Girl who vanished from campsite found alive in locked house close to home
Hilary Whiteman, Angus Watson and Samantha Beech, CNN
Published at | Updated at
(CNN) — Just after midnight Wednesday, police in Western Australia broke down the door of a locked home in the small town of Carnarvon, ending an extensive 18-day search for a missing 4-year-old girl.
A police video caught the moment an officer picked up the child and asked her, “What’s your name? The girl replied, “My name is Cleo,” according to police.
Cleo Smith’s rescue came more than two weeks after she disappeared from her family’s tent at a remote campsite at Quobba Blowholes, a popular tourist spot on the coast, around 950 kilometers (590 miles) north of Perth.
Her 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.
On Wednesday, police said evidence had led them to that specific home, a short drive from the family residence where her distraught parents had spent weeks anxiously waiting for updates about the police investigation.
“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.
Officers entered the locked home and found Cleo alone in one of the rooms, Blanch said. “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.”
Cleo’s mother, Ellie Smith, who had issued tearful pleas for help in finding her child, posted to Instagram: “Our family is whole again.”
A 36-year-old local man with “no family connection” is in police custody, WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson told ABC Radio Perth. He was not in the house at the time of the raid, Blanch said, and is currently being questioned. Police don’t suspect anyone else of being involved, they said.
Child vanished from campsite
Cleo disappeared in the early hours of October 16 from the family’s tent at a campsite near the Blowholes, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of the home in Carnarvon.
They’d arrived the night before on their first camping trip as a family of four. Around 8 p.m. Cleo settled in for the night in a sleeping bag, lying just feet away from her mother, stepfather and baby sister, police said.
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.
As police swarmed to the scene, helicopters and drones scanned the rugged landscape near the campsite, a short walk from the coast where waves smash up against the cliffs.
Justin Borg, from Coral Coast Helicopter Services, deployed a team to scan the area — they ended up searching for three days. He described the sandy hills as slow-moving terrain, the type of ground that made walking slow and difficult: “It’s soft sand and prickly underfoot,” he said.
“When we hadn’t found her by the first hour or two, then we were automatically thinking that she’s been taken,” Borg added.
Cleo’s sleeping bag was also missing and the zipper 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.
“Everyone asks us what you need — all we really need is our little girl home,” said Smith, who described her daughter as beautiful and delicate with “the biggest heart.”
“Every day she wants to wear a princess dress,” she said. “She’s so sweet — everything you’d want in a little girl.”
$1 million reward
Less than one week into the search, the Western Australia government offered a reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($750,000) for information leading to Cleo’s discovery.
Information poured in, including more than 200 reports of possible sightings of the girl, none of which were confirmed to be Cleo. Hours of CCTV and dashcam footage was uploaded to the police website for analysis.
Meanwhile, a massive campaign was building online to find Cleo.
Volunteers running the Facebook site Bring Cleo Smith Home called businesses to request stickers, flyers and posters showing Cleo’s face. About 50,000 were printed and plastered throughout Carnarvon and across the state.
Evelyn Fowkes, a mother in Perth who has never met the family, started the Facebook page to take pressure off Cleo’s mother, who was being bombarded with messages. Soon Fowkes was joined by a team of volunteer admins and moderators, mostly mothers, who worked to keep Cleo’s case in the public eye.
The page now has more than 65,000 members worldwide, including in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.
“If that was my child I would want someone to do the exact same thing,” Fowkes said.
Ashleigh Flynn, who worked as a volunteer admin from the other side of the country in Brisbane, said the team was overwhelmed by the news Cleo had been found: “We’re just in shock, so many tears of joy. And I think Australia’s crying with us.”
Throughout the investigation, police said they had no suspects and repeatedly ruled out Cleo’s family as having any involvement in her disappearance.
One of the few leads came from witnesses who reported seeing a car heading south on the main road from the campsite to Carnarvon at around 3 a.m. on the day Cleo disappeared. Police urged the driver or occupants of the vehicle to come forward. As of Tuesday, police hadn’t revealed if they had found that car.
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.
WA Police Minister Paul Papalia told reporters Wednesday Cleo’s rescue was the result of “hard police grind” — not a tip-off or a single suspicious event.
Over 18 days, police gathered masses of evidence, including interviews, CCTV footage, phone data and 1,000 calls from people offering information that once analyzed pointed in the direction of the house.
Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine was one of four officers who entered the single-story house with a search warrant just after midnight Wednesday and found Cleo in a bedroom.
“To see her sitting there in the way that she was was incredible,” Blaine told reporters.
“I just wanted to be absolutely sure it was her, so I said, ‘What’s your name?'” he said.
Blaine said he asked her the same question three times before she answered, then once satisfied they had found Cleo, police took her outside to their car and called her parents. A family liaison officer passed on the news that she’d be found with the words: “We’ve got someone here who wants to speak to you.”
“It was a wonderful feeling to be able to make that call,” Blaine said.
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.
Police said it was unlikely anyone would claim the million dollar reward, as Cleo’s rescue was the result of painstaking work by the police.
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.”