It is no exaggeration to say that no one really thought 4-year-old Cleo Smith, who vanished without trace from her parents’ tent 18 days ago, would be found alive.
But early Wednesday morning, police broke into a home in Carnarvon, Australia, about 50 miles from where she disappeared and a few blocks from where her family had been agonizing over her disappearance, and found her alone. Cleo was snatched with her sleeping bag from a multi-room camping tent in the early hours of Oct. 16, while her infant sibling slept nearby.
“It’s my privilege to announce that in the early hours of this morning, the Western Australia police force rescued Cleo Smith. Cleo is alive and well,” Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch told reporters. “One of the officers picked her up into his arms and asked her, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘My name is Cleo.’”
Police have remanded into custody a 36-year-old local man whose name has not been released but a detective told local media that he was “known” to them. He is not related to the young girl’s family, they say, but have not given further details. One neighbor interviewed after Cleo was rescued said the man was an “oddball” and that they saw him “uncharacteristically” buying diapers on Monday. Another neighbor said she heard a child crying over the weekend but did not make the connection to the missing child. Australian 7News captured images of the suspect, who appeared to have bandages on his head, in the back of an ambulance after he was apparently beaten by other prisoners while being held for questioning.
Cleo’s mother posted a news bulletin on Instagram, writing, “Our family is whole again.” The young girl will now undergo a series of medical checks and will be interviewed by detectives specialized in the delicate task of dealing with traumatized children. More information is expected to released in the coming days, police said in an interview early Wednesday in which nearly every officer broke down in tears.
The case has drawn comparisons with the case of British toddler Madeleine McCann, who disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in Portugal on May 3, 2007, just shy of her 4th birthday. Unlike that disappearance, Australian police quickly secured and searched the area where Cleo was snatched, interviewed known sex offenders, and searched trash cans along every road leading from the campsite.
Police said they received a tip that led them to the ramshackle house where the young girl was found, and that offering a $1 million reward was “crucial” in breaking the case. “There was some information we followed up on,” Commissioner Chris Dawson told reporters Wednesday. “We had been following, you know, a lot of the forensic leads and it led us to a particular house.”
The discovery has called into question just why this case was solved so quickly when many other missing-child cases linger for decades. Jaycee Lee Dugard, who disappeared at the age of 11, was found 18 years later with two daughters, having been kept as a sex slave by Phillip and Nancy Garrido in a backyard shed.
Elizabeth Smart was 14 when she was abducted from her bedroom in her home in Salt Lake City while her younger sister feigned slept next to her. She was rescued nine months later, having been abducted by Brian David Mitchell, a religious fanatic who claimed to be a Mormon prophet and who carted his victim around as he preached, who was convicted of kidnapping and raping her.
Countless other children are still missing, often because police missed vital clues in the first hours after the abduction or, as in the case of McCann, focused on the parents as perpetrators while the real kidnappers escaped.
“Although we all hoped for the best, we were all fearing the worst,” Xanthe Mallett, an associate professor of criminology, told ABC Australian news. “This case really breaks all the rules. It’s going to be interesting as we go forward as the police release information to tell us what the motive was, because this does not fit the pattern of a normal child-abduction case.”