BERLIN — After more than a decade of inquiries in at least three European countries, a German sex offender is under investigation on suspicion of murder in the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a British girl who went missing at age 3 from a hotel room in Portugal, authorities in Germany said Wednesday.
The 43-year-old man, whose identity was not released, lived in Portugal off and on from 1995 to 2007.
He has a criminal record for sexual abuse of children and is currently in prison serving a sentence for an unrelated sexual crime and a drug offense, Christian Hoppe, a criminal investigator at Germany’s Federal Criminal Police, said on public television Wednesday night.
On May 3, 2007, Madeleine, who was about to turn 4, disappeared while staying at a holiday resort with her family and a group of their friends in Praia da Luz, a seaside town in the Algarve region of Portugal. Her parents said they left her asleep with her siblings, twins who were 2 at the time, while they ate in a nearby restaurant.
The girl’s disappearance dominated European headlines for years and sparked an international manhunt. Millions of dollars were offered in rewards to help find her abductor or abductors; her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, both Roman Catholics, appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for help.
Celebrities, including soccer star David Beckham, made appeals for her to be found. Author J.K. Rowling later helped Kate McCann write a book about her daughter’s disappearance.
Portuguese police were accused of bungling an initial investigation that failed to produce concrete leads and instead added to the controversy by including Madeleine’s parents as suspects.
For years, the couple kept their daughter’s name in headlines in the hope of finding her alive. Their high-profile campaign crisscrossed Europe and fueled dozens of reports of sightings and false alarms from Spain to Belgium to Morocco.
But in his appearance Wednesday on a German unsolved crimes TV show, Hoppe, of the German police, dashed any hopes that she might be still be found, 13 years later.
The evidence discovered, he said, leads “to the assumption that Madeleine was the victim of a homicide.”
Still, even with a suspect identified, the crime is still being investigated, and Hoppe appealed to viewers to call in with any possible recollection or tip they had, in hopes of finally resolving the case. “Even the most minor detail is of great meaning,” he said.
A German police statement released Wednesday promised 10,000 euros, or $11,233, to anyone providing information that helps to solve the case and provided a link where photographs or other possible evidence could be submitted.
In London, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Stuart Cundy, said, “We are committed to do everything we can to establish what happened and to find Madeleine.”
Criminal investigators in Germany, Britain and Portugal had been working the case for years, with no leads.
The current suspect was listed among hundreds of possible suspects back in 2007, but there was not enough information to open an investigation, Hoppe said. In 2013, a broadcast of the same German public television show, “File Number XY Unresolved,” appealed to the public for information about the case, and the suspect’s name came up again.
Still, the information was insufficient to take action, Hoppe said.
But after the 10-year anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance, Detective Chief Inspector Mark Cranwell, who is leading the Met Police investigation into the case in Britain, said his investigators received more information about the German suspect.
Working off that tip, German authorities returned to the man and gathered enough evidence to allow prosecutors in the city of Braunschweig — near the man’s last home in Germany before he moved to Portugal — to open a preliminary investigation that could lead to homicide charges.
“It’s more than 13 years since Madeleine went missing, and none of us can imagine what it must be like for her family, not knowing what happened or where she is,” Cranwell said in a statement.
The German suspect, who would have been 30 at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance, had worked in restaurants but also had a record of break-ins at hotels and dealing drugs in the region where Madeleine’s family was on vacation.
The night she vanished, the suspect had a long telephone conversation from the area near Praia da Luz with a person on a Portuguese cellphone, whom police are urging to come forward as a witness.
They are also appealing to anyone who might have noticed one of two conspicuous vehicles the suspect used at the time. One was a maroon Jaguar XJR 6, with a German license plate that was changed several times, including the day after Madeleine disappeared.
The other was a white-and-yellow Volkswagen camper van with a Portuguese license plate he is believed to occasionally have lived in but did not own.
Investigators have ruled out the owner of the van as an accomplice. But they said they believed the suspect may have been using the vehicle on the day of Madeleine’s disappearance.
On the television show Wednesday, Hoppe also showed images of a living room with a brown leather sofa and a wooden beam in the center of the room, as well as another of a low-slung whitewashed home in the Algarve region where authorities believe the suspect may have stocked stolen goods.
By showing the pictures, they hoped to jog peoples’ memories about places they believed to be critical to the investigation.
“We do not rule out that in addition to the perpetrator, there are people who have knowledge about the course of events of the crime,” Hoppe said. “Perhaps even about where the body was deposed, without having been involved in the crime. ”In a statement distributed by police in London, the McCanns said, “All we have ever wanted is to find her, uncover the truth and bring those responsible to justice. We will never give up hope of finding Madeleine alive, but whatever the outcome may be, we need to know, as we need to find peace.”