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Parents suspects in child's disappearance

The British family drew international sympathy when the girl vanished in Portugal in May.

September 08, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The case of missing 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, whose disappearance from a resort in Portugal sparked a celebrity-studded international campaign for her return, took a startling turn Friday when both parents were named suspects in the case.

Portuguese authorities are questioning Kate McCann and her husband, Gerry, in connection with reports that traces of blood or other bodily fluids had been found in a car the couple rented 25 days after Madeleine's disappearance on May 3, a family spokeswoman said.

"Today, Kate and Gerry have both been declared arguido with no bail conditions," family lawyer Carlos Pinto de Abreu said early today, using the Portuguese legal term for "suspect." "No charges have been brought against them. The investigation continues."

The announcement came as Gerry McCann emerged from nine hours of questioning at a police station in the Portuguese town of Portimao; his wife had undergone another marathon interrogation over the last two days.

The case of the missing girl, who reportedly disappeared from her bedroom while her parents were dining at a nearby restaurant during a family vacation, has sparked an international hunt funded in part by $2 million raised by the McCanns' publicity campaign aimed at finding her kidnappers.

Soccer stars have videotaped appeals for information, and the McCanns have met with the British prime minister and Pope Benedict XVI. Posters of the blond, wide-eyed girl are all over Europe, and images of her soft-spoken, distraught mother, a general practitioner in the English Midlands, are a nightly fixture on British television.

As a curious and occasionally hostile crowd gathered outside police headquarters in Portimao, a shaken-looking Kate McCann ducked wordlessly into a car and drove off after her session with the police.

Family members reacted with anger and incredulity, and said they feared the new turn in the case would divert attention from the search for Madeleine. The police, however, appear to be growing convinced that the search is fruitless.

"Of course, it's hellish," John McCann, the missing girl's uncle, said at a news conference in Glasgow, Scotland. "Anybody who knows Gerry and Kate knows that to implicate them in any way is ridiculous."

He said family members nonetheless welcomed any attempts to scrutinize the couple so that the line of inquiry could be cleared and the investigation could move on.

"If the police can just . . . eliminate them properly once and for all, we'll all be happier then," McCann said.

Family spokeswoman Justine McGuinness told the BBC that Kate McCann was told that she was being designated a suspect, and that police wanted to pose 22 specific questions to her about the case.

"They made a series of ridiculous allegations. Kate is a loving and caring mother who sincerely believes her daughter may still be alive," McGuinness said. "There is a fear that perhaps she might be arrested for a crime that we have no idea was actually committed by anybody, and that she certainly did not commit."

Gerry McCann's sister, Philomena McCann, told Sky News in Glasgow that police had suggested that Madeleine might have been killed accidentally.

"They are suggesting that Kate has in some way accidentally killed Madeleine, then kept her body, then got rid of it," she said. "I have never heard anything so utterly ludicrous in my entire life."

After Friday's questioning of Kate McCann, family members told reporters that she had been offered a sentence of as little as two years if she confessed.

The designation of the McCanns as suspects followed a British laboratory's completion of tests on objects from the McCanns' vacation apartment, from which Madeleine disappeared. The tests reportedly included small traces of blood from the wall of her bedroom. The results were not made public.

Designation as a suspect under Portuguese law enables police to pose evidence-probing questions while protecting the McCanns' right to decline to answer and their right to be accompanied by a lawyer, family members and legal analysts said.

But James Cohen, a criminal law professor at New York's Fordham University who has followed the case, said the development should not be taken simply as a legal tactic.

"There's four months of water under the bridge. There's four months of investigation that have already occurred, and for them now, after all that investigation, to point the finger at the mother, is very serious bad news for the mother," he said.

"For those of us who do this sort of work, it is well known that when harm comes to a child of that age or even older, or they go missing, the first suspects are family. For lots of different reasons," Cohen said. "So the notion that the mother or the father first became a suspect now I think probably is not accurate. . . . I think they've been suspected from the time she was reported missing. They just always are."

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