A four-year-old girl missing for 18 days in a remote part of Western Australia has been found alive and well in a locked house, police have said. Cleo Smith disappeared from her family’s tent at a campsite near the town of Carnarvon on 16 October, triggering a massive search.
A 36-year-old man is in custody and being questioned by detectives. Police smashed their way into a home in Carnarvon in the early hours of Wednesday, following forensic clues. The girl has been reunited with her parents, who had made desperate pleas for Cleo’s return.
“They found little Cleo in one of the rooms,” Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch from WA Police said in a statement. One of the officers picked her up into his arms and asked her, ‘What’s your name?’ She said ‘My name is Cleo’.”
“Our family is whole again,” her mother, Ellie Smith, wrote on Instagram.
Police video of Cleo’s rescue – which has not been released – showed her “smiling” and “as well as we could expect in the circumstances”, said Commissioner Chris Dawson, adding she was receiving medical care.
Authorities say the man in custody has no connection to the Smith family. No charges have been laid.
The house where Cleo was found is about six minutes’ drive from her family home in Carnarvon, which has about 5,000 residents.
Australian PM Scott Morrison tweeted it was “wonderful, relieving news”. Commissioner Dawson said: “I think Australia is rejoicing.”
“To find a little girl – a vulnerable little girl – after 18 days, you know, obviously people think the worst. But importantly, hope was never lost,” the commissioner added.
Cleo’s family were on the first night of their holiday at the Quobba Blowholes camping ground when she went missing between 01:30 and 06:00 on 16 October.
The remote site in Macleod is about 900km (560 miles) north of Perth, and is a local attraction on the state’s Coral Coast – known for its windswept ocean scenery, sea caves and lagoons.
Cleo had been sleeping on an air mattress next to her younger sister’s cot. When her mother, who had been sleeping in the second room of the tent, got up in the morning, Cleo was gone and the tent door was open.
Police said this raised fears of an abduction. Ms Smith was adamant Cleo could not have left the tent on her own.
A taskforce of 100 officers were sent in from the state capital, Perth, to join a massive air, land and sea search. Reconnaissance planes were used to comb sparsely populated areas.
Authorities offered a A$1m ($750,000; £540,000) reward for information on Cleo’s whereabouts.
The case drew international attention, and there were reports that bounty hunters had travelled to the region once the cash reward had been offered.
Deputy Commissioner Blanch said they scoured thousands of pieces of information looking for a “needle in a haystack”.
“Late last night they found that needle that led them to that address and rescued Cleo,” he told Network Seven.
Police said it involved information about a car, but would not elaborate.
ABC News reported a man who lived at the house had been recently spotted by a neighbor buying nappies.
“We didn’t click who… he was buying them for,” the neighbour was quoted as saying.