Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Maddie sightings and media madness
Kate and Gerry McCann last weekend complained of “the injustices that we continue to be subjected to.” Their complaint, widely reported in the press in Britain and Portugal, referred to the Wikileaks disclosure about them that had “led to the repetition of many unfounded allegations and smears both in the UK and in Portugal in particular.”
A modest group of people in Portugal have also been subjected to injustices, unfounded allegations and smears in connection with the Madeleine's McCann investigation, but they have had no outlet for complaint - and their side of the story has gone totally unreported until now.
Ivone Albino, a Portuguese woman who makes her living as a part-time house cleaner,was shattered to learn in April this year that newspapers in the UK were running sensational stories directly linking her with the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann three years earlier. She was the latest victim in a tidal wave of misinformation and false “sightings” that began soon after Madeleine's disappearance from a holiday apartment in the village of Praia da Luz in May 2007.
Mrs Albino's name was buried in a “secret” 2,000-page dossier containing informationabout Madeleine “sightings” that had been brought to the attention of the Portuguese criminal investigation police, the Polícia Judiciária. The existence of the dossier emerged after it was referred to by a police witness during a Lisbon court hearing considering the ban on a book by the former lead detective in the Madeleine case, Gonçalo Amaral.
When the judge in the hearing ordered the dossier's release, it was eagerly seized upon by Kate and Gerry McCann, their advisers and the British press. It was brandished as yet more evidence of the “incompetence” of the Portuguese police in their search for Madeleine.
By then, Britain's mainstream media seemed to have accepted the McCanns' insistence from the very start that Madeleine had been abducted and that she might still be alive. They ignored or viewed with hostility the alternative theory, the one most prevalent in Portugal and the main thrust of Gonçalo Amaral's book, namely that Madeleine had died in the apartment and that her parents were somehow involved.
Referring to the Polícía Judicária dossier and in line with the abduction theory, British (though not Portuguese) newspapers named Mrs Albino as one of two “gypsy women” seen by a British holidaymaker dragging Madeleine along an Algarve street in September 2008. The little girl was wearing a “black wig” but the holidaymaker was “100 per cent sure” it was Madeleine. The same reports revealed that a rag doll had been found at a house repeatedly visited by Mrs Albino. According to the reports, Madeleine “may have been held prisoner” at the house.
A source close to Madeleine's parents was quoted as saying: “This is one of the strongest leads there's been in the hunt for Maddie.”
It wasn't. The “lead” merely gave rise to yet more sensational nonsense in the British press, causing deep humiliation and distress to Mrs Albino and two other entirely innocent people with no connection whatsoever to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
This whole silly episode began in September 2008, eighteen months after Madeleine's disappearance. A 56-year-old retired home care worker from Widnes in Cheshire, England, phoned the 'Find Madeleine' hotline that had been set up by the parents of the missing child. She reported seeing two women with Madeleine in the beach-side village of Carvoeiro, 30 miles east of Praia da Luz.
“This was a young girl, in the middle of the two women and holding the hand of each. Her eyes were wide open and I was attracted to the large irises,” said the Carvoeiro witness.
“The child was wearing what was clearly a black wig. It was short, cut in a bob style and very thick. The wig was shiny and unnatural looking and out of keeping with her very pale complexion and fair eyebrows. I would say she was about 3ft 1in tall and about five years of age. She was very thin and I would describe her as malnourished. Her cheeks looked gaunt. I think she had a bump on her nose. I am convinced the little girl I saw that morning was Madeleine. I have been asked how certain I am. I will say I am 100 per cent sure.”
The Carvoeiro witness described the first of the two women as “obese, size 30, in her mid to late 40s, with “dirty and unkempt” red hair. The other woman was around 60, with unwashed brown hair, and even fatter. The witness claimed that when the women realised she was looking at them, they hid the little girl's face. She recognised Mrs Albino as the red-haired woman with Madeleine in Carvoeiro. The second woman was never identified.
Another unrelated British witness, from Salisbury in Wiltshire, said she saw a woman resembling Mrs Albino outside the McCanns´ apartment the day Madeleine disappeared.In both cases the identifications were made from photographs. A much earlier report of a woman passing a child wrapped in a blanket over a fence to a man next to two parked vehicles in Silves two days after Madeleine's disappearance added spice to these later reports.
The “sightings” prompted private investigators employed by Madeleine's parents to zero in on Mrs Albino and follow her to “an isolated farmhouse” in an orange grove near the town of Silves where she lives. In a surveillance operation, private investigators saw her making several visits to the house and meeting there with a couple called Maria Alice Silveira and Jorge Martins. The couple's movements were deemed to be “suspicious” by a top detective employed by the McCanns.
Suspicions heightened when investigators found and photographed a child's rag doll on the seat of a Citroen Berlingo van parked at the house. “Was this the rag doll given to Maddie by her captors?” wondered The Sun in a headline spread over half a page. The question was promptly answered in the first sentence in the story that followed: “This little girl's rag doll could have been given to Madeleine McCann by those who snatched her, investigators believe.”
The investigators, posing as potential buyers of the property, came across a discarded child's drawing. And they spotted Jorge Martins buying clothes suitable for a child of five, the age Madeleine would then have been. They thought all this strange as neither Mrs Albino, Ms Silveira nor Mr Martins had young children of their own. “But surveillance was eventually wound down and the child was never found.”
These observations were passed to Portugal's criminal investigation police, even though the official Portuguese police inquiry into Madeleine's disappearance had been closed. By then the police had already considered hundreds of bogus or mistaken “sightings” in about 50 countries ranging from neighbouring Spain to Australia and New Zealand.
On learning of the Silves surveillance “evidence” through the newly released dossier, two of Britain's biggest-selling and most powerful newspapers carried prominent reports complete with separate photographs of Mrs Albino, Ms Silveira and Mr Martins, Madeleine, and the rag doll. They quoted a source close to Kate and Gerry McCann as saying. “There was credible evidence at the orchard that needed proper investigation by the Portuguese – that never happened.”
In fact, the Portuguese police did investigate the “sightings” and the “suspicious behaviour”. They questioned all three people and visited the farmhouse. They soon concluded there was no reason to take their inquiries further. Any reasonably intelligent Portuguese-speaking person who had spent a few minutes talking with Mrs Albino about the matter would have come to the same conclusion. This did not stop the British press from rushing into print with a load of baloney.
The truth that didn't make it into the papers is that Mrs Albino regularly drives through Carvoeiro on the way from Silves to a house she services. She never walks in the village with or without children in tow. “I have never held the hand of any child in Carvoeiro, let alone one with a black wig or resembling Madeleine McCann,” she told me. No villager can be found in Carvoeiro who would dispute that. As for Praia da Luz, Mrs Albino said she had never been there. She admitted somewhat sheepishly that she had only a vague idea of where Praia da Luz was located.
Overweight, yes, but no one who had known Mrs Albino over many years could recall her hair ever being dirty, unkempt or red. Indeed she did visit a somewhat neglected house in an orange orchard. It is on the outskirts of Silves' urban area, not “remote” as the newspapers made out. She visits it daily to feed the property's only occupants: her chickens, rabbits and a large guard dog.
The property had long been owned by the family of Mrs Albino's cousin, Maria AliceSilveira, who lives elsewhere in Silves. She used to own a dry-cleaning shop in the neighbouring town of Lagoa. Her partner ,Jorge, whom she has since married, is a primary school teacher. They drive over to the house in their Citroen Berlingo van from time to time to tend the orchard and collect fruit.
Mr Martins said he found the doll in a roadway, though it was such a minor event that he could not remember exactly where or when. The doll was in good condition so, without much thought he picked it and put it in the van. He agreed that there had been a discarded child's drawing at the house and, yes, he had bought clothes for a young child. Maria Alice had a grandchild of about Madeleine's age.
Although they did not read English, Jorge, Maria Alice and Ivone felt shocked and humiliated when told of the reports and shown their photographs in national British newspapers. Their shock soon turned to anger and anxiety about possible repercussions.
With the start of another summer holiday season in the Algarve, Ivone was concerned that British parents with young families staying in the holiday villas she cleans might view her with suspicion, jeopardising her job.
Maria Alice said she had lost some British customers at her dry-cleaning business because the of the press pointing the finger unjustly. Jorge remained deeply disturbed by what he called “the stupidity” of the British reports that falsely insinuated wrong-doing.
All three considered suing to clear their names. But they soon came to realise they did not have either the capital or the connections to take the sort of legal action that resulted in the British press paying out £500,000 in damages to the McCanns, £550,000 to Robert Murat and £375,000 to the so-called Tapas 7. Actually, this humble group didn't want compensation money so much as an apology.