Cleo Smith, the four-year-old girl allegedly abducted from her family’s tent at a coastal campsite in Western Australia, has been found alive and well after 18 days of intense search efforts.
Investigators raided a house in the early hours of Wednesday morning, finding the child alone and unharmed to the jubilation of her parents and all involved in the hunt.
A 36-year-old man has since been taken into custody.
Western Australia Police deputy commissioner Col Blanch described seeing experienced detectives openly crying with relief, commenting: “We were literally looking for a needle in a haystack and we found it.”
Speaking from the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said: “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The fact that that nightmare has come to an end and our worst fears were not realised is just a huge relief, a moment for great joy.”
Here’s a timeline of everything we know about Cleo Smith’s disappearance, with approximate timings.
Mother Ellie Smith, her partner Jake Gliddon and their children Cleo Smith and Isla Gliddon arrive at the Blowholes campsite in Western Australia in early evening, approximately 46.6 miles north of Carnarvon, having travelled there in their Ford dual cab ute.
The family live in Carnarvon and are regulars at the campsite, which is close to the sea.
8pm - They pitch their tent and Cleo and baby Isla are put to bed. Both girls are wearing matching pink pyjamas with blue and yellow flower and butterfly designs.
1.30am - Ellie is woken by Cleo for a drink of water. The child is put back to bed.
3-3.30am - A vehicle is seen at the intersection of Blowholes Road turning south onto the North West Coastal Highway.
6am - Ellie wakes up to find Cleo and her sleeping bag missing.
6.30am - Ellie calls 000 to report her daughter’s disappearance.
7.10am - Two police cars arrive from Carnarvon.
7.30am - The campsite is cordoned off to prevent visitors coming or going.
8am - Carnarvon detectives search the family’s own house for Cleo before heading to the Blowholes. They stop vehicles travelling away from the campsite along the Blowholes Road.
8.10am - A local helicopter arrives to join the search.
8.20am - A third police car arrives.
8.30am - Police set up a roadblock at the entrance to the Blowholes.
9.30am - Nine State Emergency Service (SES) personnel arrive and begin searching the immediate vicinity surrounding the campsite.
3pm - Homicide detectives and Emergency Operations Unit search experts arrive by plane in Carnarvon from Perth.
1.45am - Ellie Smith posts an appeal for information on Facebook, writing: “It’s been over 24 hours since I last seen the sparkle in my little girl’s eyes. Please help me find her! If you hear or see anything at all please call the police!”
The investigation continues, with every guest at the campsite questioned and every car searched.
Inspector Jon Munday says authorities are “throwing everything” at the case and that “nothing was being ruled out”, including an abduction.
“We will continue until we can provide some answers into what has happened to Cleo,” he says.
State police, SES members, drones and aircraft all continue the search, shifting focus from the coast to nearby shacks.
“In that marine environment we haven’t found any sign of Cleo,” Inspector Munday says. “We’re just trying to paint a picture of who was around here during the window of opportunity.”
Police issue images of Cleo’s pyjamas and sleeping bag in the hope of attracting new information.
Campers recall hearing screeching tyres nearby on the night of her disappearance.
Ellie Smith and Jake Gliddon make an emotional appeal to the public for help, with the mother asking: “How did someone come into that tent and take Cleo? How could someone take a child? My gut just felt sick.”
Western Australia state premier Mark McGowan announces a AUD1m (£546,358) reward for information leading to the missing girl’s location or to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in her disappearance.
No trace of Cleo Smith is seen for the rest of the month.
Detectives get a lead and begin investigating.
Events escalate quickly and the officers take action.
12.45am - State police officers arrive at a locked house in Carnarvon.
1am - Police force their way into the residence and find Cleo alone in one of the rooms.
She is alive and unharmed. Detective senior sergeant Cameron Blaine, wearing a cap and hoodie, introduces himself to the girl, lifts her into his arms and asks her name. She replies: “My name is Cleo.”
Word spreads that police have found her.
4am - Police officially confirm the news.
Western Australia Police deputy commissioner Col Blanch describes seeing experienced detectives openly crying with relief, commenting: “We were literally looking for a needle in a haystack and we found it.”
His boss, Chris Dawson, tells the media the rescue is “a really special day for Western Australia”.
“Indeed, I know the nation is rejoicing over the fact that we’ve been able to conduct this operation and we never gave up hope,” he adds.
“It is just a wonderful, wonderful day. It’s a day we all hoped for.”
State police minister Paul Papalia praised his investigators, saying: “Cleo’s rescue wasn’t the result of an accidental sighting or a suspicious event. It was the result of hard police grind.”
A 36-year-old man from Carnarvon is taken into custody and questioned by detectives. Police later confirm he has no connection to Cleo’s family, say they expect to charge him imminently and that the case appears to have been one of “opportunistic” abduction, not a premeditated kidnapping.
Cleo’s mother Ellie posts a photo of her daughter on Instagram, captioned: “Our family is whole again.”
State police release a short body cam clip of Cleo’s rescue and a photograph of her waving and smiling from a hospital bed, brandishing an ice lolly.
The Independent – Additional reporting by agencies