A 4-year-old girl allegedly abducted from her family’s tent at a campsite in remote Western Australia more than two weeks ago has been found alive.Cleo Smith, 4, has been found by police after going missing for more than two weeks.
Cleo Smith was found by police in a house not far from her own home in Carnarvon, a small town about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the campsite, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Western Australia police said.Western Australia Police Force Officers collected more than 50 cubic metres of trash from roadside bins as far north as Minilya to as far south as Geraldton.
A 36-year-old man with “no family connection” is in police custody, WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson told ABC Radio Perth.
Cleo had been missing since October 16, when her mother woke to find her gone at the start of a family camping trip to the Quobba Blowholes, a popular recreational spot on the coast. She had been sleeping just feet away from her mother, stepfather and baby sister.
Cleo’s disappearance triggered a massive police search that initially covered several square kilometers around the site and later extended nationwide as alerts were issued for sightings of the girl.Western Australia Police Force Cleo was last seen sleeping in a red and black sleeping bag and was wearing a pink/purple one-piece sleep-suit with a blue and yellow pattern.
Weeks of painstaking detective work uncovered a clue late Tuesday, which prompted officers to execute a search warrant on the home in the early hours of Wednesday, on what would have been day 19 of Cleo’s disappearance.
“We were looking for a needle in a haystack and we found it, that led us to what happened at 12:46 a.m. this morning,” Deputy Police Commissioner Col Blanch told 6PR radio. Earlier Blanch said in a Facebook video that police broke into a locked house in Carnarvon about 1 a.m. local time (1 p.m. ET) and found a child who identified herself as Cleo.
One of the officers who found her picked the child up and asked her name, Blanch said. She replied, “My name is Cleo,” he said. “This is the outcome we all hoped and prayed for,” he added. Cleo Smith’s mother, Ellie Smith, posted to Instagram: “Our family is whole again.” In the days after Cleo’s disappearance, her tearful mother described the last moment she saw her daughter in the tent.
Smith said Cleo had woken at 1:30 a.m. and asked her for a drink of water before going back to sleep. When Smith woke again at 6 a.m., Cleo was gone. Cleo’s sleeping bag was also missing and the zip on the tent was at such a height that police surmised she had been abducted.
Smith and her partner, Jake Gliddon, made public appeals for help to find their child. Less than one week into the search, the Western Australia government also offered a reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($750,000) for information leading to her. Few clues emerged in the weeks leading up to Cleo’s discovery. Police had issued calls for the driver of a vehicle seen heading south on the main road from the campsite to Carnarvon to come forward. As of Tuesday, police hadn’t revealed if they had found the vehicle.
Earlier this week, police sorted through hundreds of bags of trash collected from roadside bins north and south of the campsite where Cleo went missing. Officers also started visiting homes in the Carnarvon area, looking for any sign of the girl. Blanch, the deputy police commissioner, told 6PR radio that Cleo’s rescue marked the end of 18 days of painstaking investigative work, involving a taskforce of 100 officers who gathered “massive amounts of evidence.”
A lead emerged late on Tuesday night, which led officers to the Carnarvon address, he said. Cleo was alone in the house at the time and appeared to be in good physical health. “When she said ‘My name is Cleo,’ I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” he added. “I have seen seasoned detectives openly crying with relief. I am speechless which is very rare … this is something we all hoped in our hearts, and it has come true.”
Blanch said Cleo was being examined by medical professionals and support was being offered to her relieved parents. Xanthe Mallett, a criminologist from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, said Cleo’s recovery after so long was “extraordinary” and that the chances of finding a missing child after a suspected abduction by a stranger were “very low.”
“When a child goes missing, especially after this length of time, everyone was thinking the worst, and it’s just such an amazing outcome,” she said. Mallett said Western Australia Police appeared to be closing in on Cleo earlier this week by releasing only small and apparently strategic amounts of information to the public. “They were using public support and the pressure that they were leveraging through the media, to put pressure on people or maybe around the offender who may have known something,” she said.
It’s unclear if anyone has claimed the reward offered by police for information. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan said he received a message from the state’s police commissioner in the middle of the night informing him Cleo had been found. He also sent an image of Cleo sitting in a hospital bed, smiling, McGowan added. “This is great news and uplifting for the entire country and especially for those people who put their heart and soul into finding little Cleo,” McGowan said. “And I know they’re so proud and pleased of what has been achieved.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the news as “wonderful” on his official Twitter account. “What wonderful, relieving news,” he said. “Cleo Smith has been found and is home safe and sound. Our prayers answered. Thank you to the many police officers involved in finding Cleo and supporting her family.”