It was a warm, unremarkable Friday when Ellie Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon pitched the family tent in a remote campsite on the rugged Coral Coast of Western Australia just before dark.
They chose the wild beach camp, nestled in a small dune system in Point Quobba, about a 10-hour drive north of Perth, for a short break with their baby Isla and Smith’s daughter, four-year-old Cleo.
Blowholes Campground is an isolated campground 30 minutes from the North West Coastal Highway, with only one paved road for tourists, fishermen, and the handful of cabin dwellers who come here.
At the end of the asphalt, a dirt road leads to the left towards the dunes, where campers pitch their tents just a stone’s throw from the open sea. Nearby, in the opposite direction, is the name giver of the area – cliffs on which strong sea waves cause water to explode through sea caves and narrow rock bubbles up to 20 m high at high tide.
The evening seemed uneventful, but what happened in the early hours of Saturday morning is anything but ordinary.
Cleo disappeared overnight, sparking one of the largest and most complex police investigations in Washington history.
Sometime between 1:30 and 6:00 a.m., police believe that someone unzipped the large family tent and pulled out a sleeping Cleo that was still in her sleeping bag, and then fled.
Both Smith and Gliddon were unaware until morning when they woke to find Cleo’s inflatable mattress bare and the tent entrance almost fully open. The zipper was pulled up out of the reach of a small child.
For seven days, a search combed the blowholes and thick bush along the treacherous, windy coast covered by the Australian outback.
It was a massive operation involving helicopters, horses, and boats.
Hundreds of police and ambulance volunteers have worked with indigenous trackers and defense forces armed with military drones and heat detectors. You worked long hours and only stopped briefly when a wild storm swept through the region.
But despite the grueling chase, Cleo’s whereabouts remain unknown and the police have no suspects.
Exhausted, Ellie Smith spoke to reporters on Tuesday, revealing that she hadn’t slept since her daughter disappeared.
“The worst thing is that there is nothing more we can do. It’s out of our hands now and we feel hopeless and out of control. “
She made an emotional plea on social media on Thursday asking her daughter to come home.
“I miss you, I love you,” she said on Instagram. “Please come to my house.”
Acting Police Commissioner Col Blanch said the police did sought advice from experts on where Cleo could have gone and that narrow area was now swept. The search for land has been reduced from today. They now fear that she has been taken out of the area.
“We hope to find Cleo alive, but we are very concerned for her safety,” said Detective Superintendent Rod Wilde.
“We have contacted all jurisdictions across Australia. If anyone across the country has information that might be relevant, contact Crime Stoppers. We got the nation to look for Cleo. “
When she disappeared, Cleo was wearing pink and purple one-piece pajamas with a blue and yellow pattern.
As of now, Taskforce Rodia, armed with 100 officers, is taking the reins and a $ 1 million bounty has been offered to anyone with information leading to Cleo or those involved in her disappearance.
This is one of the few cases where the WA Police Department has offered such a high reward, which in the past has been mainly injected into cold flare-ups.
Commissioner Blanch said the next part of the investigation will be the broader task of analyzing evidence.
“Hundreds of thousands of data points, hundreds of witnesses, hundreds of exhibits, we will methodically work through this information to get the answers we need,” he said.
Although few details of the case are disclosed, police have confirmed they have received “unsubstantiated” reports that someone heard the screeching of tires leaving the campsite at 3am the night Cleo disappeared .
Cleo was also seen on video surveillance footage from a nearby cabin when she arrived Friday. These cabins, vehicle dashcams, and corporate footage, including the Minilya Roadhouse 170 km away on the North West Coastal Highway, were combed through.
The roadhouse is supposed to record every vehicle that passes on the freeway.
On Monday, Seven News reported that Cleo’s biological father, Daniel Staines, spent nearly three hours at the Mandurah Police Station and was willingly questioned about his missing daughter.
There is no evidence that it is related to the case.
Up to 20 registered sex offenders in the Carnarvon area, the region’s capital one hour south of Point Quobba, were also interviewed by police.
“We talk to everyone in this area who has an interest in the police” [or is] known to the police, ”said Blanch.
“We’re out there every day talking to them. When someone rings Crime Stoppers, we answer. We are investigating and following up on these indications. “
Memory of Azaria Chamberlain
Murdoch University forensic scientist Dr. Paola Magni said the approach in this case will be to examine everything and then see what can be excluded.
Magni drew comparisons with the case of the nine-week-old baby Azaria Chamberlain, who was abducted by a dingo from the family tent at Uluru in the Northern Territory in 1980.
“Any kind of missing child case [voluntary missing, parental kidnapping, abduction by unknown individual or unknown missing] require this investigative strategy, and a similar approach was used when Azaria Chamberlain went missing, ”said Magni.
“The difference is that back then everything revolved around macro tracks. They looked for things that were visible to the naked eye, such as footprints, fingerprints and testimony, ”she said.
“Now it’s all about microscopic and latent traces, things that you can’t see, like fibers, color fragments, touch DNA, latent fingerprints, and even the bacteria on a person’s skin.”
She said the police would use sniffer dogs to track down Cleo.
“They would look for footprints and fingerprints, but also for microscopic traces if a potential kidnapper could have entered the tent. A digital investigation into computers, cell phones, cell phone location tracking and CCTV recordings will continue from day one. “
She said police often withhold vital information to protect the investigation and prevent false reports from being reported.
“When you tell the public that you are looking for a red jacket, suddenly everyone sees red jackets and it can be more difficult to decipher the real sightings.”
WA Prime Minister Mark McGowan said it was a sad and difficult situation and urged anyone with information to contact the police.
“It’s unimaginable what the family or Cleo’s relatives are going through, it’s just a terrible thing,” he said.
“I just hope we can get a happy result here.”
Last year the police were criticized for accessing the check-in details of the Covid SafeWA app to solve the high-profile murder of a rebel bike boss, Nick Martin, in December. Urgent law was passed in June to prevent the app’s data from being re-accessed for criminal investigation, and police authorities said the police could not legally use it in the case.
McGowan says the 2020 murder was a different situation that took place in a crowded location, and that in this case, the remoteness of the campsite makes the app less useful.
“We’re doing everything we can to find Cleo, We have given the police all the resources they asked for and everything that can possibly be done is being done, ”he said.
An excruciating wait
Carnarvon sources say Smith and Gliddon have not left the campsite since their daughter disappeared and have moved their vigil to nearby cottages.
The couple are Carnarvon locals who grew up at the Blowholes campsite, and Smith has announced that they have been inundated with messages of support.
She describes her daughter as cute, beautiful, tender and funny and everything you would want in a girl.
“She would never leave us, she would never leave the tent.”
“We want our little girl at home. We’ll find her, we have to. Everyone asks us what we need and all we need is our little girl at home.
“We sit and watch the sand dunes and think she’s going to run down them and back into our arms – but we’re still waiting.”
Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers at 1300 333 000.