Portugal police could reopen case into rape of Irish woman in 2004

Portuguese police have begun a process that could lead to the reopening of an investigation into the unsolved rape of an Irish woman as they seek to build a case against a possible suspect in connection with the abduction of Madeleine McCann.

Detectives in Portugal last week collected the archived case file on the vicious assault in 2004 of Hazel Behan, who was working as a holiday rep in Praia da Rocha on the Algarve, according to a source in the public prosecutor’s office.

A judge could later decide if the investigators can officially reopen the case, a ruling that is unlikely to happen until after the summer.

Behan last month asked UK detectives working on Madeleine’s disappearance to review her attack, after learning that a new suspect in the then three-year-old’s abduction had been convicted of a sexual assault with similarities to her own experience.

Behan was alerted to the police appeal for new evidence in connection with Christian Brückner, who was recently named as a main suspect in Madeleine’s 2007 disappearance. She discovered the 43-year-old had recently been convicted of the rape of a 72-year-old American woman in Praia da Luz in 2005.

She told the Guardian in an interview she had been shocked at the similarities between the attack on the American and her own experience.

“My mind was blown when I read how he had attacked a woman in 2005, both the tactics and the methods he used, how well he had planned it out,” she said. “I puked to be honest with you, as reading about it took me right back to my experience.”

Met officers working on Operation Grange, the investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, interviewed Behan at length and said they would contact Portuguese police. The move to retrieve the archived files came late last week.

The 110-page case file, which has been seen by the Guardian and is being held at a court in Portimão, includes details of objects collected by police from the scene of the attack. Among these were the scissors used by Behan’s attacker to cut her clothes, one of her fingernails, and a shirt on which blood was found.

The items were tested for DNA, according to a report in the file. A swab was also taken during a medical examination but was destroyed in 2007, according to the file, because it had been kept in “adverse preservation conditions”. The rest of the items were destroyed in 2009. The destruction of forensic evidence in cases where no suspect has been identified is reportedly standard practice in Portugal.

In the file the police concluded the attack on Behan had been an isolated case, the modus operandi of which was not found in any other cases. The police also said in the file that attempts to find the attacker were hampered by the fact the Euro 2004 football tournament was taking place at the time, leading to “thousands of people from several nationalities” being present in Praia da Rocha.

Behan said she was treated insensitively by the Portuguese police, who she believes failed to properly investigate the rape. She said local people tried to dissuade her from talking about her case.

Evidence on the rape and robbery of the American woman the following year in the nearby resort of Praia da Luz was supposed to have been destroyed in 2010, but court officials had overlooked the fact, according to a file held on the 2005 rape, which the Guardian has also seen.

When German authorities requested the file and evidence – eight items, including a piece of rope used to tie the victim – after receiving information from the Met, it was sent to them by the Portuguese authorities in March 2018. The evidence led to Brückner’s conviction for the 2005 rape in December last year.

However, his lawyers are appealing against the conviction at the European court of justice on the grounds it was not the crime for which he was extradited from Portugal three years ago. The judges are expected to deliver their verdict in about two weeks’ time. Brückner is serving a prison sentence for drugs trafficking in an isolation cell in Kiel, Germany. He is due to be released in January.