By Bill Hewitt
September 24, 2007 12:00 PM

For the past four months Gerry and Kate McCann repeatedly insisted on one thing: They would not be leaving Portugal without their daughter Madeleine, 3, who vanished on the night of May 3 from their rented holiday apartment. But by the early morning hours of Sept. 9 that brave front lay in ruins, as the McCanns, trailed by reporters, exited to England from the town Praia da Luz without their child—and suddenly and stunningly under suspicion that they might be responsible for her disappearance and death. To the couple and their many supporters around the world it was a turn of events that defied belief. “We’re entirely innocent,” Gerry told a British paper. “We thought we were in our worst nightmare, but now it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

And far worse may be coming in the weeks and months ahead. Aside from formally naming the McCanns as suspects, Portuguese officials have declined to lay out their case. But now, according to numerous reports, they believe the McCanns may have sedated their daughter, that she died, perhaps accidentally, and that the British couple, both 39 and physicians, hid the body for weeks before disposing of it. Gerry McCann’s sister Philomena told PEOPLE that in an extraordinary two days of interrogation, Portuguese investigators offered Kate a deal: Admit to killing your daughter and receive a sentence of no more than two years. Said Philomena: “They tried to get her to confess.” According to police sources, the McCanns, who were free to leave the country as long as they promised to stay at their home in Rothley, England, could soon be formally charged in the death—a prospect that the couple insist is only diverting attention from the search for Madeleine. “It is ridiculous,” said Kate of the cloud of suspicion. As Gerry’s brother John McCann told PEOPLE, “It doesn’t stack up. I’m trying to be calm but inside I’m seething.”

Certainly the McCanns make an unlikely pair of suspects. Married for nine years, they met when both were working at a hospital in Glasgow. Says Philomena: “After a night out Gerry returned home and told us he had met the girl of his dreams.” Gerry went on to become a respected cardiologist, and Kate, who had wanted to become a doctor since she was a teen, a general practitioner. After years of struggling to conceive they used fertility treatment to give birth to Madeleine. Just over a year later they had twins Sean and Amelie. Their home in Rothley, in Leicestershire, is comfortable but hardly extravagant. Both are fitness buffs who enjoy socializing. “They have many friends,” says Kate’s father, Brian Healy, “but their main thing is their family.”

That family is now at the center of their anguish. From the start the case has been fraught with puzzling or contradictory scraps of evidence. Perhaps the key element appears to be the car, a Renault Scenic, that the McCanns rented 25 days after Maddy’s disappearance. When Portuguese investigators initially searched the vehicle in early August, they evidently found no clues. But when British police, who have been assisting on the case, brought in sniffer dogs, they discovered DNA linked to Madeleine under the floor mat in the trunk. It is unclear what that DNA evidence is—whether blood, some other body fluids or, as a report in the Daily Mail on Sept. 12 had it, a large sample of Madeleine’s hair. There have also been conflicting accounts of how closely any of the samples can be matched to Madeleine.

If the DNA is in fact blood, and it came from the missing girl, it could provide damning evidence that her body was placed there. But there are also major difficulties for prosecutors with that scenario. Experts say that generally—though not always—blood needs to be fresh in order to be transferred to another surface. But the McCanns didn’t have the car until long after Madeleine disappeared. Not only that, as McCann supporters point out: How could the McCanns have managed to hide the body for nearly a month and then get rid of it—all while being under almost nonstop scrutiny from police and the press. “Even if they had the emotional capacity to do it, if you look at the time line, they could not have physically done it,” says Gerry’s brother John. Some prominent forensic experts in the U.S. agree. “Where in a hotel can you hide a child’s body for 25 days?” says noted forensic pathologist Michael Baden. “And remember, a body, especially in a warm place like Portugal, would rapidly decompose.”

Cadaver-sniffing dogs brought in by investigators, however, reportedly responded to Kate’s clothing, then became agitated when they were given the scent of the McCanns’ car key fob. During 16 hours of police questioning over two days, says Philomena McCann, “Kate was repeatedly shown the sniffer dog video.” Kate McCann reportedly explained to police that, as a GP, she came in contact with six bodies shortly before leaving for Portugal. As a senior Scotland Yard investigator points out, cadaver dogs can’t tell one corpse from another and have little value in tying a suspect to a specific body. “Dogs can sniff out death,” he says. “However, you can’t ask a dog to stand up in court and give evidence.”

On the night in question, the sixth of their weeklong holiday, the McCanns say that they and three other couples and another woman went out for dinner around 8:30 p.m. at a restaurant approximately 100 yards—across a pool area—from the apartment they had rented for about $4,600 including transportation. Their rooms at the family-friendly resort, which resembles a development of beachside townhouses, were on the ground floor. There they had left their three children, Madeleine, whose birthday was nine days after her disappearance, and the twins. Despite the fact that the resort offered babysitting in a child-care center or in-room sitting for a fee for guests dining at the restaurant, the McCanns elected to leave the children asleep, but unattended, and check on them every half hour or so, evidently because Kate preferred not to leave them with strangers. But according to Portuguese news reports, an upstairs neighbor, Pamela Fenn, told police that the McCanns had not looked in that frequently. Fenn also told investigators that when the McCanns had discovered Madeleine missing about 10:15 p.m. she had offered to call police. She contends Kate told her the call had already been made, when it appears that police were summoned 40 minutes after that conversation took place. What’s more, witnesses said that Kate’s initial cry was “They’ve taken her!”—which some commentators have suggested represents a bizarrely hasty conclusion.

While parsing the words of a mother whose child has gone missing may be unfair, there were other wrinkles as well. The McCanns and their seven friends said they consumed four bottles of wine, leaving two others virtually untouched. But police reportedly have receipts showing that the group actually paid for 14 bottles of wine over the course of the afternoon and evening. In any event, the McCanns’ friends have said that neither Kate nor Gerry seemed the least bit agitated during the dinner.

Questions of credibility abound on all sides. One Portuguese newspaper reported that police insist that Gerry acknowledged during his interrogation that he sedated his children on the night in question, for reasons that were not made clear. Kate was also questioned about administering a sedative. Friends told PEOPLE that if they ever did administer a sedative, it would be something mild like Calpol, a syrupy equivalent to children’s Tylenol given to kids for colds and minor fevers. According to some press accounts, Kate declined to answer a substantial number of questions during her interrogation session, but a source close to the family dismissed the notion she was trying to hide anything. “Their Portuguese lawyer was saying there were certain questions they shouldn’t answer,” says the source, “either because they were not in a position to, or because it was the same question being asked in different ways.” According to the source, the investigators simply appeared to be trying to rattle the couple in hopes of shaking loose a confession. “There were some things they said—’We have evidence of this or that’—which they didn’t produce,” he says. “There was a strong suspicion of an element of bluff about it.”

The McCann camp believes that the local authorities are railroading the couple because their investigation is stalled and they are under intense pressure to show progress in a case that has become an object of worldwide attention. But Paul Luckman, a British expatriate who has lived in Portugal for 34 years and is the publisher of Portugal News, an English-language newspaper, argues that local authorities have far more effective means for defusing the bad publicity if that were their only intent. “The best way to make this case go away quietly was to let the McCanns go and let the case quietly, gently die,” he says. “Say how sorry we are and wrap it up.”

Still, there has been considerable criticism in the British press over the Portuguese handling of the case, with some newspapers slamming the police for not securing the McCanns’ room as a crime scene from the moment that Madeleine vanished. But even the Scotland Yard official contends that is probably too harsh. “If Madeleine had just wandered off, which is what the general feeling was at first, there would be no need to seal the scene,” he says. “Most people would think it over-the-top if you locked down the resort at that point.” At the same time, though, there is widespread agreement that allowing Kate to walk around with Madeleine’s special stuffed animal, Cuddle Cat, for weeks after the child’s disappearance, and then wash it, destroyed any possibility of recovering DNA from the toy—potential evidence that conceivably could have been important.

Another key question, especially for those who know Kate and Gerry: Are the McCanns capable of killing their daughter, and if so, why would they do it? Forensic expert Baden points out that while parents are frequently the culprits when children are murdered, the circumstances are generally quite different in those cases. “That’s where parents either don’t want a baby or are drug addicts or teens,” he says—a sharp contrast to the McCanns, who went through fertility treatments to conceive Madeleine as well as the twins. “It took them a long time to make their family,” says friend Jon Corner, who is Amelie’s godfather. “They were desperate to be parents, and when Madeleine came along, they were walking on air.” Kate herself told one paper, “There she was, perfect. She was lovely, she had the most beautiful face. It made it even more special that she was a girl.”

Susan Hubbard, the wife of the Anglican vicar in Praia da Luz, who got to know the McCanns as the tragedy unfolded, finds the notion that they could ever harm their children absurd. “They are the most unbelievably attentive parents,” says Hubbard. “They slather up their kids with sunscreen—they practically have a sunscreen suit. They say, ‘No, you can’t have that, eat the fruit.’ There’s no doubt in my mind that they had nothing to do with this.”

She adds that as their ordeal unfolded in Portugal, the McCanns tried to keep things as normal as possible for the twins, taking them swimming or to the zoo whenever they could. According to Philomena McCann, the couple had become concerned that their legal plight might prompt Portuguese officials to remove the twins from their care if they stayed in the country. “One of the main reasons for leaving Portugal was to protect Sean and Amelie from their social services,” she says.

Where the legal case goes from here is unclear. They have publicly lamented that they have not been able to use any of the $2 million from Madeleine’s Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned to pay their mounting legal expenses, though they have used it to pay some of their travel expenses in Europe. The McCanns have said that if charged they will return to Portugal. But their supporters are convinced that will only torment an already anguished family—and, more to the point, do nothing to solve the mystery of Madeleine. “It is so patently wrong,” says Jon Corner. “It’s heading down the cul-de-sac of nonsense and tragedy.” Nearly everyone would agree he’s at least half right.