Police investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann have shifted the emphasis of their inquiry after discovering that a presumed sighting of the girl being taken away from her holiday apartment, long seen as central to the case, was a false lead.
Detectives from the Met now believe that a man with dark, collar-length hair seen carrying a pyjama-clad child almost outside the McCann family's apartment in Praia da Luz, southern Portugal, at about 9.15pm on May 3 2007 was in fact an innocent British holidaymaker returning his own child from a night crèche.
In the light of what police describe as "a revelation moment," altering six years of thinking about the case, investigating officers now believe Madeleine could have been taken up to 45 minutes later in the evening.
The discovery had brought "a shift of emphasis", said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, leading the investigation: "We're almost certain now that this sighting is not the abductor.
"But very importantly, what it says is that from 9.15pm we're able to allow the clock to continue forward. In doing so, things that were not seen as significant or have not received the same attention are now the centre of our focus."
Inquiries are now centred on another man – whom police have been unable to identify – seen carrying a blond child, believed to be wearing pyjamas, close to the Ocean Club complex at about 10pm that night. The family who saw him provided two efit images of the man more than five years ago. However, the sighting was viewed as too late to be significant – which is why the efits were only released publicly on Sunday.
Police are also seeking to identify a pair of blond men seen lurking around the holiday centre about the time of the disappearance, and a group of presumed bogus charity collectors who targeted nearby apartments – working on the possibility that Madeleine's abduction was carefully planned. Officers are also investigating whether a spate of local break-ins before Madeleine's disappearance could be linked, including one when an intruder was seen peering into a cot but stole nothing.
But the key breakthrough since the Metropolitan police launched their investigation in July this year concerns Jane Tanner, among the group of friends dining with Kate and Gerry McCann at a tapas restaurant in the holiday complex on May 3 as Madeleine and her younger twin siblings, Sean and Amelie, slept 50m away.
Tanner went to check on her own children at about 9pm, around the same time Gerry McCann looked in on his – the last time the family saw Madeleine. About 15 minutes later, Tanner recounted, she saw the man carrying a young child in pyjamas almost directly outside the McCanns' apartment. From 2007 onwards, Portuguese and British police presumed any abduction most probably took place between 8.30pm, when the McCanns went to dinner, and 9.15pm.
However, the new investigation tracked down the British holidaymaker, who said he was carrying his child home via that route at that time. A new police photograph of the man wearing similar clothes to those worn that evening is remarkably similar to an artist's sketch based on Tanner's recollection.
The Tanner sighting had "dominated up to now", Redwood admitted. He added: "It has meant the focus was always done and dusted by about quarter past. Now it takes us forward to 10pm."
The man police now want to contact was spotted at about 10pm walking down the hill from the Ocean Club complex towards either the beach or the town centre, carrying a blond child aged around three or four, who was most probably wearing pyjamas. He was seen by an Irish family called Smith, who gave a statement to police soon after their holiday. The efits were compiled by private detectives in September 2008. However, Redwood said, for years the sighting was seen as "wrong place, wrong time" and thus unimportant.
Redwood declined to say whether the breakthrough could or should have been made earlier, when the investigation was led by the Portuguese police: "What I'm not here to do is to try and dissect the decision-making of previous detectives, or private detectives. That's not appropriate. Today is about saying this is the information that we have, and this is how my work, with my team, is coming together, and this is what we're asking the public to help with."
A parallel part of the inquiry concerns reports of blond men, sometimes alone or as a pair, loitering in areas near the McCanns' flat on 2 and 3 April 2007, including on the stairwell of their apartment block about 6pm on the evening Madeleine vanished. Police reissued two other efit images of the men as part of an appeal on BBC1's Crimewatch programme tonight. The appeal will also be shown in the Netherlands and Germany, following reports that these men may have been heard speaking Dutch or German.
Police said they had had an immediate and encouraging response to the Crimewatch appeal. Redwood told viewers two separate callers had given the same name for the man featured in the efit imagine seen carrying a child at about 10pm. He said that there had been an "overwhelming response" from the public to the Crimewatch appeal, including calls from people who had been in Praia da Luz at the same time as the McCanns.
The McCanns told Crimewatch they believed it was possible their daughter was still alive, noting recent cases where kidnapped children were discovered years later.
Gerry McCann said he was "hopeful and optimistic" at the progress of the new investigation. He said: "These cases can get solved. That is what the public need to think about tonight."
Officers are also seeking to track down the people behind a series of burglaries around the Ocean Club complex, mainly in the early months of 2007. There was also an incident almost exactly a year before the abduction when children in a ground-floor apartment saw an intruder break in through a patio door and stare into a travel cot, stealing nothing. Redwood said: "We're particularly interested in that event as to whether it has any resonance to the disappearance of Madeleine."
Such incidents could be connected to premeditation in the case, Redwood said: "There are elements of this case which on one reading of the evidence could suggest that there was an element of pre-planning or reconnaissance."
But despite the detailed briefings, police warn that speculation about imminent arrests is premature. Redwood said: "It is about trying to understand who, precisely, these people are. Our absolute priority is to whittle them down."
Officers do not consider the McCanns themselves as suspects or persons of interest to the inquiry. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013