'Hate is a powerful emotion.' How Brenda Leyland devoted her life to trolling Maddie McCann's parents.

Content warning: This post contains mention of suicide and may be distressing to some readers.

In documents related to her last will and testament, Brenda Leyland was asked for her job title: 'Investigative journalist', she wrote, according to her son.

But Brenda was not a reporter. She had never studied journalism nor worked in the media. 

For the final years of her life, the British woman had simply given herself an assignment: probing the disappearance of preschooler Madeleine McCann.

Watch: The trailer of Netflix's documentary: The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Post continues after video.

Video via Netflix.

Under the handle @sweepyface, Brenda anonymously posted over 4,000 tweets about the case over four years. Her investment was total and her assessment of Madeleine's parents, scathing. 

In her eyes, Kate and Gerry McCann deserved scrutiny, even suffering. "Q 'How long must the mccanns suffer?'" Brenda wrote in one tweet. "Answer 'For the rest of their miserable lives.'"

Her vitriolic posts flagged the attention of Scotland Yard and, as a result, the media learned her real name. 


In October 2014, a Sky News reporter confronted Brenda outside her home in Leicestershire, central England, and informed her that the police were investigating her involvement in a 'campaign of abuse' against the McCann family.

Two days after the piece went to air, Brenda's body was found in a nearby hotel room. The 63-year-old had taken her own life.

In the years since, Brenda's youngest son, Benjamin, has been left to wrestle with his mother's actions and to attempt to understand how this "beautiful, elegant, unbelievably smart" woman from a sleepy, middle-class English village became a prolific internet troll.

As a child, Benjamin knew his mother was unwell. But he wasn't sure how, exactly. She'd go away for weeks at a time - sometimes months - to 'get better'. The couple had divorced when their son was 12. 

"Mental health was the assumption. But I guess how you explain to a kid what treatment is when they're that young?" Benjamin reflects to Mamamia

When Brenda would return from rehab, she would treat Benjamin to incredible stories about the rich and famous people she had met during treatment. Like the Saudi prince with a shopping addiction who plucked a pair of designer sunglasses from an overflowing bag and gifted them to her.

Brenda was always good at telling stories, Benjamin describing her as "kooky, funny and smart".

But as Benjamin grew older, he became less and less certain which of her tales were true. There was, for example, no record of his grandfather having won a Victoria Cross medal, like his mother had once claimed.


Finding himself in a codependent relationship with his mother, Benjamin decided to move to the United States in 2008.

Benjamin Leyland, Brenda's son. Image: Robert Gallagher/The Guardian.

It's at this point that Madeleine McCann's disappearance enters the story.

In 2007, McCann went missing in Portugal while on holiday from her family. It was the story that captivated the world. It also deeply intrigued Brenda, who happened to live around 25 kilometres away from where the McCann family lived. 


Benjamin noticed his mother's interest in the case, but at the time, everyone in their local town - even the whole of the UK - was talking about the McCanns. After all, Madeleine's plight had captivated much of the world. It remains one of the most highly reported missing persons cases in modern history. 

"When I moved to the US, I wasn't really reading the daily news or catching up on any of that stuff. And when speaking to mum on the phone, her level of interest or commitment to anything around that story wasn't really immediately obvious," he tells Mamamia

In the years that followed, Brenda started spending more and more of life online researching about Madeleine McCann. In particular, Brenda believed that Madeleine's parents had something to do with their daughter's disappearance. 

After initially being named as suspects in Madeleine's disappearance, Kate and Gerry McCann were cleared. Yet stubborn conspiracy theorists continue to spout unsubstantiated claims that the couple was involved.

Brenda was among those convinced the McCanns were responsible, even if only through negligence.

"Hate a powerful emotion," she tweeted. "It is a compliment to Maddie that we 'hate' her parents who betrayed her."

"I think Kate #mccann sees herself as a modern day Eva Peron beautiful, suffering, instead of a booze filled nymphomaniac."

"To Kate and Gerry, you will be hated by millions for the rest of your miserable, evil, conniving lives, have a nice day."


In late 2014, Scotland Yard decided to act on a dossier supplied by McCann family supporters that featured thousands of hate-filled social media posts directed at Kate and Gerry.

Brenda's tweets were among them. The media latched on. 

In an interview about online abuse, BBC Radio asked Gerry McCann about @sweepyface's years-long tirade. Gerry said he hadn't read those tweets but that "clearly something needs to be done about abuse on the internet."

"I've got grave concerns about our children as they grow up and start to access the internet in an unsupervised capacity," he said.

"There have been other instances where people are threatening to kidnap our children. People are threatening violence against Kate and myself. I do think we need to make examples of people causing damage."

Meanwhile, Sky News dispatched experienced reporter, Martin Brunt, to 'door stop' Brenda - a type of interview in which the subject is confronted without warning (it usually takes places outside their home or workplace, hence the name).

At first, Brenda declined to answer Martin's questions. Excusing herself and hurrying toward her car, he pressed her about her motivation for "using her Twitter account to attack the McCanns". She turned back briefly and said, "I'm entitled to do that." When he informed Brenda that she had been reported to police, she stopped in her tracks. "That's fair enough..." she said.


Soon after this interaction with the journalist, Brenda died by suicide. 

Brenda Leyland. Image: Sky News.

Benjamin tells Mamamia he finds it interesting that although his mother was exerting troll-like behaviour online, so too were some of the media in their relentless coverage. 

"It's interesting to see the rapaciousness with which people kind of go after these sorts of public hangings, public executions by the media. Especially where we are at in terms of a global mental health crisis," he says.


"No one is asking the questions: 'Who is this person? What is their experience with mental health? Why did they feel like it was impossible to ask or help?'"

Benjamin also feels there's a difference between an investigative journalist holding publicly elected officials or celebrities to account, compared to people like his late mum.

At the inquest into Brenda's death, the Sky News journalist Martin Brunt said he spoke to her off-camera after the doorstop interview. He described her demeanour as 'pleasant', though said she'd requested that her face be blurred for the broadcast. Brunt said he told her that was beyond his control.

"I think I said, 'I hope it isn't too grim,' meaning for her," he told the inquest. "And she said, 'Well, I'll go out for the day. I was thinking of ending it all, but I've had a glass of wine and I'm feeling better now.'"

Martin said he thought her mention of ending it all was a simple 'throwaway' remark. He never thought she'd take her own life.

"I was, and still am, devastated by Mrs Leyland's death," he said. "The enormity of what's happened will always be with me."

Via testimony from Brenda's psychiatrist at the inquest, Benjamin learned she had lived with depression and borderline personality disorder - a common mental illness that affects a person's ability to manage their emotions and impulses. People with BPD often have a pattern of intense and challenging interpersonal relationships and anxiety about being abandoned.


Benjamin believes that may have fuelled his mother's obsession with the McCann case. 

Growing up, Brenda endured cruelty and rage from her parents, and her brother had suffered abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest.

"I think she saw in Madeleine a lost, neglected, abandoned girl," Benjamin says, "that in many ways reflected who she was or the way she felt about herself."

He misses his mother intensely, and hopes Brenda's story encourages us all to look beyond the nasty things that online trolls say, and consider why they say them.

"I am glad that my mum was held responsible, like, but don't get me wrong, the way it played out was utterly awful. The value of my mum's story lies in the good we can do for society around mental health stigma," he tells Mamamia

"What has happened that has created people who are only able to find joy in venting their spleen and displaying their resentments in this way?" he said. "If you treat the symptom, you never get to the heart of the problem. The problem is: why are people so angry and afraid?"

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

This article was originally published in March 2023, and has since been updated with new information.

Feature Image: Sky News.