An open tent and an empty bed: desperate search for missing four-year-old Cleo Smith

It was a warm, unremarkable Friday when just around dusk Ellie Smith and her partner, Jake Gliddon, pitched the family tent at a remote campsite on Western Australia’s rugged Coral Coast.

They chose the wild beach camp nestled on a small dune system at Point Quobba, about 10-hours’ drive north of Perth, for a getaway with their baby, Isla, and Smith’s daughter, four-year-old Cleo.

The Blowholes campground site is an isolated one, 30 minutes off the North West Coastal Highway with only one sealed road in and out for tourists, fishers and the handful of shack-dwellers who make their way here.

When the tarmac ends, a dirt track goes left towards the dunes where campers pitch their tents just a stone’s throw from the open ocean. Cercano, in the opposite direction, is the area’s namesake – cliffs where at high tide powerful ocean swells cause water to explode up to 20m high through sea caves and narrow rock blowholes.

The evening was apparently uneventful but what happened in the early hours of Saturday morning is anything but ordinary.

Overnight, Cleo disappeared, sparking one of the largest, most complex police investigations in WA history.

Some time between 1.30am and 6am police believe a person unzipped the large family tent and plucked out a sleeping Cleo, still in her sleeping bag, then fled.

Both Smith and Gliddon were unaware until morning, when they woke to find Cleo’s blow-up mattress bare and the tent entrance almost completely open. The zipper was pulled up beyond the reach of a small child.

For seven days a search has scoured the blowholes and thick shrub along the treacherous, windy coastline curtained by the Australian outback.

It has been a massive operation involving helicopters, horses and boats.

Hundreds of police and emergency services volunteers have worked alongside Indigenous trackers and defence personnel equipped with military drones and heat-detecting tools. They have worked long hours and stopped only briefly when a wild storm tore through the region.

But despite the gruelling hunt, Cleo’s whereabouts remain unknown and police have no suspects.

Exhausted, Ellie Smith spoke to reporters on Tuesday, revealing she hadn’t slept since her daughter went missing.

“The worst part is that there’s 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, begging her daughter to come home.

“I miss you, I love you,” she said on Instagram. “Please come home to me.”

Acting police commissioner Col Blanch said police had sought advice from experts on where Cleo could have walked to and that confined area had now been swept. The land search was scaled back from today. They now fear she was taken from the area.

“We are hopeful that we will find Cleo alive, but we hold grave fear for her safety,” Detective Superintendent Rod Wilde said.

“We have been in touch with all jurisdictions around Australia, if anyone nationwide has information that could be relevant, contact Crime Stoppers. We have got the nation looking for Cleo.”

When she disappeared Cleo was wearing a pinkish-purple one-piece sleepsuit with a blue and yellow pattern.

From now, Taskforce Rodia, armed with 100 oficiales, will take the reins and a $1m bounty has been offered for anyone with information that leads to Cleo or those involved in her disappearance.

This is one of only a handful of times that WA police have offered such a large reward, which in the past has mostly been injected into reigniting cold cases.

Commissioner Blanch said the next part of the investigation would be the larger task of analysing evidence.

“Hundreds of thousands of data points, hundreds of witnesses, hundreds of exhibits, we will work methodically through that information to get the answers that we need," él dijo.

While few details are being revealed about the case, police have confirmed they received “unsubstantiated” reports that someone heard the screech of tyres leaving the campground at 3am on the night Cleo disappeared.

Cleo was also visible on footage from a nearby shack’s CCTV on the Friday when she arrived. Those shacks, vehicle dashcams and footage from businesses, including Minilya Roadhouse, 170km away on the North West Coastal Highway, have been combed through.

The roadhouse is reported to record any vehicle that passes on the highway.

El lunes, Seven News reported that Cleo’s biological father, Daniel Staines, spent almost three hours at Mandurah police station, willingly being interviewed about his missing daughter.

There is no suggestion he is linked to the case.

Hasta 20 registered sex offenders in the region around Carnarvon, the area’s main town an hour south of Point Quobba, have also been questioned by police.

“We’re speaking to everyone in that area that has an interest to police [or is] known to police,” Blanch said.

“We are out there every day, talking to them. If someone rings into Crime Stoppers, we’re responding. We are looking into and chasing down those leads.”

Murdoch University forensic scientist Dr Paola Magni said the approach in this case will be to look at everything and then see what can be excluded.

Magni drew comparisons to the case of nine-week-old baby Azaria Chamberlain, who was infamously taken by a dingo from the family tent at Uluru in the Northern Territory in 1980.

“Each 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,” Magni said.

“The difference is everything back then was about macro-traces, they looked for things visible to the naked eye, such as footprints, fingerprints and eyewitness testimony," ella dijo.

“Now it’s all about micro-traces and latent-traces, so things that you can’t see, such as fibres, paint fragments, touch DNA, latent fingerprints and even the bacteria on a person’s skin.”

She said the police would be using scent dogs to trace Cleo.

“They’d be looking for footprints and fingerprints, but also micro-traces left if a potential abductor might have entered the tent. A digital investigation considering computers, mobile phones, mobile phone location tracking and CCTV recording will be ongoing from day one.”

She said police often hold back key bits of information to protect the investigation and stop false accounts being reported.

“If you tell the public you are looking for a red jacket, suddenly everyone sees red jackets and it can make it harder to decipher the real sightings.”

The WA premier, Mark McGowan, said it was a sad and difficult situation and he urged anyone with information to contact police.

“It is inconceivable what the family, or Cleo’s relatives, are going through, it’s just a horrible thing," él dijo.

“I just hope we are able to have a happy outcome here.”

El año pasado, police were criticised for accessing the check-in data from the Covid SafeWA app to help solve the high-profile murder of a Rebels bikie boss, Nick Martin, in December. En junio, urgent legislation was passed to prevent the app’s data being accessed again for criminal investigations, and Commissioner Branch said police cannot legally use it in this case.

McGowan says the 2020 murder was a different situation that took place in a crowded venue, and that in this case, the remoteness of the campsite renders the app less useful.

“We are doing everything we can to find Cleo, we’ve provided police with all the resources they have asked for and everything that can possibly be done is being done," él dijo.

Sources in Carnarvon say Smith and Gliddon have not left the campground since their daughter disappeared and have moved their vigil to nearby shacks.

The couple are Carnarvon locals who grew up visiting the Blowholes campground and Smith has revealed they had been inundated with messages of support.

She describes her daughter as sweet, beautiful, delicate 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 home. We’re going to find her, we have to. Everyone asks us what we need, and all we need is our little girl home.

“We sit and watch the sand dunes and think she’s going to run down it and back into our arms – but we’re still waiting.”

Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1300 333 000.

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