There may still be a long road for the Madeleine McCann investigation. For anyone who has followed the 13-year agony of the McCann family it has been welcome news. The identification of the German sex offender Christian Bruckner as a prime suspect in the 2007 abduction of three-year-old Madeleine may at last bring a resolution for her family.
To lose a child is a catastrophe. For your youngster to be abducted and simply disappear is an unimaginable horror. Add to that the botched early investigation and the suspicions that fell on Madeleine’s parents – it has been a nightmare.
In fairness to the Portuguese police, stranger abductions are so rare they could not be blamed for first looking close to home. But to publicise such suspicions without good evidence was utterly unprofessional and led the investigation on a false trail as well as to the hounding of the McCanns over the intervening years.
Now at last Bruckner has emerged as a man with right criminal background in the right place at the right time. The other good news is that, as he in custody in Germany, the investigation is now being led by the German federal criminal police – a crack outfit. It sounds positive but, beware, there may be a long road ahead and perhaps even a dead end.
The case of Madeleine’s abduction always reminded me of our own search for the killer of Caroline Hogg, the five-year-old abducted from Portobello and murdered in July 1983. Caroline and Madeleine were both bonny wee girls snatched from under the noses of their families. Caroline’s body was found ten days later hundreds of miles from her home, Madeleine is still missing.
But it is the similarity between the suspects in the two cases that strikes you. When Robert Black was caught, red-handed, abducting a young girl in 1990 it was obvious that he was a strong suspect for the murder of Caroline and at least two other girls. Like Bruckner, Black had all the right credentials but like Bruckner he was uncooperative and in custody with all the legal protections of a prisoner.
Lacking direct or forensic evidence, the McCann investigation will be painstakingly building a circumstantial case, charting their suspects movements over the last 20 years – associates, addresses, cars, phones, employment – fragments of evidence that could tie him to scenes of crimes.
Following Black’s arrest, we were in the same position but we had three advantages. First, the Caroline Hogg investigation was one of the first to use the new computerised administration system (Holmes), so nothing would fall between the cracks. Second, we had a unified command, Hector Clark, then Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders, had overseen the investigation from the start. He was a hugely experienced detective and was ably assisted by Roger Orr, another gifted investigator, and later head of Lothians CID – there would be no mistakes. And lastly we were lucky. Black was a delivery driver and his long-time employers were an old-fashioned firm who kept meticulous records. Over half a million fuel receipts had been carefully filed away. In a masterpiece of circumstantial evidence, this huge puzzle eventually tied Black to the scenes of five abductions and murders of young girls. He was convicted of four before he died in prison.
Bruckner is also suspected of other serious crimes but the McCann investigation does not have our advantages. Policing and legal systems are very different in Portugal and Germany. There is no unified command and bruised egos may impede cooperation. But let’s hope these differences can be overcome, that the pieces of evidence fall into place and that Madeleine’s abductor is trapped at last. Justice demands it and Madeleine’s parents deserve some peace and a crumb of comfort.
Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable
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