Circumstantial evidence has convinced detectives that Brückner is the strongest suspect yet since the British girl Madeleine disappeared in 2007, aged three. Brückner, who is in prison in the northern German city of Kiel serving an unrelated sentence for drug trafficking, The news magazine reported that police found records of a Skype chat on a computer they confiscated in early 2016 from a property owned by Brückner. The dilapidated former box-making factory was searched as part of an arrest warrant in connection with the 2015 disappearance of a five-year-old girl called Inga Gehricke, who went missing from a family outing to a care home in the same region. According to Der Spiegel, investigators also found child sexual abuse images and girl’s clothing inside a trailer on the property, even though Brückner did not have family of his own. It appears he was not investigated further at the time.
Inga Gehricke’s case has often been compared to Madeleine’s, given that no trace has been found of either girl and no charges have been brought. In German media, Inga has sometimes been referred to as “the German Maddie”.
The blond-haired girl went missing from a stretch of woodland near a church-run assisted-living facility for people with mental health or alcohol problems near Stendal between 6.30pm and 6.45pm on 2 May 2015. Initially, police assumed that Inga had got lost in the forest while trying to gather wood for a barbecue planned for that evening. A reward of €25,000 was offered for any vital clues for the child’s whereabouts. According to Küllmei, on 1 May Brückner was involved in a minor traffic accident at a car park on the A2 motorway, about 100 kilometres from the spot where Inga went missing the next day.
Rene Hasee disappeared from a beach in the Algarve in 1996.
German news websites have also reported that authorities are now examining connections to the disappearance of Rene Hasee. According to reports the then six-year-old boy, from Elsdorf, Germany, went missing from a beach in 1996 while on holiday with his family in the Portuguese Algarve.
Brückner has been described as a drifter with a dandy-esque manner and a string of past convictions, including for sexual offences and child abuse.
In 1994, when he was a teenager, Brückner was convicted of sexual abuse of a child, attempted sexual abuse of a child, and carrying out sexual acts in front of a child. He fled to Portugal with a girlfriend the following year and lived in Praia da Luz.
Brückner has been convicted of crimes including theft and drug-dealing, and was allegedly known to have made break-ins at hotels and holiday homes in the Algarve.
According to court documents seen by the Guardian, Brückner was convicted in Germany last year of the rape of a 72-year-old American woman in Praia da Luz in 2005, two years before Madeleine disappeared from a hotel in the same area where she was staying with her family.
His conviction is under review after defence lawyers argued he had been extradited – this time from Italy, to where he had travelled – on another charge and therefore, under the rules of the European court of justice, cannot be tried for a different crime.
In Portugal, Gonçalo Amaral, the detective who led the initial investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, said last year that a “German paedophile who is in prison right now” was “probably going to be the scapegoat” in the case.