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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Brenda Leyland and the Madeleine McCann Case: Death of a "Troll" or a Concerned Citizen?

     On May 3, 2007, doctors Gerry and Kate McCann, from the affluent village of Rothley in the central English borough of Charnwood, were on holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal with their three children and another couple. That evening the McCanns reported their 3-year-old daughter Madeleine missing. According to the parents, someone had abducted the girl from the hotel room while they were dining 160 feet away from the resort.

     As in the JonBenet Ramsey case in the United States twelve years earlier, the public, influenced by tabloid-like media coverage, suspected the parents of foul play. When a British DNA analyst reported that the child had died in the hotel room, the authorities were under public pressure to arrest the McCanns.

     In September 2007, the police in Portugal made it official by declaring Doctors Gerry and Kate McCann suspects in the disappearance of their daughter. No arrest warrants were issued and in July 2008 the attorney general of Portugal closed the case against the parents citing lack of evidence.

     While officially cleared of criminal wrongdoing, Gerry and Kate McCann remained, in the tabloid press and the minds of millions in Great Britain and around the world, guilty of murder.

     The missing girl's parents, convinced that the police in Portugal had given up the search, hired private investigators to breathe new life into the case. Based on information uncovered by the PIs and Scotland Yard's release of the image of a man seen carrying a child toward the beach not far from the hotel on the night in question, the Portugese police, in October 2013, re-opened the case. Notwithstanding this development, the McCann child has not been found and no arrests have been made.

     In the years following the Madeleine McCann disappearance, a community of conspiracy buffs have targeted the missing girl's parents. Some would say these people have abused and harassed the McCanns through negative tweets, Facebook postings, text messaging, and other forms of online communication. People who engage in this form of social media activity have been labeled "Trolls," a catch-all term that covers everything from mild criticism to online death threats.

     According to social scientists who have studied this media phenomenon, trolls are often bored, lonely people who become obsessed with a particular crime. Some of them are manifestly insane. While  they annoy and may even frighten the targets of their wrath, they are, for the most part, harmless talkers.  These compulsive chatterboxes orbit every celebrated crime, usually offering up outlandish conspiracy theories. The Lindbergh kidnapping case and the JFK assassination, for example, attracted thousands of revisionist true crime buffs. In the wake of baby Lindbergh's abduction and murder in 1932, the 20-month-old's parents were almost driven crazy by obsessed and mentally ill people who showed up at their mansion and harassed them in public. Today, fixated crime buff simply take to their computers.

     In late September 2014, a British television news team published the identify of one of the more prolific McCann case trolls. Brenda Leyland, a 63-year-old resident of Burton Overy, a picturesque village in the Harborough district of Liecestershire, had published more than 5,000 tweets on the case. The soft-spoken divorcee used her Twitter account to draw attention to what she considered an appalling failure of justice. She called the McCanns neglectful parents and accused them, through their frequent media appearances, of profiting from their daughter's disappearance. Leyland once tweeted that the McCanns should "suffer for the rest of their miserable lives" for what they've done.

     Brenda Leyland regularly accused the metropolitan police (Scotland Yard) of dropping the ball in the missing persons case. She also took on the tabloid media for false and over-the-top reporting. At no time did she threaten the McCanns, and unlike some of her fellow Trolls, never called them baby killers.

     After being outed by the television reporters, Leyland became an online target herself. To avoid being harassed by reporters, she checked into a nearby Marriott Hotel in Grove Park, Leicester. On Saturday, October 4, 2014 at one-forty in the afternoon, police were called to Leyland's hotel room after a Marriott employee discovered her corpse.

     Investigators have found no evidence of criminal homicide in Leyland's sudden death. The autopsy, however, failed to reveal a cause of death. This has led to speculation that Brenda Leyland took her own life.

     Leyland's death will no doubt create a community of Trolls who will somehow link the government or the McCanns to her death. By attaching herself to celebrated case, Leyland briefly became famous herself. Perhaps this was one Troll who came to realize what it is like to be the target of other people's obsession, loneliness and boredom. 

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