On a windswept patch of beach in a remote campsite in Western Australia, Ellie Smith woke up on a Saturday morning in October, ready for a day of bike riding and swimming with her two young daughters.
Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon had just arrived at the Blowholes campsite near Carnarvon, about 550 miles north of Perth, the day before and had big plans to teach their 4-year-old Cleo how to swim and watch her make sandcastles along the rugged coastline.
But as the morning sun lit up the campsite, Smith realized something was terribly wrong: the zipper to her daughter’s section of the tent was gaping open and little Cleo, who’d been asleep beside her baby sister Isla, had vanished.
“I turned around to Jake and just said, ‘Cleo’s gone,’ ” Smith recalled to local media through tears, several days after Cleo went missing on October 16.
“I would never wish for anyone to wake up and feel that feeling that went through me. I couldn’t explain it to you.”
Smith and Gliddon fanned across the campsite in hopes Cleo had just wandered off but for 18 days, she remained missing until she turned up early Wednesday inside of a Carnarvon house less than a 10-minute drive from her home.
“We were … looking for a needle in a haystack and we found it,” Western Australian Police Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch told local media after the child was safely reunited with her family.
“This is the outcome we all hoped and prayed for… We’ll have more to say on the rescue of Cleo as the day unfolds. For now, welcome home Cleo.”
A suspect in custody
Little is known about the 18 days that Cleo was kidnapped but 36-year-old Terence Kelly has been charged in connection with her disappearance.
The local Carnarvon man was apparently obsessed with Bratz dolls and posted images to his social media accounts showing him driving around with the toys or posing with the figurines while wearing a Bratz doll T-shirt, the Daily Mail reported.
Neighbor Henry Dodd told the outlet he saw Kelly about a week before Cleo was rescued with a dozen dolls in the backseat of his dark blue Mazda.
When Cleo was recovered early Wednesday, seemingly unharmed, police found her in a room alone — playing with toys.
Kelly appeared in Carnarvon Magistrate’s Court on Thursday, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt, to face charges in connection with the kidnapping, including forcibly taking a child under 16, the outlet reported.
“What the f–k are the media doing here?” Kelly reportedly said during the hearing, apparently upset about the large media presence in the gallery.
“I’m coming for you!” he shouted.
Aside from the outbursts, Kelly hardly spoke during the hearing and showed little emotion. He nodded to indicate to the judge that he understood the charges levied against him and his attorney, a Geraldton Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer, did not make an application for bail.
He was remanded into custody and is due back in court in December, local media reported.
“From the police perspective, we’re backing away from the conversations around Cleo and really focusing on how did this happen, who was involved, what happened in those 18 days and what evidence do we have from each and every one of those 18 days forensically,” Blanch told ABC Radio Perth.
“There’s a real huge investigation going on with the same taskforce members and that is to retrace those steps that led to that house and where we found Cleo.”
A desperate search
The charges police brought followed 30 hours of interrogation after Kelly was taken into custody late Tuesday but for 18 days, investigators from across Australia searched the country in a desperate, frenzied race to find her.
From the moment Cleo’s mother Smith called police to report her missing at about 6:20 a.m. on October 16, search crews scoured air, sea and land for the child. They canvassed the rugged area near the coastline where she went missing and immediately treated the disappearance as an abduction.
“Given the information now that we’ve gleaned from the scene, the fact that the search has gone on for this period of time and we haven’t been able to locate her … it leads us to believe that she was taken from the tent,” Rob Wilde, a detective superintendent with the Western Australian police, told reporters about six days after she was reported missing.
That same day, the Western Australian Government offered a $1 million AUD reward for information leading to her rescue as the child’s family made numerous television appearances to issue desperate pleas for help.
“How did someone come into that tent and take Cleo? How? How could someone feel that they could do that to someone? How could someone take a child?” Smith said through tears during a news appearance.
“If you know anything, anything at all, call the police because we want our daughter back and she wants us. Our daughter Isla, she needs her big sister. We need her home.”
‘My name is Cleo’
For more than two weeks, cops combed through surveillance footage, scoured the dark web, sorted through trash, searched Smith’s home and door knocked houses until their investigation led them to a quiet Carnarvon neighborhood on Tuesday night.
With a “tip off” from the public that was corroborated with cellular data, police tracked Kelly down at his home and waited for him to leave in a car before they pulled it over, ripped him out and threw him on the ground where he was handcuffed.
About an hour later, they busted down the door to Kelly’s home and found little Cleo inside alone, apparently unharmed.
“What’s your name sweetheart?” a police officer asked the child when he found her in the room, according to body cam audio the department released.
“M-My name is Cleo,” the girl replied.
“Your name is Cleo. You’re alright, bubby. Hello Cleo,” the officers replied before scooping Cleo into their arms and transporting her to an area hospital.
Smith took to Instagram to share that her daughter was found, writing “Our family is whole again” with a heart emoji.
In a news conference following the rescue, Western Australia Police Minister Paul Papalia credited the happy ending to relentless police work and a team of investigators who worked night and day, and at times didn’t sleep, until Cleo was recovered.
“Cleo’s rescue was not the result of an accidental sighting or a suspicious event, it was the result of hard police grind,” Papalia said.
“They have performed magnificently well. The care that they showed … they were beautifully tender with her, wonderful servants of the public and we should all be proud of them.”
While Cleo still needs to be interviewed by child specialists to figure out what exactly happened to her in the 18 days she was missing, police said they were astonished at how well she was doing and shared an image of her gleaming from her hospital bed, eating an orange popsicle.
“I’m sure that it has had an impact, but just to see her behaving quite naturally like a 4-year-old girl should do and just enjoying being in the presence of her little sister and her family was good,” Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine, who found Cleo in the house, told local media following a visit with her and her family.
“I can only see her on the outside, but from that point of view, I’m amazed that she seems to be so well-adjusted and happy, and it was really … heartwarming to see that she’s still bubbly and she’s laughing.”