KOWTHAR SOLOMONS and Kashiefa Ajam
A South African businessman claims he may have found the remains of Madeleine McCann five years after she disappeared while on holiday with her family in Portugal.
Stephen Birch, owner of property developer the Birch Organisation, says he found what could be human bones near the Praia da Luiz holiday resort where the family stayed in May 2007.
Birch suspects they belong to Madeleine, whose disappearance made headlines across the globe.
Since her disappearance, several people have claimed to have spotted her, some reports from as far as India. However, none of the claims has proved fruitful.
But Birch believes he may have solved the mystery of her whereabouts through use of radar scans.
He told the Saturday Star yesterday that the scans reveal a cavity, about 400 to 600mm below ground, which contains what appears to be human remains on private property about 150m away from the resort Madeleine disappeared from.
“I’ve had scans analysed by South African experts and they agree that they 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 radar device at a graveyard in Cape Town before using it near the Praia da Luiz resort.
“Initially when the case started I was not interested, but the prospect of solving a mystery that not even two of the world’s greatest law enforcement agencies could not solve was too exciting for me to ignore,” Birch said. “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.”
He spent more than R500 000 in 15 months to investigate and finally concluded that Madeleine was not alive and her body could be buried near the resort. He decided to use the Mala ground penetrating system to look for any traces of Maddie underground 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 1.5m and 2m below the surface,” Birch said.
In Portugal, three specialists in IT and surveillance helped identify two sites where the body could be buried. After monitoring one site for several days they decided that a secluded paved area about 154m from where Madeleine disappeared was a likely location for the grave.
The site was on private property.
“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 in an attempt to gather more information,” Birch said.
He said he had handed the scans to London’s New Scotland Yard and the Portuguese police.
“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 to investigate the matter. They, along with the media, have been holding back, and I believe their involvement in the case is extremely crucial. I’m not trying to solve the murder or kidnapping but 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.
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, Robert Murat, who was later cleared.
“We have not made any allegations directed at someone but simply stated our findings. This was a well thought-out plan and I am ready for the consequences thereof.”
Birch said he had discussed the scans with SA forensic authorities. He had not spoken to Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry. “This has been an extremely traumatic event for the family and I would prefer to approach them only once definitive proof is found.”
The McCanns have declined to comment on Birch’s claims.
According to the Huffington Post, British detectives are examining Birch’s claim. New Scotland Yard detectives have asked him for more information to help them interpret the scan results.
Murat said yesterday: “Every single part of the house was checked in 2007 by more than 20 police officers who found absolutely nothing. They used ground penetrating radar equipment, which was brought by a civil protection team, to search the grounds of the property and the area surrounding Casa Liliana.”