In the photo, a woman walks with a group of people along the side of the road in Zinat, northern Morocco. On her back, she carries a young, fair-skinned blond girl who peeks out from behind the woman's left arm. The image is so blurry, it's difficult to make out any distinguishing facial features. But with a little imagination, you could convince yourself that the girl is Madeleine McCann, the British girl who disappeared from her family's holiday apartment in Portugal on May 3. Stare hard enough, and she even seems to be staring back.
Taken three weeks ago by a Spanish tourist on vacation in Zinat, the photo is just another twist in a case that's become a British, if not global, media phenomenon. And while British police are busy analyzing the image, using facial recognition technology to try to determine whether or not the girl in the photo is the missing Madeleine, reports are already coming out of Morocco that the girl in the photo is, in fact, the daughter of a local farming family.
This isn't the first time someone has reported seeing the 4-year-old girl. There have been several sightings in the past five months, some in Morocco, others in Europe, all of which turned out to be false leads. But this is the first time someone has come forward with a photograph, something resembling evidence that anyone who is following the case could hold in his or her hands. Now everyone can play detective, analyzing the photo for clues the same way they did with the ransom note in the JonBenet Ramsey case.
In a whirl of morning excitement, with papers claiming the photo offered "fresh hope" and a "new lead," the word from the McCann camp was all about patience and calm. Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, family spokesman Clarence Mitchell said: "I have to urge caution at this stage." The McCanns themselves haven't said anything about the photo, or any of the previous sightings of their daughter. A spokeswoman for the family tells TIME that "the emotional roller coaster of commenting on these sightings would be too much for the McCanns. But they are aware that they do raise important questions and are hopefully that the authorities follow these up with the attention they deserve."
While there is still no official confirmation, yesterday's Evening Standard newspaper (London's only major afternoon paper) was running what it called conclusive proof on its front page: the girl in the picture is not Maddy, but Bushra Binhisa, the blond, five-year-old daughter of the olive-farmer family in the photo, whom the paper's reporters tracked down in Morocco. Another possible step forward in the case now may prove to have been a false one. And it is very likely this won't be the last time that hysteria is mistaken for hope.