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A Cape Town businessman has made international headlines with claims that he may have found the remains of British toddler Madeleine McCann five years after she disappeared while on holiday with her family in Portugal.
The businessman, Stephen Birch, owner of commercial property developer the Birch Organisation, says he used a radar scanner and found what could be human bones near the Praia da Luiz holiday resort where the family had been staying in May 2007.
And Birch strongly suspects they belong to Madeleine, whose mysterious disappearance made headlines across the globe.
Since her disappearance, several people have claimed to have spotted her, with reports coming from as far as India. However, despite an ongoing, high-profile search campaign spearheaded by Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, the little girl remains missing.
But Birch believes he may have solved the mystery and has handed over his findings to London’s New Scotland Yard and the Portuguese police to investigate further.
He told Weekend Argus yesterday that the radar scans revealed a cavity, about 400 to 600mm below ground, which contains what appears to be human remains on private property about 150m away from the holiday resort where the McCanns were staying.
“I’ve had scans analysed by SA experts and they agree that they (the scans) clearly show a void, which has soil patterns around it, indicating human intervention and what could be human bones. But we won’t know anything for sure until we go down there.”
Birch says he is certain the scans are accurate because he tested the device at a graveyard in Cape Town before using it near the Praia da Luiz holiday resort.
Asked what motivated him to go to such extremes so long after the toddler’s disappearance, Birch said he was ”obsessed” with the case.
“Initially when the case started I was uninterested, but the prospect of solving a mystery that not even two of the world’s greatest law enforcement agencies could solve, was too exciting for me to ignore. Eventually, after months of reading through more than 12 000 pages of documents and countless interviews, I became increasingly emotionally involved to the point of obsession and was driven to help solve the case,” said Birch.
So obsessed was the property developer, that he forked out more than R500 000 in 15 months to investigate Madeleine’s disappearance.
After more than a year of investigation, Birch suspected Madeleine was not alive and that her body could be buried near the resort.
He decided to use the radar device, called the Mala ground penetrating system, to look for traces of the missing girl and, after testing it, he left for Portugal in June.
“I was trained for two months in the use of the device and knew its capabilities. During the test I was able to identify 12 bodies without marked graves between 1.5 and 2m below the surface,” Birch said.
In Portugal, he was assisted by three men, who specialise in IT and surveillance. They identified two sites where they suspected the body could be buried and investigated both.
After monitoring one of the sites for several days, Birch and his team decided that a secluded paved area, about 154m from where Madeleine disappeared, was a likely location for the grave.
Birch admitted to Weekend Argus that his visits to the property were illegal.
“I visited the site, illegally, over the next four days in the early mornings for at least four 20-minute scanning sessions. We eventually found what we believe could be the grave and took several more scans.”
“I have not heard anything from the authorities since I submitted the scans and that is in part why I have approached the media. I want to put pressure on British authorities. They, along with the media, have been holding back, and I believe their involvement in the case is extremely crucial.
“I know if we can find a body that will narrow the search to find whoever is responsible for this. I have personally become involved in this case and believe justice must be done for Madeleine,” said Birch.
The Huffington Post has reported that British detectives are examining Birch’s claim.
New Scotland Yard detectives have also asked him for more information to help them interpret the scan results.
He has sent the material to the Portuguese police, who abandoned their search 15 months after Madeleine disappeared.
Birch said he was aware the owner of the property wanted to sue him for his actions. The owner is the mother of a former suspect in Madeleine’s disappearance
who was later cleared.
Birch said he also discussed the scans with SA forensic authorities. He said he had not spoken to Madeleine’s parents in order to “remain professional”. The parents have declined to comment and are confident that their daughter is still alive.
Veteran Metropolitan detective Ian Horrocks told British newspaper, The Sun, there was a possibility she was still alive.