Missing four-year-old Cleo Smith was rescued from her suspected abductor’s house on Wednesday morning, 18 days after she was snatched from her family’s tent in the remote north of Western Australia.
At 12.46am local time, four detectives forced their way into the Carnarvon property, just a seven-minute drive from Cleo’s family home. They discovered her alone, sitting inside a locked bedroom.
A still from a WA Police video of Cleo Smith minutes after she was found in the Carnarvon house. Credit:WA Police
Cleo’s mysterious disappearance from the Quobba Blowholes campsite on October 16 sparked one of Australia’s biggest police searches, with more than 100 officers assigned to the case.
A 36-year-old Carnarvon man was arrested in relation to the kidnapping but, as of Wednesday night, detectives were yet to reveal his alleged motive or what led officers to carry out the midnight raid.
Western Australia Police detective senior sergeant Cameron Blaine on Wednesday told of his shock at finding the missing girl in the house. He said he asked three times who she was before the four-year-old responded: “My name is Cleo.”
“To see her sitting there in the way she was, was incredible,” he said.
“We walked her out of the house and not long after that got into the car and the officer I was with … who is the family liaison officer called Cleo’s parents and said, ‘we’ve got someone here who wants to speak with you.’
“You can imagine just absolute surprise and they were ecstatic. Things happened so quickly we didn’t have time to prepare them.”
The man suspected of abducting Cleo Smith in an ambulance on Wednesday. Credit:Nine News
The reunion brought the state’s most senior police officers to tears, with WA Police acting commissioner Col Blanch saying the vision of her rescue had been burned into his memory.
“You cannot look at that and not just feel it in your heart. It was an unbelievable moment,” he said.
“I saw detectives who have worked for 18 days straight, 24/7, see little Cleo in a room, and just the look on their faces. Just the care that was expressed, the cuddling, the asking of her name. Your heart breaks just hearing that because you know she’s been there for 18 days.”
Cleo Smith savours an ice block in hospital on Wednesday. Credit:WA Police
Mr Blanch said the man in custody only became a suspect late on Tuesday evening after investigators working around the clock found a “data needle in a haystack”.
“There were car movements, there were phone movements …” Mr Blanch said.
“But it took really good intelligence analysts and detectives and specialists to look at all that information, put it together and go, ‘you know what, that doesn’t seem right to me, I’ve been doing this a long time, and we’re going to act on it.’ And that’s how we get results.”
Cleo was taken to hospital for a medical check after her rescue but was in good health, police said, and called out ‘mummy’ when reunited with her mother Ellie Smith. Police later released a photograph of the youngster sitting on a hospital bed enjoying an ice block.
Neighbours of the man suspected of kidnapping Cleo described the 36-year-old as a loner who lived by himself. In recent days, he had been seen coming and going from the Tonkin Crescent house with groceries.
“He’s been acting a bit strange lately. He would get in his car, drive that fast,” one neighbour said.
“He doesn’t have his dog out the front, he had his dog out the back, but for all this week he had his dog out the front, and he’s been acting like weird.”
Cleo disappeared from her family’s tent at the Quobba Blowholes, a popular campsite about an hour’s drive from her home in Carnarvon, between 1.30am and 6am on October 16. The remote site is around 900 kilometres north of Perth.
In the days after her disappearance, police issued a $1 million reward, but Mr Blanch said it was unlikely that would be claimed, despite police receiving thousands of tips during the search.
As the search continued, Ms Smith and her partner, Jake Gliddon, made public appeals for their daughter’s return and made further pleas on social media.
Ms Smith did not speak to media outlets on Wednesday but said on Facebook that Cleo had seen a bumper sticker with her face on it and “thinks it’s beautiful”. She also posted to her Instagram that her family was “whole again”.
Three days after Cleo’s disappearance, Ms Smith remained hopeful the four-year-old would be found and said her eldest daughter was strong.
“Cleo was born eight weeks early, she was premature, and she’s been strong since the day she was born,” she said.
“I know she can get through whatever she is going through.”
WA Police said an investigation was now under way to determine how and why Cleo was abducted from the campsite.
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