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Madeleine’s parents named as suspects

The British parents who have run an international campaign to find their missing toddler were declared suspects in the case Friday, their lawyer said, after traces of blood were found in their rental car.
Kate McCann, the mother of missing 4-year-old Madeleine, arrives at the headquarters of Portuguese criminal police in Portimao on Friday. The British girl disappeared during a vacation four months ago.Francisco Leong / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The British parents who have run an international campaign to find their missing toddler were declared suspects in the case Friday, their lawyer said, after traces of blood were found in their rental car.

Kate McCann was named a suspect in the morning when she went to a police station in southern Portugal for her second straight day of interrogation, lawyer Carlos Pinto Abreu said. Her husband, Gerry, who later spent more than seven hours at the same police station, was also declared a suspect, Pinto Abreu told reporters.

“They have not been charged, and the investigation continues,” he said without elaborating.

The girl’s aunt said police suggested Madeleine McCann might have been killed accidentally and offered the mother a plea deal if she confessed.

“They tried to get her to confess to having accidentally killed Madeleine by offering her a deal through her lawyer — ’If you say you killed Madeleine by accident and then hid her and disposed of the body, then we can guarantee you a two-year jail sentence or even less,”’ Gerry McCann’s sister, Philomena, told ITV news.

Gerry McCann followed his wife into the police station surrounded by journalists and watched by dozens of onlookers.

A police spokesman, Olegario Sousa, confirmed to The Associated Press that police had named a new suspect, but would not say it was Mrs. McCann. He cited privacy laws in declining to comment further. He could not be reached for comment later on Gerry McCann.

The couple strenuously professed their innocence Friday.

The day’s developments marked a dramatic turn in a case that has pulled at the world’s heartstrings for months, ever since Mrs. McCann ran screaming from a hotel room saying her daughter had disappeared. The McCanns, both doctors from central England, said they were dining at the time in a hotel restaurant, but returned frequently to check on Madeleine and her twin 2-year-old siblings.

Since then, the McCanns have toured Europe with photos of Madeleine and the child’s stuffed animals and clothing, even meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Celebrities including J.K. Rowling and David Beckham made public appeals that helped the family raise more than $2 million.

The money, controlled by an independent auditor, is meant for charities that aid in missing children cases.

Sniffer dogs uncover blood evidence
Until Friday, suspicion had focused on a British man who lived near the hotel from which Madeleine disappeared and who was the only formal suspect. But police said new forensic tests done on evidence gathered months after the girl vanished found traces of blood in the couple’s car, according to Justine McGuinness, a spokeswoman for the family.

The new evidence — including the traces of blood missed in earlier forensic tests — was uncovered by sniffer dogs brought from Britain.

McGuinness said the police allegations against Mrs. McCann didn’t add up, since the rental car had not been acquired until 25 days after Madeleine’s May 3 disappearance. Gerry McCann called the allegations against his wife “ludicrous.”

“We will fight this all the way, and we will not stop looking for Madeleine,” he wrote on the couple’s Web site on Friday.

Fresh criticism of police
Even as public opinion reeled from the new allegations, there was fresh criticism of police for taking so long to build their case.

John Corner, a McCann family friend, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the listing of Mrs. McCann as a suspect gave him “an uncomfortable feeling that the police are not looking outward” for Madeleine’s abductor.

But Sonya Sceats, an international law analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank, said police were allowing the evidence to lead their investigation.

“It’s all turned on the DNA evidence. It only became available very recently, and they are moving in response to that,” Sceats said by phone.

Under Portuguese law, formal suspects gain certain legal protections, but police also have more latitude to question them. Police also have to show suspects any evidence against them.

Clarence Mitchell, a family friend and former spokesman for the McCanns, said Friday after speaking with Mrs. McCann that she found the police questioning — which included an 11-hour session Thursday — “grueling.”

“It’s very intense, but she’s remaining strong and determined to prove that they had nothing to do with their daughter’s disappearance and they are innocent victims of the crime,” he told the AP.

Asked about a plea deal, Mitchell said: “It is my understanding that during the police interview with Kate McCann, senior police officers told her lawyer that that if she were to confess to killing Madeleine accidentally it would help her case when she came before the judges for sentencing and that they would probably consider a relatively short sentence of three to four years — in other words, a plea bargain.”

Reported sightings
The McCanns’ cause, and the couple’s apparent strength in the face of adversity, has hit a nerve among millions, who have followed their lives as they cared for their two other children and went to church in Praia da Luz, the seaside town where Madeleine disappeared, and where they have stayed ever since. Photographs of the bright-eyed, fair-haired girl have been posted throughout the world.

The publicity has helped lead to numerous reported sightings of the girl, from as far away as northern Europe and Morocco, amid speculation she might have been taken by an international pedophile ring.

Just after Mrs. McCann entered the police station Thursday, another family representative read out a statement from her appealing to what she called Madeleine’s abductors to “do the right thing.”

“It is not too late. Please let her go or call the police,” she said.

The only formal suspect until now has been Robert Murat, who lives with his mother near the hotel from which the girl disappeared. He has always maintained his innocence. Sousa said Murat’s status as a suspect had not changed.