When someone goes missing, the hope of finding them dwindles with each day that passes.
Eighteen days is a long time — especially for a child — to go missing, and it would take a miracle for them to turn up alive at the end of nearly three weeks, but an Australian family experienced one such miracle this week.
Cleo Smith, just 4 years old, went missing on Oct. 16 while her family was camping at the Quobba Blowholes, a camping location about 30 miles from their home in Carnarvon.
Cleo went to bed at 8 p.m. At 1:30 a.m., she woke up and asked for a drink of water — and that was the last her mother saw of her for 18 days.
The girl had been sleeping in the tent, just feet from the rest of her family (mom, stepfather and baby sister). But when the others woke at 6:00 a.m., the 4-year-old was gone.
Police, helicopters, drones and volunteers scoured the surrounding terrain that was near the cliffs and ocean but found no sign of the girl. The ground around the area was soft sand, which would have made traveling difficult for the 4-year-old.
That, plus the fact that the girl’s sleeping bag had also disappeared and the tent had been left partially unzipped, turned authorities’ attention to a likely kidnapping.
“When we hadn’t found her by the first hour or two, then we were automatically thinking that she’s been taken,” Justin Borg with Coral Coast Helicopter Service said, according to CNN.
The next 18 days saw an enormous effort from police, family and strangers as news of the girl’s disappearance was shared on every platform.
A mother from Perth who didn’t know the family but felt the need to help started a Facebook page for Cleo. Around 50,000 posters were printed and distributed. Posts circulated online.
The Western Australia government offered a $750,000 reward for Cleo’s return. Police combed through over 1,700 cubic feet of trash from the surrounding roadways and visited houses in Carnarvon, looking for clues.
Hundreds of calls came in about sightings, but none of them ended up being of Cleo. Despite that, many other calls that came in did direct police to a home close to where the family lived.
“Everyone asks us what you need — all we really need is our little girl home,” mom Ellie Smith said. “Every day she wants to wear a princess dress. She’s so sweet — everything you’d want in a little girl.”
The family was cleared of suspicion, and some people called in about seeing a car in the area around 3 a.m. Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, police secured a warrant to search a nearby house and found Cleo in a bedroom.
“To see her sitting there in the way that she was was incredible,” Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine said. “I just wanted to be absolutely sure it was her, so I said, ‘What’s your name?'”
He had to ask her three times, but he got the answer he was looking for. It was Cleo.
“We’re just in shock, so many tears of joy,” volunteer Ashleigh Flynn said. “And I think Australia’s crying with us.”
Since then, police have identified a 36-year-old man with “no family connection” that they believe to be involved.
According to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Terence Darrell Kelly was arrested in connection with the case and appeared in court for the first time on Thursday to hear the charges of abduction against him.
The Daily Mail reported it found a Facebook account belonging to Kelly named “Bratz DeLuca” which allegedly contained images of Kelly posing with Bratz dolls and boasting a fairly large collection in his home. Social media users have speculated whether there was a connection between Kelly’s reported abduction of Cleo and the existence of a Bratz doll named “Cloe” with similar features.
Everyone knows what a miracle it was to find Cleo alive. Most times, children who go missing for as long as Cleo did do not have happy reunions with their families, a fact criminologist Xanthe Mallett highlighted.
“When a child goes missing, especially after this length of time, everyone was thinking the worst, and it’s just such an amazing outcome,” she said.
She also recognized that police were very intentional about the information they did and did not release to the public.
“They were using public support and the pressure that they were leveraging through the media, to put pressure on people or maybe around the offender who may have known something,” she explained.
The Western Australia Police Force shared a photo of Cleo from the hospital, smiling, waving and eating an ice pop, writing, “The miracle we all hoped for.”
As for Ellie Smith, the relieved mother shared a simple, heartfelt message on Instagram: “Our family is whole again.”
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