IT’S the case that never seems to close.
Now into its 16th year, the mystery over the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in Portugal, has still not been solved.
But, it’s creeping ever closer to coming to trial, after a landmark ruling in Germany this week.
It involves the court in Braunschweig finally accepting it has the jurisdiction to try its former resident Christian Brueckner, 46.
As well as the abduction and murder of the British toddler in May 2007, he is also due to be charged with five other serious sex crimes.
These are three rapes and two child sex offences, all taking place on the Algarve between 2000 and 2017.
Feel like you’ve read that before? You did, almost a year ago on October 11 when the Olive Press revealed exclusively that the sex offender was set to be charged and sent to trial by ‘this Spring or Summer’.
The German rapist – who is currently serving seven years for the rape of a 72-year-old American expat in Praia da Luz in Portugal in 2005 – saw complex committal proceedings officially begin.
This involved getting permission from Italy, the last place he was living as a free man in 2018, to confirm an extradition request to bring him back to face trial in his native Germany.
It came just months after he had also been made an official suspect (or arguido) over the Maddie case in Portugal.
There was natural delight, in particular from his alleged victims, including Irish mother-of-three Hazel Behan, 40, who told the Olive Press she was ‘looking forward to finally facing him in court’.
The former Algarve resort worker, from Dublin, was just 20 when she had been tied up, beaten and tortured during a four-hour filmed ordeal, in 2004.
She was certain, as is the prosecution, that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brueckner was her attacker.
But things didn’t turn out quite the way they wanted for Behan – or indeed the prosecutor Hans Christian Wolters – in Braunschweig.
For lawyers of the convicted rapist, put a spanner in the works when they claimed that the regional court in Braunschweig had no jurisdiction to hear the case, because their client had actually been last living in a backwater of former East Germany.
They claimed that he had resided at a derelict box factory in Neuwegersleben and should actually therefore be tried in the nearby regional court in Magdeburg.
While Brueckner had bought the factory back in 2008 or 2009, prosecutor Wolters argued he had never actually lived there and was never officially registered there.
“He only spent the odd night there in his winnebago,” he told me earlier this year.
But his lawyer, Friedrich Fulscher, based in Kiel, insisted otherwise.
In April this year, in a bombshell decision, the regional court in Braunschweig sided with Fulscher, ruling it no jurisdiction to hear the case.
It came as a big blow to prosecutor Wolters, who has been working on the case since 2018 and helped to convict Brueckner of the rape of American Diane Menkes at Braunschweig court three years ago.
He was suddenly faced with seeing the hundreds of files of paperwork he had compiled on Brueckner sent to the court in the Saxony-Anhalt region.
Worse than that, as the torturous procedure slowed up even further, it was clear that frustrations were growing among a number of the key witnesses.
In particular, the former friend of Brueckner’s Helge Busching was said to be ‘considering retracting his evidence’.
While only rumoured (and through unnamed sources), Busching, who had been in Germany’s official witness protection scheme for three years, was labelled Helge ‘Bullsh*tter’.
Then just a week ago, it was claimed almost the whole case against Brueckner hinged around a so-called ‘confession’ he had allegedly made to his friend Helge.
The confession had allegedly come to Helge during the 2008 Dragon Festival, in Orgiva, Spain, where Helge lived for a number of years.
And, if he withdrew it, the case would collapse.
While this was completely denied by Wolters, who insisted Busching would have to testify in court under German law and, in any case, there were many other – and better – witnesses, it did spark alarm.
But Wolters is a calm and unflappable man with decades of experience of serious crime.
He had continually insisted he was ‘certain’ the cases would eventually be heard in his court.
And on Tuesday he received the news he had been waiting for.
Having naturally appealed to the Braunschweig higher court for common sense to prevail, he was told he had won: the jurisdiction would come back to his town.
He had successfully argued that Brueckner had last lived in the Lower Saxony town (often known as Brunswick) where he ran a kiosk/bar and lived above it, while also renting an allotment home just outside.
He insisted that Brueckner had never applied for electricity or water at the deserted factory, nor had he put himself on the electoral roll there.
But most important of all, I can reveal, he discovered that Brueckner himself had actually applied for state benefits, via an address in Braunschweig, as recently as the beginning of 2017.
This was a clincher and completely nailed the attempt of Fulscher to slow up the trial and, ideally, have it cancelled.
Wolters told me of the impending decision last week: “I’m pretty certain we are going to get the case back now the paperwork is here with the high court.
“I’m confident it is now going to stay in Braunschweig.
“It’s been a long process to slow up the case by his lawyers which has been frustrating for everyone, not helped by the amount of paperwork and the summer break.
“I’ve never seen a case like this and it has personally been very frustrating.”
Brueckner’s lawyer meanwhile sounded crestfallen, when he told Bild newspaper: “We have to accept the decision at this point, even if I consider it to be wrong.
“We will challenge the local jurisdiction in the proceedings.”
All that remains is for the court to set an actual date for the first trial, which will firstly be for the five sex crimes, followed by the Madeleine McCann trial shortly after.
While Wolters wouldn’t give me a date, he indicated it could be before the end of the year, but ‘most likely’ in January or February.
That will be up to the new female judge who has now got the world’s most famous missing person case back on her desk.
It will almost certainly be one of the trials of the century!
WHAT BRUECKNER IS FACING
The five sex crimes he is facing are:
Rape of Hazel Behan in Portimao in 2004
Sexual assault of Joana Eilts on Zalema beach in April 2007
Exposure to four children in Sao Bartolomeu de Messines, in June 2017
Rape of a teenager – between 16 to 19 – filmed on video on the Algarve between 2000 and 2007
Rape of an older woman – between 50 and 60 – filmed on video on the Algarve between 2000 and 2007