SA man: ‘I have found Maddie’

2012-07-07 00:00

A SOUTH African who claims to have funded and investigated the disappearance of a British girl believes he has found the site of her remains.

If correct, then Cape Town commercial property developer Stephen Birch would have ended a five-year global hunt for Madeleine McCann, who was nearly four when she vanished from a villa in Portugal where her family was on holiday.

The story of Maddie, as she has come to be known around the world, still commands huge media coverage in the UK.

But notably, the claims by Birch, a 47-year-old bachelor with no known connections to the case, have been widely ignored by the British press. British detectives are however, reportedly examining Birch’s assertion.

Speaking to Weekend Witness yesterday, Birch said he had given 15 months of his life and R500 000 to investigating the case.

His motivation remains vague and he would only say that after turning down an initial approach from “someone” to get involved, it was seeing a video of Maddie that convinced him to investigate.

“I wouldn’t say I became obsessed but it definitely consumed my entire life,” he said.

Birch said his findings have been handed over to police in Portugal and New Scotland Yard.

Among them are images taken by a ground-penetrating radar of a driveway close to the villa in Praia da Luz resort in the Algarve where Maddie disappeared.

Birch said he used detailed mapping of the area to isolate the location. He said the images, which he claims were professionally analysed, revealed a “subterranean disturbance” consistent with a grave about 60 cm down.

“Something lies beneath the driveway,” he said.

By his own admission, Birch said he gained access to the property illegally by hopping over the garden wall on four occasions and using the scanner on three of those. He made his “covert” sorties between 5 am and 6 am to escape detection, even while the owner was at home.

The property is less than 150 metres from the villa where the McCanns were staying. Birch, who spent the better part of two weeks doing surveillance on the area from a hired apartment last month, said it is the only possible location where she could have been buried undetected.

“The rest of the properties are such that people are always looking down on you.”

His theory is that she was abducted from her room, while her parents were dining at a tapas bar about 40 metres away, killed and buried on the property, on the same night, May 3, 2007.

To date there has been no hard evidence to suggest Maddie is dead, and her parents continue to hold out hope of a reunion.

Their hopes were buoyed last year when British Prime Minister David Cameron authorised a review of the case in the UK by New Scotland Yard.

UK media reports say about R25 million has been spent so far by Operation Grange, the team of 28 detectives and seven support staff working the case.

Because of the stature of the case, police are refusing to comment. “We don’t provide running commentary,” Metropolitan Police spokesman Rob Singh told Weekend Witness, although he said he was aware of the claims made by Birch.

The man leading the search, Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, was recently quoted as saying he believed Maddie was still alive.

“Our initial estimates in terms of the amount of material we are facing is that it will be somewhere in the region of 40 000 pieces of information,” he told BBC Panorama.

Birch said his own investigations entailed poring over 12 000 pages of evidence. The original police docket is available online.

He also said he spent a fortune acquiring surveillance equipment like zoom lenses and time-lapse cameras to conduct his surveillance.

Last night Birch was scheduled to release a video of his work in Portugal on YouTube.

Given the reluctance of British media to publish his claims, he said this was to prompt action from authorities to have the site excavated before someone had the chance to disturb it.

Maddie’s parents, Kate and Gerry, rarely respond to the numerous leads, choosing to communicate through the website dedicated to finding their daughter.

News24 said they would not comment, because they believe Maddie is still alive.

They were named as suspects by Portuguese investigators but cleared in 2008, when the case was officially closed.

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