IT was his secret camp that he called his ‘little paradise’.
A copse of trees overlooking the expansive Barragem do Arade reservoir, it conveniently had a flat stretch of land to park his van.
Frequently coming for weekends, and sometimes a whole week, he would bring copious amounts of snacks… and always ‘lots of beer and hash’.
Styling out a living area with a rudimentary table, hewn from a log, he even made an eccentric stone bench down by the water’s edge, facing north east, back towards his native Germany.
Next to that, a fire pit and perfect stone circle, the type druids might once use for ritual gatherings and sacrifices.
“This was his exact special spot that he said he liked to come to ‘cleanse himself’,” a former close friend of Brueckner revealed this week.
“He came here often, but he was always secretive about it.”
Today mostly dismantled, the camp and circle, pictured here for the first time, sat at the very ground zero where one of the most high profile police searches in European history has just taken place.
Cordoned off by police for 72 hours, the long peninsula beside the lake on the Algarve was scoured by ten specialist detectives from Germany’s crack BKA outfit, alongside over 20 Portuguese cops and a team from Scotland Yard’s Operation Grange.
Officially searching for evidence in the case of missing toddler Madeleine McCann, it came after a year of careful preparation, it can be revealed.
While the chief German prosecutor did receive new information last month on the case, the headland was actually pinpointed as a regular hideout for Brueckner by at least three other witnesses over the last half decade.
Located just 30 miles from where Madeleine, then 3, was snatched from her bed in Praia da Luz, it sits nearly halfway to where Brueckner was staying at the time in the tiny inland hamlet of Foral.
The lake is one of a trio that Brueckner frequently spent time at from the mid 1990s when he first visited Portugal.
While he rented a small home, known as the Yellow House, in Praia da Luz, between 1999 and 2006, he frequently spent long periods away, often camping at the lakes.
In particular, he spent a lot of time at the Barragem da Bravura, nearer to Praia da Luz, as well as further inland at the Santa Clara reservoir, in Alentejo, where he had many friends and ‘clients’ for his drugs and other wares.
His flatmate at the time, Michael ‘Micha’ Tatschl told me he ‘loved’ spending time by the lakes.
“He was always going off to stay with his friend Christian at the lake,” said fellow German Tatschl, who spent eight months in prison with Brueckner in Portugal for fuel theft in 2006.
“He would often go off for days or the whole weekend. Christian was probably his best friend and they spent a lot of time together.”
That Christian was a musician, electrician and IT expert, who also fixed computers and other electrical devices along the Algarve.
While he uses various names, his real one is Christian Post and when my newspaper, the Olive Press, finally tracked him down last year to Krong Kampot, he said he believed Brueckner snatched a sleeping Madeleine while on one of his regular burglary sprees.
“Now I know about his paedophile past, his rapist past. I’m 100% certain it was him. I think he found [Madeleine] by chance and just took her on the spur of the moment,” said Post, from his scruffy apartment.
His flatmate Tatschl backed up his claims, revealing to me in his only interview that Brueckner not only spent hours late at night on the ‘dark web’ but talked about snatching and trafficking children.
“He was definitely a pervert and more than capable of snatching a child, for sexual kicks or money,” he revealed from his home in Austria.
Tatschl, who is one of over a dozen key witnesses in the case, said: “That’s how I found out he was sick. I told the police all about that. Christian was always on the dark web. I don’t know exactly what he did but I suspect it involved drugs and pornography.
“He was always bragging about making money. He even talked about selling kids maybe to Morocco, and I think he probably sold Maddie to someone – maybe a sex ring.”
This is a theory that German detectives have been working on since 2016, when they unearthed a giant stash of 8000 photos and videos, including child abuse, on one of his properties, a disused box factory, in East Germany.
Buried under the body of his dead dog, the files had been kept dry in a Lidl bag and came with various other items, some of which it is understood directly implicate Brueckner in the abduction of Maddie.
Yet remarkably, while Brueckner was twice extradited from Portugal for sex crimes against children, Portuguese detectives investigating the snatch never considered he could be involved.
Currently serving a seven-year sentence for the brutal rape of a 72-year-old in Praia da Luz, in 2005, he was first sent back to Germany in 1999 after spending four years on the run to avoid a two-year sentence for sexually abusing children.
What German police, alongside Operation Grange, in London, have spent the last five years piecing together is Brueckner’s exact movements between Germany and Portugal.
Having first established that his phone was used near the apartment where Maddie vanished on the same night, they made a public appeal in June 2020 for more information.
In particular, they asked if anyone could help identify the number he called, plus information on a number of vehicles, including a Jaguar and a white and yellow VW van.
Many people came forward and, even as recently as last Autumn, prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters told me they were still getting ‘weekly calls and hints (tips)’.
Much of them involved vehicles he had bought and sold, as well as sightings of Brueckner around southern Portugal and, also, Spain.
But crucially there were various witnesses who could pinpoint and direct detectives to the exact places he lived during the critical period between May 2007 and December 2006, when he had got out of prison in Portugal for diesel theft.
One of those – who had been a friend of Brueckner’s since he first arrived on the Algarve in 1994 – told me how he had spent much of 2007 living on/off with a girlfriend, Nicole Fehlinger, in Foral.
While they immediately hit it off at a Christmas party in 2006, it was a ‘turbulent’ relationship, leading Brueckner to frequently go off for days on end alone.
Much of this was spent in his various camper vans by isolated beaches or down by his trio of inland reservoirs.
Sometimes going with friends, but mostly alone, his favourite was nearby Arade, which he ‘knew like the back of his hand’, said the pal, who is a key witness in the case.
“He would drive right down to the edge of the lake. He liked to be near the water,” she revealed this week.
“He always camped in the same spot, but I don’t know exactly what he did there as he was very secretive.
“He said he came to ‘cleanse himself’ and he certainly washed himself and his clothes in the lake.
“I also know he drank a lot of beer as when I came down with him a couple of times to pick up stones for a wall at my house there were loads of empty cans.
“I think he liked the silence and the fact there was usually no-one else around. It now makes me horrified to think what he really might have done down there.”
The friend, a German mother-of-two, who has lived on the Algarve for three decades, has been helping the BKA with their enquiries for a number of years.
She was even flown to the headquarters in Wiesbaden two years ago to officially pinpoint the spot where he camped at Arade.
“The most important thing detectives needed to know was exactly when and where he went by the lake. They made me pick it out on maps and aerial shots, which luckily I could do.
“It was hard to give them exact times though, as it has been more than 25 years since I first met Christian.
“He came back and forth so many times I couldn’t tell them exactly when.
“We didn’t have smart phones back then, and it wasn’t actually important to me.
“Other witnesses had already pinpointed his trips to Arade reservoir and, in any case, I think they know everything about what happened in May 2007. I’ve just been helping join the dots.”
Talking at her home, near Silves, she added: “I really hope they can finally catch him for all the horrible things he has done and the McCann family get some closure.”