Six days after 4-year-old Cleo Smith disappeared on a family camping trip, police now say she was likely snatched from the tent where she was sleeping next to her infant sister. They are offering a AU$1 million ($750,000) reward for any leads to what might have happened.
Smith had gone to sleep near her 7-month-old sister Isla around 8 p.m. Friday night, tucked inside a sleeping bag in a section of the brand new family-sized tent the family was trying out for the first time. She was wearing one-piece patterned pajamas. The family pitched camp near the blowholes of the Point Quobba recreational area north of Perth.
Smith’s mother Ellie Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon say they went to bed a few hours after the children in another section of the tent and were awakened around 1:30 a.m. when Cleo asked them for a glass of water.
When they woke again at 6 a.m. Saturday morning by Isla crying for her morning bottle, Cleo and her sleeping bag were gone. “As we passed the divider, I went into the other room and the zipper was open,” Smith told a news conference through tears on Tuesday. “I turned around to Jake and just said, ‘Cleo’s gone.’”
Police initially believed she had likely wandered off. But after the tent was thoroughly examined and hundreds of search crews have unsuccessfully scoured the area from land, sea, and air, police now say someone unzipped the tent flap and took her.
The young girl’s mother said her daughter was “not the type to run off” and would certainly not have ventured out in the dark of night.
Inspector Jon Munday, who is leading the investigation, had to temporarily suspend the search operation on Tuesday due to bad weather. He told reporters that the flap that was opened would have been too high for the 4-year-old to reach herself. “The tent certainly has multiple entries,” he said Wednesday according to ABC News Australia. “One of the major circumstances that has given us the cause for alarm for Cleo’s safety is the fact that one of those zippered entryways was opened. The positioning of that zipper for the flap is one of the circumstances that has caused us to have grave concerns for Cleo’s safety.”
After her family reported her missing early Saturday morning, police set up roadblocks. But Munday conceded that a potential kidnapper could have easily escaped long before authorities were alerted. They are checking the local sex offender register for any potential leads. “Certainly any registered sex offenders that have been identified as being around the Carnarvon area have been spoken to and are being dealt with by the investigative arm,” Munday said at a press conference Thursday.
The reward will be offered for information that leads to Cleo Smith being found, or to an arrest or conviction of anyone involved in her disappearance.
The horrific disappearance has been compared to the case of Madeleine McCann, a British toddler who disappeared from her family hotel room in Portugal in 2007. Graham Hill, one of the chief private investigators on that case and founder of the Behavior Analysis at the U.K. Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, has warned that the first days after a suspected abduction are crucial.
Unlike when McCann disappeared, authorities in Australia immediately checked sex offender registries, which Hill says should have been done in McCann’s case. “That needs to be done very quickly,” he said, in an emailed statement. “As difficult as that is when parents have a missing child, you have to do it, because statistically we know that children get hurt by people that know them. And also, you have to eliminate the suspicion around the parents before you can move on and do other lines of inquiry.”
Police say they do not at the moment suspect Cleo’s parents. “We are hopeful that we will find Cleo alive but we hold grave fears for her safety,” another detective, Superintendent Rod Wilde, told reporters. “Someone in the community knows what happened to Cleo, someone has the knowledge that can help, and now there is a million reasons why you need to come forward.”