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tears of joy Australian police followed 'needle in a haystack' clue to track down missing Cleo Smith

Cops smashed into a suburban house in Western Australia after following a tip-off

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Bodycam footage shows a security officer carrying Cleo Smith (4), who went missing from an Australian outback campsite more than two weeks ago and was found in a locked house

Bodycam footage shows a security officer carrying Cleo Smith (4), who went missing from an Australian outback campsite more than two weeks ago and was found in a locked house

Neighbours look on as police investigate at a house where missing Cleo Smith (4) was rescued by police in Carnarvon, Australia. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image via AP

Neighbours look on as police investigate at a house where missing Cleo Smith (4) was rescued by police in Carnarvon, Australia. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image via AP

Cleo Smith (4) waves as she sits on a bed in hospital in Carnarvon, western Australia. Photo: Western Australia Police via AP

Cleo Smith (4) waves as she sits on a bed in hospital in Carnarvon, western Australia. Photo: Western Australia Police via AP

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Bodycam footage shows a security officer carrying Cleo Smith (4), who went missing from an Australian outback campsite more than two weeks ago and was found in a locked house

More than 100 detectives and investigators toiled around the clock to find missing Cleo Smith, combing Western Australia for clues.

But in the end she was right under their noses, two minutes away from their headquarters.

Late on Tuesday night a short distance from the hub set up to find the girl who disappeared on October 16, officers smashed into a suburban house in the coastal town of Carnarvon following a tip-off.

Even then, it took the police three attempts to persuade the stunned girl to confirm her name.

“It certainly looked like Cleo [but] I wanted to be absolutely sure it was her,” the officer who found her in the house said.

“So I asked her a third time and then she looked at me and said ‘My name’s Cleo’... And that was it. We turned around and walked her out of that house.”

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Cleo Smith (4) waves as she sits on a bed in hospital in Carnarvon, western Australia. Photo: Western Australia Police via AP

Cleo Smith (4) waves as she sits on a bed in hospital in Carnarvon, western Australia. Photo: Western Australia Police via AP

Cleo Smith (4) waves as she sits on a bed in hospital in Carnarvon, western Australia. Photo: Western Australia Police via AP


The four-year-old hung on to the hood of an officer’s coat after he swept her into his arms. Back in the station officers wept as they watched body camera footage.

“The chances of finding her alive were so slim,” said Commissioner Mick Fuller of New South Wales Police. A massive land and sea search was initially mounted on the assumption that Cleo had wandered from her family tent at Blowholes campground, 72km from Carnarvon.

There were more than 100 people on the taskforce searching for her, but it was “difficult to stay hopeful” said Col Blanch, acting police commissioner for Western Australia.

Volunteers drawn by a reward of AUS$1m (642,000) and civic duty arrived in large numbers. Thousands of posters and stickers were distributed across the country and billboards installed in shops.

“Unfortunately all of those proved unfruitful,” said Det Supt Rob Wilde.

After 18 days he was confident they would solve the case but not that they would find Cleo alive.

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She was last seen in her family’s tent in the early hours. She woke up at 1.30am to ask her mother for water, but when Ms Smith woke up later in the morning Cleo was gone.

Evidence began to support an abduction. A vehicle was reported speeding away from the area in the early hours of the morning, while a zipper on a flap of the tent compartment where Cleo and her sister were sleeping was too high for the girl to have reached.

Also, Cleo’s sleeping bag had disappeared with her. It was the position of the zipper on the tent that caused “great concern”, with Mr Wilde saying police believed the abduction was “an opportunistic-type event”.

He said: “We had real concerns for her welfare. And as time passed by, they grew worse.”

The day after her disappearance the army’s Pilbara Regiment was drafted in to help, and three days later police issued a nationwide appeal for information.

“If you see something, report it. It doesn’t matter if it’s small or big, or if you’re sure or not. We want our little girl home,” her mother said. “She would never leave that tent alone.”

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Neighbours look on as police investigate at a house where missing Cleo Smith (4) was rescued by police in Carnarvon, Australia. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image via AP

Neighbours look on as police investigate at a house where missing Cleo Smith (4) was rescued by police in Carnarvon, Australia. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image via AP

Neighbours look on as police investigate at a house where missing Cleo Smith (4) was rescued by police in Carnarvon, Australia. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image via AP


Despite her mother’s desperate pleas and assurances from the police, the family were labelled as suspects by the public.

The abuse they received was compared to that the McCanns received after the disappearance of Madeleine.

“They’re going through a huge amount of angst and pain and suffering – they don’t need this,” said Mark McGowan, premier of Western Australia, as he hit out against those accusing them online.

Officers examined “every inch” of the campsite. They sifted through roadside litter collected from bins stretching more than 603km along the coast, used facial recognition technology and launched drones to search for any sign of disturbed ground.

With 40 years of policing under his belt, investigating missing children under intense media scrutiny was just another day for Mr Wilde.

He led a team of 140 people as officers searched the family home, collected CCTV and fielded more than 1,000 tips from the public.

But late on Tuesday a “needle in the haystack” clue was all police needed to track down Cleo. The night-time raid came just hours after police received a tip-off which they verified with mobile phone data and “a lot of forensic leads”.

It was incredibly lucky. Wide expanses of the outback are without a mobile signal, but the campsite was positioned next to towers, giving about as good a signal as is possible.

It was a link between the phone data and car sightings that pulled together the missing pieces.

In the end, “dogged, methodical police work” led to Cleo being found, said Chris Dawson, Western Australia’s police chief.

No one will receive the reward.

He described the moment Cleo was found as “one of the most remarkable days of policing we’d had in Western Australia”. (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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