Little girl found: a town rejoices but now the healing begins for Cleo Smith

By Peter de Kruijff

As the sun-bleached town of Carnarvon slept in the early hours of Wednesday morning, four figures moved through the cool and breezy evening with purpose.

Detectives from the West Australian Police approached a blue duplex situated on the corner of a crescent street and made their way past a Colorbond gate ready to enter the right-hand-side unit.

“Our family is whole again”: Cleo Smith reunited with step-father Jake Gliddon and mother Ellie Smith.Credit:Tamati Smith/Getty

Up front are the youngest two members of the team: Detective Senior Constables Kurt Ford, built like a bear, and the brawny Drew Masterson.

In a matter of seconds Ford levers the security screen off with a hux bar and, like a one-two punch, Masterson steps in and rams open the front door with a single blow.

The loud thump of metal smashing into wood at the government-owned home wakes neighbours as the quartet rush in.

The lights are on. Moving through the house Ford enters a bedroom and is confronted by a sight that obliterated his low expectations.

It’s 12.46am and 19 days after Cleo Smith went missing, presumed abducted, from her family’s tent at a remote campsite 40 minutes drive north of the town, and the four-year-old has been found just three kilometres from her family’s home in Carnarvon. She is awake and playing with toys.

“We’ve got her. We’ve got her,” says Ford.

Moving in to scoop up Cleo, his tone softens.

“Hey, bubby, come here,” he says. “I’ve got you, bubby, you’re alright.”

Holding on tight and nestled into Ford’s black and yellow hooded jumper she takes a few seconds to reply as Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine, one of WA’s most experienced homicide officers and father to a daughter himself, asks her three times for her name.

“My name is Cleo”.

Those four words have reverberated around the globe and filled the sudden void formed in the hearts of Cleo’s mother Ellie Smith and stepfather Jake Gliddon when they woke on October 16 at the Blowholes campsite – their own childhood playground growing up – to find one of their two little girls gone. Reunited with Cleo, Ellie said her family was whole again.

Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine, at front, with colleagues outside the Carnarvon Courthouse.Credit:Philip Gostelow

Hearts were full all around Carnarvon — a coastal fishing, farming and salt mining town some 900 kilometres north of Perth — as word got around that Cleo Smith had beaten the odds.

It was just after 4am when Bakery Plus owner Joseph Ngyuen, who had been kneading dough for two hours, got a call from a friend telling him the news.

“I’m just jumping,” he says.

“Very, very happy. All day all the customers, I don’t even know some of the customers, we’re just hugging each other and sharing the happiness.

“The whole day we’re just laughing, when we opened … I just waved the [store] flag and was running up and down like crazy.”

The mood in Carnarvon before Wednesday had decayed as much as one of the town’s main tourist drawcards, a mile-long timber jetty ravaged by time, the ocean and most recently Cyclone Seroja.

Bakery Plus owner Joseph Ngyuen. Credit:Philip Gostelow

“The last 18 days I can tell you, the townspeople … just did not feel like going anywhere, they just felt they wanted to go out there and look for Cleo,” Ngyuen says.

“People came in with sad faces and after Cleo was found everyone came in with a smile.”

The baker had given the bubbly Cleo a biscuit just two days before she disappeared. This weekend Ngyuen, who provided meals for searchers and police from day one, says he will give her a whole box of biscuits in celebration.

Driving around Carnarvon the past week it seems like everyone is having a party. Purple and pink balloons are tied up on row after row of letterboxes in the same way families use them to signal a birthday party is being thrown.

Notice boards and posters welcoming Cleo home still adorn shopfronts as residents revel and share knowing looks. The odd round of applause or tooting of a car horn breaks out whenever police appear.

Dynamic plan

More details emerge each day about the dramatic rescue by police and how it was the result of a dynamic plan formulated by Taskforce Rodia, the 100-strong officer contingent looking for Cleo, on Tuesday afternoon when there was a sudden breakthrough in the case.

Police have been tight-lipped about what exactly it was they found after so many information-gathering tools were deployed, from drone technology to picking through highway rubbish bins.

One key clue was a car seen driving south from the Blowholes turnoff on the North West Coastal Highway at about 3am, which was within the 1.30am to 6am window when Cleo went missing.

But ultimately senior officials say it was hard work, phone data and car sightings that helped to identify a person of interest on Tuesday.

Detective Blaine says, armed with new information, police settled into a series of plans for what could happen next.

“One of them was that the suspect that we were observing … could be mobile and would leave the premises,” he says.

“We talked about all the different scenarios … and it was clear in my head what had to occur.”

Minutes before Cleo was saved, her now alleged abductor and the man who had been living at the home she was found in, Terence Darrell Kelly, 36, was pulled over in Canarvon by police and arrested.

Police are not looking for any alleged co-offenders in what is still an ongoing investigation which could last weeks with further forensics, CCTV and interviews with Cleo to be gathered.

Kelly has been described as a mysterious but friendly loner by his neighbours, mostly Aboriginal families, who were shocked to discover Cleo may have been kept next door since her disappearance.

A direct neighbour, who did not want to be named, says she had borrowed a lawnmower from Kelly on Monday, and he had spoken to her like nothing was amiss.

When she found out Cleo had been found in her neighbour’s home it gave her a fright and made it hard for her to sleep since her own granddaughter has been staying with her.

Another neighbour two doors down, Henry Dodd, says he did not have much to do with Kelly but had seen him driving around with dolls in his car.

Social media accounts appear to show Kelly had a doll room inside his house, and another image from last year shows him driving a doll around. It was captioned: “I love taking my dolls for drive around and doing their hair and taking selfies in public”.

A Carnarvon Toyworld worker says Kelly had bought several dolls over the years, but she did not know when he had last visited the store.

The same shop has now received hundreds of dollars from people wanting to buy gift vouchers for Cleo.

Kelly was not charged until Thursday afternoon after a delay in police being able to interview him after he self-harmed and needed to be taken to hospital, twice.

In the dock, Kelly, who had no family members or supporters in attendance, appeared heavier than many of his social media photos.

He wore a black short-sleeved button-up shirt, his dark curly hair sat just above his shoulders and he had a black beard.

Kelly spoke when prompted by the magistrate but threatened reporters in the gallery, saying he would get out of custody and come after them.

When the hearing concluded he stood up and pointed at the media as he turned and left. He was remanded in custody until next month. On Friday, he was flown to a high-security prison in Perth.

Rumours spread

There was an undercurrent of conspiracy theories and false information around town in the time between the official identification of Cleo’s alleged abductor and his arrest.

The image of a Pilbara man, who is not the accused, was circulated among Carnarvon residents shortly after the rescue before he was wrongly identified by a major media outlet as the alleged offender.

Superintendent Rod Wilde, the head of Taskforce Rodia, called for people to stop spreading rumours and instead have faith in the justice system.

The start of potentially lengthy court proceedings, however, is a new fight for Carnarvon to process as Cleo and her family start their recovery from the trauma of the past three weeks.

But Detective Blaine says it was “amazing” how well Cleo had adjusted to being back with her family.

“[It’s] heartwarming to see that she’s … still bubbly and she’s laughing,” he says.

“She’s getting some sleep, she’s playing in the backyard exactly how you’d expect, like my daughter did when she was four.”

Cleo has been sleeping in her parents’ arms and has even asked her mum if she could look over her while she fell asleep.

On Friday, Ellie Smith and Jake Gliddon released a statement thanking police and the Carnarvon community for their help in finding Cleo, and asking for privacy.

“We are humbled by the love and support that we have received from not only our local community but the whole of Western Australia and across the country,” the statement read.

“We are so thankful that our little girl is back within our arms and our family is whole again.

“As we try to get on with our lives, we ask that you respect our privacy.”

North West Central MP Vince Catania says it was now important for the family to have “clear air” to navigate their healing process.

North West Central MP Vince Catania says it’s time for people to give space to Cleo Smith’s family.Credit:Philip Gostelow

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us, including the media, to give them some space to be able to process what’s gone on and get back to some sense of normality for Cleo’s sake,” he says.

“Because although we’re all elated, and I’m sure the parents are and Cleo is, there’s going to be the need for them to heal and get their life back on track. The only way I think we can do that is to provide some peace to the family.”

Criminologists describe alleged child abduction cases like Cleo’s as a “black swan” event because of the rarity in finding a missing person alive and well after so many days. Coincidentally, the black swan is Western Australia’s state emblem.

In some ways Carnarvon has been spared the avalanche of international and interstate media because of the closed state and international borders due to COVID-19.

But the scrutiny on the town has still been intense, with businesses bombarded by global news companies calling for information and television crews from all the major national networks.

The dearth of hire cars available, given the large number of police in town, has seen one news outlet spending thousands of dollars to hire out taxis every day.

Reporters have also been staked out at the house attempting to catch a glimpse of the family or clinch a paid interview.

Catania says everyone needed to be thinking about what was best for Cleo moving forward.

“What’s best at the moment is to let the justice system take its course,” he says.

“Media come and go, politicians, the premier comes and goes, but the family is still here having to deal with living in a small community, living with media at their doorstep.”

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