Cleo Smith vanished from her tent at a remote western Australian campsite more than two weeks ago. Witnesses reported hearing car tires squealing in the middle of the night and that the zipper of the tent was left unzipped at an impossible height for Cleo Smith, a 4-year-old girl.
Police and volunteers scoured the rugged coastline, interviewed campers and combed thousands of images and surveillance videos. A reward of 1 million Australian dollars (about $745,000) was offered for information that could lead to her safe return.
But authorities feared the worst: Australia’s vast outback is full of remote trails from which it is easy to evade the outside world.
Early on Wednesday, they found her — alone in a locked room in a house in Carnarvon, just seven minutes from where she lived with her mother, stepfather and baby sister. A 36-year-old man was apprehended at a nearby property and taken into custody.
“We were literally looking for a needle in a haystack, and we found it,” acting police commissioner Col Blanch told local station Perth radio 6PR. He added, “When she said, ‘My name is Cleo’, I don’t believe there was an eye dry in the house.”
Ellie Smith, Cleo’s mother, posted the news on Instagram, saying: “Our family is whole again.”
The little girl’s disappearance had gripped the nation. Abductions of children are rare in Australia. Family camping trips are a common thing.
During the 18-day search, comparisons were drawn to other missing child cases — including 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain, who vanished while her family was camping in the Australian outback in 1980. After her mother was found guilty, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, new evidence proved that her innocence. A coroner later ruled Azaria had been snatched and killed by a dingo. Her disappearance was made into a 1988 film “A Cry in the Dark,” starring Meryl Streep.
“It often is a tragic outcome, but this is great news and uplifting for the entire country, especially for those who put their life and soul into finding Cleo,” Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said. “I was talking to the [police] earlier, and I said there’d be movies made about this.”
Forensic experts also expressed surprise that Cleo was found alive — a rare outcome in such cases.
The case drew massive media interest and galvanized sleuths across the Internet, in a localized version of what occurred following the recent disappearance of Gabby Petito in the United States. Wild theories circulated on social media, and Cleo’s mother and stepfather were openly attacked.
Police said on Wednesday that there was no family connection to the man they arrested. She was believed to have been robbed from her campsite as a “opportunistic crime”. Authorities stated that the crucial element in her rescue was the evidence they received from police about an unidentified vehicle found at the campsite on the day of her disappearance.
“Internet detectives jump to conclusions but our detectives, the real detectives, can’t afford to do that,” Blanch, the acting police commissioner, said to Perth radio 6PR.