Tuesday May 15, 2007

By Julia White

POLICE investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in the Algarve do not have enough evidence to arrest the main suspect, they said tonight.

Briton Robert Murat was questioned by police after they swooped on his Portuguese villa yesterday.

Police said “various material” belonging to him was seized for analysis and forensic examination carried out.

But although the police confirmed that a 33-year-old man living in the area had been classed as a suspect, they said no evidence had been collected to justify putting him formally under arrest.

Robert Murat is a formal suspect but there is not enough evidence for police to arrest him. Detectives searched five houses Monday as part of their investigation and have also questioned two other people.

In a statement Portuguese detectives said: “During the information collection last weekend one of those lines under investigation achieved strength and consistency.

“Thus it was necessary to carry out different house searches.”

Robert Murat lives with his mother in the house just 100 yards from the apartment where Madeleine was snatched 12 days ago.

Murat has a young daughter by his estranged wife who is understood to bear a striking resemblance to Madeleine.

Locals have told police that he appeared to have been acting strangely near the apartment complex hours after Madeleine vanished.

The suspect today said that “his life has been ruined forever”.

He told his cousin Sally Eveleigh that he was “totally devastated” to be named the main suspect in the case.

Mrs Eveleigh said: “Robert is shattered by this. He feels his life has been ruined forever.

“He feels he entered in the search for Madeleine to try to help and now police have turned against him.”

Murat has lived in Portugal for 16 years after his mother and Portuguese father moved there from Britain. But he returned to the UK for over three years before going back to the Algarve, saying that he was in the middle of a custody dispute with his wife, who is thought to live in Norfolk.

Chillingly, Murat said: “I know how it feels to Madeleine’s parents because I have a daughter aged three and a half who I am in a custody battle over.”

Murat’s mother, Jenny, was among the first to come forward and join the search and he became a well-known face to reporters, telling them that he was acting as an interpreter between police and Britons.

But, as time went on, observers said he became jumpy and then vanished for four days after journalists began asking him about his exact role on the fringes of the investigation.

He later returned and refused to answer further questions, telling reporters he had sworn an oath and could not say any more. At one stage he had joked to reporters about being a prime suspect.

Murat, who is believed to work as an estate agent, is of stocky build, around 5ft 8ins and with dark hair. He has a glass eye and wears dark tinted spectacles.

His mother, a retired nurse, looked distressed and frail as forensic officers swarmed over her property. She insisted her son was innocent.

She told the Daily Express that she had no idea what the police were looking for but confirmed it was her house and Murat was her son.

The Casa Liliana villa is well hidden from public view. But last night a green tarpaulin could be seen screening part of the building and officers had drained the swimming pool.

Gaynor de Jesus, who went to school with Murat and has been working for news organisations as a translator, said she thought Murat was 32.

She said: “He was a quiet guy and very friendly. His mum has helped running a stall at the scene trying to get information about the missing girl.

“She is an ex-pat widow, who married a Portuguese man. She had taken it upon herself to gather information regarding the case from the police if local people, or holidaymakers, felt uncomfortable talking to officers themselves.

“I was quite surprised by him saying he was an official translator for the police because he did not speak Portuguese fluently. But the police seemed to confirm what he was saying was true.”

One journalist who spoke to him said:“He volunteered to help the police. At the start of the search he was hanging around the apartment. He said he was helping to translate witness statements. He was very vague about certain aspects of his background.

“He said he was from the UK, and going through a divorce back there.

“He was angry about the way the British media had criticised Portuguese police over their handling of the investigation.

“He was coming up with lots of suggestions about what had happened to Madeleine and said he thought she had probably been taken to Spain.”

Murat’s uncle runs a bar on the beachfront in the nearby town of Burgau. Staff there last night confirmed that police had visited it.

Last week, there were reports that two men and a blonde woman were being sought in the hunt. They were said to be connected to a holiday apartment.

Last night police would only confirm that they were interviewing a man, and indicated that two other people were also being questioned.

The villa was sealed off with police standing guard outside as officers and forensic teams carried out a fingertip search of he villa and its grounds.

A police spokesman, Chief Inspector Olegario Sousa, said: “Since 7am this morning we have been taking some actions in the field and until this moment they are working in the place.

“They also tell me that some people have been brought here to the department but there are no arrests.” He added that up to three people were being questioned.

There were unconfirmed reports that the home of Murat’s estranged wife in Norfolk was also being searched by British police last night.

As the search of the Algarve villa continued John Buck, the British ambassador to Portugal, said that “impressive resources” had been allocated to finding Madeleine, who was four on Saturday.

He also praised Mr and Mrs McCann’s “remarkable resilience and dignity in very distressing circumstances”.

Yesterday he spoke to the national chief of police in Lisbon as well as the chief investigating officer in the Algarve.

Speaking on a visit to Praia da Luz, Mr Buck said: “There are clearly impressive resources being devoted to this investigation.

“Those resources are, rightly, primarily Portuguese, but we also have a number of British police officers working with their Portuguese colleagues closely here in the Algarve.”

He added that the chief investigating officer had told him the collaboration between British and Portuguese police was “truly exceptional”.

Mr Buck also thanked journalists for respecting Mr and Mrs McCann’s privacy.

He said: “They appreciate that the media have an important role to play in helping to find Madeleine.

“They and I are very grateful for the constructive, responsible and considerate way in which the media have approached this.”

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