How Madeleine McCann search at reservoir unfolded – and what police found

‘Materials’ found during three-day operation at Barragem do Arade sent for analysis to Germany, where prime suspect Christian Brueckner is already in jail for rape

Saturday 03 June 2023 08:47 BST
Madeleine McCann: Sniffer dogs and pickaxes used to scour reservoir

The long-running hunt for missing Madeleine McCann returned to the headlines last week during a three-day search of a Portuguese reservoir.

Police combed the remote Barragem do Arade in response to what was vaguely described as “certain tips” about an area the prime suspect in the case, Christian Brueckner, regularly frequented between 2000 and 2017.

Although police are remaining tight-lipped about the details, they said they recovered “a number of items” from the scene, which will now be evaluated in the coming days in the hope of shedding light on the ongoing mystery surrounding Madeleine’s disappearance from an Algarve holiday resort on 3 May 2007.

Hans Christian Wolters, prosecutor for the city of Braunschweig, said: “Whether some of the items actually relate to the Madeleine McCann case cannot yet be confirmed.”

Earlier this week, officers said “materials collected” during the search had already been sent on to Germany for analysis.

At least one “relevant clue” was found, according to Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manha.

Separately, investigators are set to widen the search again after photographs belonging to the 46-year-old Brueckner were said to have yielded further clues.

Here is an overview of everything we know about the latest phase of the investigation.

The location

Barragem do Arade, translating at the Arade dam, lies 31 miles northeast of the Praia da Luz coastal resort from which Madeleine disappeared.

It was built in 1955 and is fed by the river of the same name.

The reservoir is 31 miles from the Praia da Luz holiday resort, where Madeleine went missing

The Barragem do Arade reservoir had been searched years before

Specialist divers had previously searched the reservoir in 2008, paid for by Portuguese lawyer Marcos Aragao Correia, who claimed to have been tipped off by criminal contacts that Madeleine’s body was there.

Two other areas near Praia da Luz could also now be searched by police, The Sun reported.

The search

With help from Portuguese police, and with detectives from Scotland Yard watching on, German investigators scoured the beauty spot 16 miles from Silves, near the southern coast of the country.

Starting on Monday last week, investigators sealed off a mile-long peninsula jutting into the reservoir and set up tents as an operations base.

They then spent three days digging with shovels, cutting back swaths of undergrowth and using rakes and pickaxes to sweep the banks of the reservoir, leaving behind piles of rubble.

At the main 160 square foot excavation area, they flattened a concentrated area of woodland with heavy machinery and dug holes two feet deep.

Holes dug in the ground by investigators pursuing the Madeleine McCann case

Search teams at work during an operation that lasted most of the week

Investigators also searched the water during the operation

Using sniffer dogs to hunt the surrounding grassland for clues, detectives in a rigid-hull inflatable boat also examined the water.

A no-fly zone was put in place in the skies overhead, allowing police drones to survey the region undisturbed and a track leading to the search area was cordoned off with police tape and guarded by marked vehicles from Portugal’s National Republican Guard.

What appeared to be evidence bags were removed from the scene.

The ‘shrine’

Since the search was revealed, a British couple have come forward to tell The Mail on Sunday about a “shrine” they once found near the location seemingly dedicated to the missing girl.

The retired holidaymakers, whose name were given only as Ralf and Ann, say they discovered the makeshift memorial, consisting of a photograph of the toddler surrounded by flowers and stones, around Christmas 2007.

They told the newspaper they had taken photographs of it and passed them on to Portuguese detectives but never heard anything back.

But days later, the memorial had disappeared, they claim.

The couple say they did not think anything more of the “weird” incident until Brueckner’s emergence as a suspect three years ago.

A search boat surveys the reservoir

“I immediately contacted the BKA [Bundeskriminalamt, or Federal Criminal Police Office] in Germany and told them what we had and I had a reply back within a few hours,” Ralf said.

“They wanted to know everything that we had seen and then they asked me to send them the pictures and they sent a map of the reservoir, asking me to point out where the stones were.

“As the crow flies, it was just half a mile across the water from the picnic spot where the police were digging last week.”

Ann says she traveled to Wiesbaden to give a statement and showed German detectives the photographs they took of the memorial, which stood only a few minutes drive from their holiday home.

“Thinking about it now gives me goosebumps because when we saw where the police were searching the past few days you could see that’s where the row of stones was pointing to,” she said.

What happens now?

Investigators combing through more than 8,000 photographs belonging to Brueckner said they had provided further potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.

Brueckner, who denies any connection to Madeleine, is in jail in Germany for the rape of a 72-year-old American woman two years before the three-year-old vanished.

Mr Wolters said the investigators were looking for a body, as well as anything that could help the investigation, such as clothing.

Madeleine’s parents Kate and Gerry with a photo of how she would have looked when older

The probe will be continuing out of the public eye, he added.

As such, Madeleine’s parents will have to wait several weeks to find out the results of the analysis of the materials found, as their 16-year ordeal continues.

Observing another milestone date without their daughter at the beginning of May, Gerry and Kate McCann posted a poem of remembrance on their Find Madeleine website, reminding readers that she is “still missing... still very much missed”.

“The police investigation continues, and we await a breakthrough. Thank you to everyone for your support – it really helps,” they added.

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