madeleine" .
Mr McCann's capacity to sit down and compose any kind of message was remarkable, considering the chaos engulfing him. He would have known that a police interview awaited him and that if the hire car made his wife a source of suspicion, then the same might go for him. But not once since the evening Madeleine vanished has he allowed events to overwhelm him.
For a time, while the couple embarked on their international crusade to find their daughter, Mrs McCann pledged she could never return to their home in Rothley, Leicestershire, until Madeleine was found. But there has been a gradually acceptance in their language of late that the girl might not be found and, before preparing to leave this week, they actually declared their media campaign was to be scaled down.
The forensic investigation has continued apace, though. Portugal's Policia Judiciaria (PJ) has gradually become more willing to accept advice from the Leicestershire Constabulary, the McCanns' local force, and, last month, British forensic officers undertook a sweep of the McCanns' apartment and the silver Scenic in which the couple have been seen transporting their twins, Sean and Amelie.
DNA samples, along with some of Kate McCann's clothes and a bible of hers which they took, have been under examination at the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in Birmingham, with the results being delivered to Portuguese officers via Leicestershire police.
The outcome of these tests have been a source of fierce speculation in the Portuguese press, resulting in a glut of stories raising suspicions about the McCanns which have surfaced around the 100-day anniversary of her disappearance, last month.
The main story at that time surrounded the discovery of dried blood on the wall of the McCanns' apartment with suggestions that it had, somehow, been "wiped clean". There was also reportedly evidence that British sniffer dogs had stopped at the scent of someone who might have died in the apartment. The apartment inquiry came to nothing. The source of the blood turned out to be a man who injured himself while staying at the two-bedroom apartment after Madeleine disappeared.
While attention in Portugal focused on the apartment, the presence of bloodstains in the hire car seemed to pass by many involved in the case – including the Portuguese police officers who have leaked their various theories to the nation's papers. On 11 August, Mundo Real reported that the McCanns might have "moved a dead body five weeks later in their hired Renault Scenic car." There have also been fleeting mentions, amid the many colourful hypotheses in the Portuguese papers, of British sniffer dogs picking up scents in the Scenic's boot and the "strong scent of a corpse " on the vehicle's keys. But amid the welter of accusations being bandied around, those seemed insignificant.
The FSS refused yesterday to discuss the significance of evidence that has been passed to Portugal but a trickle of DNA results have certainly been arriving there since the "blood on the wall" evidence, with information relating to the car possibly reaching officers on Wednesday or Thursday.
Olegario Sousa, the spokesman for the PJ inquiry, said on Wednesday that he was "very satisfied" with a new batch of results that had arrived.
Disclosures by the McCann family (rather than any utterances by the PJ on the subject) suggested the car is a crucial line of inquiry. So, if traces of Madeleine's blood have been found, how serious are the implications for Kate McCann?
Mark Williams-Thomas, a former detective and child-protection expert, said there were many objections to a theory that a car hired five weeks after Madeleine's disappearance might offer evidence to implicate Mrs McCann or her husband.
Any attempt to move Madeleine's body, in the Scenic or by some other means, would bring an extraordinary risk of detection, considering the intense round-the-clock scrutiny the McCanns have been under throughout their time in Portugal. To leave blood deposits by doing so would suggest that Madeleine had not been concealed in any way and simply laid in the car. Again, highly unlikely. The five-week delay raises further questions. It would be far more unlikely to find blood deposits after that time – following Madeleine's death the blood would have long since dried up.
That said, statistics show it is right and proper than the couple should be under scrutiny in this case – 90 per cent of murders in this country are domestic and just 6 per cent of abducted children are removed by paedophiles or someone unknown to them.
But Mr Williams-Thomas argued that Mrs McCann's palpable grief after her daughter's disappearance made it inconceivable that she might have had a hand in her death. "It would have been simply impossible to conduct herself as she has, in the knowledge that she had committed such a crime," he said. "It would have taken one hour at maximum to get rid of a body. The adrenalin and emotions would have made detection inevitable."
So how did any blood get there? Cross-contamination is one possibility, says Mr Williams-Thomas, since forensic officers were seen searching the flat without protective uniforms. The new developments raise many more questions. Gerry McCann told his sister that police believe Madeleine was killed " accidentally" and removed. How can they possibly know that until a body is located? Why, as Ms McGuinness has indicated, was Mrs McCann asked no questions yesterday which related to the night of 3 May.
Of one detail there is more certainty. DNA also found on Mrs McCann's clothing cannot possibly implicate her, as it is highly likely that such traces of her daughter would be there. Perhaps, in the details of yesterday's extraordinary developments, there is also a conceivable theory that the blood in the car is a red herring, designed perhaps to antagonise the McCanns and flush out a loose statement from either.
Or otherwise, to lull other suspects into a false sense of security? With the investigation apparently fizzling out it could have been one last throw of the dice for the habitually eccentric Portuguese police operation.
Friends and family have rallied around the McCanns. Kate McCann's mother, Susan Healey, described the situation as "ludicrous", while her brother-in-law, John McCann, dismissed as "crazy" any suggestion she could have been involved in Madeleine's death. But, whatever succour Mrs McCann might have felt at the prospect of a return to Britain – and its calm familiarity – dissolved last night. Just as she and her husband were forced to jettison their return flight to the Midlands on 4 May, so it will be tomorrow. The bags are being unpacked and, in the short term at least, the McCanns will not be coming home.
Aside from leaks to the Portuguese press, apparently by local police sources, little hard evidence has emerged in the case. Last night, speculation was surrounding allegations that blood samples had been found in the McCanns' car (which could, of course, have come from anything from a nosebleed to a cut finger), amid claims of a forensic breakthrough, the details of which have yet to emerge.
British sniffer dogs were brought in to analyse other traces found in the McCanns' apartment, as tests were being performed at the Forensic Science Service in Birmingham on evidence, thought to be traces of blood, found at the apartment where Madeleine disappeared on 3 May. The revelation sparked an international media frenzy which did not abate even when it wa suggested that they came from a previous guest.
The Portuguese law
Under Portuguese law the legal status of arguido permits the police to treat someone as a formal suspect, placing under an obligation to answer specific questions. There is no equivalent in English law but it could be said to be the preliminary stage before arrest when someone is still "helping police with their inquiries".
An arguido, or arguida if the suspect is a woman, has the right to remain silent and the right to be represented by a lawyer. Anyone who is subject to a police investigation can ask for arguido status which in Portugal is considered a common course of action and does not denote guilt. It also means that the police can ask a judge to place restrictions on the suspect's movement and require them to surrender their passport or reside at a fixed address. Where there is a real concern that an arguido might abscond the judge can ask for a substantial surety. But where there is little risk of the suspect fleeing the country the police can ask the suspect to sign a residence and identity contract.
If the police believe they have sufficient evidence to support a criminal case then the suspect will be arrested. Criminal charges normally follow swiftly.
The 11-hour questioning of Kate McCann appears a controversial move by the police, who friends of the McCanns believe have been revelling in the attention.
But it is possible that – with the McCanns talking of leaving Portugal soon – police wanted one last, long attempt to question the pair.
If they were slow off the mark, the police learnt to speed up as a symbiotic relationship developed between them and the press. They fed off each other over stories, spurring the other on in a void of information.
The initial media pressure may have helped kickstart the search. By 8 May, police were saying they had investigated 350 suspicious incidents but still had no idea about the whereabouts of Madeleine, leaving the media to fill the information gap.
In early August, a fleeting glimmer of hope emerged when the case switched to Belgium, where a "highly credible" witness said she was " 100 per cent sure" she saw Madeleine at a service-station near the Dutch border. Belgian police issued a photo-fit and carried out DNA tests, but the girl was proved not to be Madeleine.
By the end of last month the Portuguese press was reporting that the investigation was focusing on the McCanns, amid claims – repeated in the UK – that their phone calls and emails were being monitored.
Madeleine's father, a consultant cardiologist from Leicestershire, last saw his daughter at 9.30pm on the night of her disappearance as one of the parents rotating check-ups on their children while they dined in a nearby tapas restaurant with friends.
Gerry McCann also walked a fine line throughout the case, both using the media – he recently addressed the Edinburgh Fringe – and condemning it for its intrusion into his family's lives.
Last night, before he was named as a suspect, Madeleine's father expressed outrage at the Portuguese police's handling of the case, and said he and his wife would "fight this to the end" after his wife was named as an official suspect.
Like Mrs McCann, her husband has experienced the metamorphosis from victim to figure of suspicion in the eyes of the press, and in early August was forced to defend their position and reiterate their belief that Madeleine was still alive. "We're not naïve," he said, sitting beside his wife in a television interview. "We expect the same thoroughness and to be treated the same way as anyone else who has been in and around this. And we wouldn't expect it any other way. The same high levels will be applied to us as would be applied to anybody else, and that is only right and proper."
By the time news emerged overnight on 3 May that a little girl had gone missing in a Portuguese resort favoured by middle-class holidaymakers, the British media were already acting as the outriders of the investigation.
Leading criticisms of the local police, journalists leapt on the claims of Gill Renwick, a family friend, when she called GMTV alleging that police activity had wrapped up at 3am, leaving ports and borders uninformed. So began an acrimonious stand-off between the Portuguese authorities and an increasingly rampant UK media pack. Throughout the summer their appetite for wild speculation was to remain undiminished despite a real lack of hard, new information.
As the media spotlight came back to Madeleine's parents, the McCanns' anger boiled over and they threatened a libel action against a famous Portuguese reporter.
By Madeleine's fourth birthday on 12 May, the McCanns' international campaign to keep the search alive had taken off, with the footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham making appeals for information, while Sir Richard Branson and J K Rowling contributed to rewards now totalling £2.5m. Mr and Mrs McCann launched a website, findmadeleine. com, which would get more than 170 million hits.
The parents initially pledged to stay in Portugal. Eventually, the McCanns took their campaign around Europe, travelling to Spain, Berlin and Amsterdam. The tour reached a climax at the Vatican, where they were hosted by the British ambassador, Francis Campbell, who had negotiated a meeting with the Pope at short notice.
On 30 May, Mrs McCann was seen trembling in images broadcast around the world as Pope Benedict blessed a picture of Madeleine.
Throughout, the campaign has been supported by the McCanns' friends, who have remained loyal, stayed in Portugal to be available for the investigation, and, for the large part, kept silent.
That changed on 8 August when one friend, Rachel Oldfield, who dined with the McCanns on the night of Madeleine's disappearance, hit out at " smears" from the police. "They are throwing mud at us and we are not able to defend ourselves," said Mrs Oldfield, 34, who, along with others, had been questioned.
Police had been struggling for leads until Robert Murat, 33, a British expatriate, was questioned. The media immediately invoked memories of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, who – like Murat – had engaged with journalists, claiming he was translating for police. His mother maintained he was with her when Madeleine went missing, but police named him as the only official suspect, even after searches of his home failed to find evidence. One possible suspect was said to be Urs Hans Von Aesch, 67, a suspected paedophile from Switzerland linked to another missing five-year-old. But he shot himself in the forest where belongings of the Swiss girl were found.