How Cleo’s miracle rescue reunited a family and brought a nation together
They were four words that would mend the hearts of a broken family, give hope to hardened homicide detectives – and bring tears of joy to the eyes of strangers who had watched their own nightmares become reality for two parents in Western Australia:
“My name is Cleo,” came a little voice in the middle of the night.
That living proof Cleo Smith was alive and well was captured by police filming her incredible rescue, her words now famous around the world.
The recording will also form crucial evidence in the case being built against Terence Kelly, the man charged with stealing the four-year-old from her tent on October 16.
Now police must keep working to find out exactly what happened before the moment they described as the one “none of us will forget” – the night detectives burst into Mr Kelly’s Carnarvon home and found the little girl.
The key questions
What did a stranger want with the little girl?
And what happened while she was kept captive?
On Friday, Mr Kelly was flown south to Perth, to a maximum security prison. That decision was made partly to protect the accused from reprisals by other inmates. The 36-year-old had been attacked in the local cells within hours of his arrest on Wednesday night.
Police, meanwhile, were collecting security footage as they retraced the man’s steps over the 18 days Cleo was missing.
The detectives have remained tight-lipped on a possible motive, other than initially saying the evidence pointed to an “opportunistic” perpetrator.
Police have also said Mr Kelly was not known to the family. Online posts which emerged after his arrest, however, do connect Mr Kelly to Cleo’s mum – a social media profile linked to him had ‘followed’ a site belonging to Ellie Smith, who was sharing pleas for information about her daughter.
One of Mr Kelly’s accounts posted a ‘sad’ emoji on a news article about Cleo.
Police are now gathering evidence on his movements as they consider to what degree the alleged abduction was pre-meditated and to rule out the involvement of any accomplice.
They have issued a new call for CCTV captured on October 15, the night Cleo’s family travelled 75 kilometres from home to the Blowholes campground, suggesting they are tracking whether Mr Kelly could have followed the family.
Only two people may ever know for sure what happened during the more than 430 hours Cleo was allegedly held captive, but it has been made clear the girl did not have signs of injury.
Mr Kelly has already had 30 hours of questioning to give his side of the story to police.
Next, a statement must be taken from Cleo to record any memories she has of her ordeal.
The parents have been asked not to prompt their daughter to talk about the time away from them until she has been carefully interviewed by specialist police who have flown into town. A team visited the girl’s home again on Friday, bringing toys with them.
In time, Cleo will be told the story that gripped the nation – and the world.
She may be shown the newspaper stories and be reminded of the tears of relief shed by strangers; of the outpouring of support and of celebrations in a community that posted pink balloons in her honour and bought a round of beers for her rescuers.
She has already seen her face on billboards and posters.
“Cleo has seen her photo. She thought it was beautiful,” her mum said.
She may also be told how police had never given up hope even as they feared time was running out to bring her home to Ms Smith, stepdad Jake Gliddon and baby sister Isla.
Though publicly hopeful, detectives had steeled themselves for the discovery of a body – or for that other heart-wrenching possibility, that they might never be able to give the family answers.
The Homicide Squad was involved in the case – so, too, the Australian Federal Police, who are equipped to investigate networks of sex offenders.
Everyone braced for the worst. Then, by Tuesday, there was a feeling in town that officers were on to something.
Hundreds of calls had come in from the public.
A trail of vital clues
Police had security footage and had traced the car that had been seen leaving the Blowholes, turning south towards Carnarvon, between 3am and 3.30am on the morning of Cleo’s disappearance.
More clues emerged to help them home in on a possible abductor – social media posts, as well as mobile phone metadata showing a suspect’s movements.
The search had become nationwide, with authorities all over Australia on alert and the media broadcasting Cleo’s face on the news in every state. But in the end, WA police would be led to a house just a few minutes’ drive from Cleo’s own home.
Officers had surveillance on the Tonkin Crescent house where Mr Kelly lived alone.
Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine said police formulated a number of plans.
“One of them was that the suspect that we were observing could be mobile and would leave the premises,” Sgt Blaine said.
“In terms of decisions, it wasn’t that hard.
“What happened was one of those scenarios, and it was clear in my head what had to occur, so it was just ‘OK, let’s do that’.”
Pinned down and handcuffed
They watched Mr Kelly pull out of the driveway shortly before midnight, then pounced. Dashboard footage captured by a taxi shows the police cars block in what was reportedly Mr Kelly’s vehicle. He was pinned down and handcuffed.
With the alleged offender restrained, it was time to move in on the house.
In a bedroom, there was Cleo: Alive. Calm. Playing with toys. Her hair seemed neat; her clothes, fresh.
“Hey, bubby,” a police officer said as the men entered the room.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” another asked.
With the answer everyone needed, a detective whisked Cleo into his arms, footage later showing the little girl smiling as she wrapped her hands around the policeman’s shoulders and played with the hood of his jumper.
“We didn’t know what we were going into,” Detective Senior Constable Kurt Ford said.
“If anything, our expectations weren’t great. It was an emotional experience going in, and it was a good result.
“I just saw a little girl sitting there and didn’t think about anything else other than picking her up.”
After 18 excruciating days, Cleo’s parents finally had her back in their arms, with Ms Smith announcing her family was “whole again”.
The anguish, the not knowing, is over.
But there is still a long way to go into understanding why Cleo was targeted – and whether signs Mr Kelly could be linked to such a serious crime were missed by government agencies that have supported him in the past.
Suspected motivations for the alleged kidnapping will be revealed in further court appearances, the next of which is on December 6, but the full details of Cleo’s ordeal may not be made public in court until next year – or perhaps not at all, if Mr Kelly pleads guilty.
Mr Kelly’s lawyers will also have an opportunity to discuss his health needs while he remains in custody. Mr Kelly’s mental health – including issues stemming from his childhood – would be a consideration when the alleged offending is considered by the courts.
Mr Kelly was displaying unusual behaviour online on his Facebook pages, but his close neighbours said they were unaware of any signs of sinister activity.
Under numerous Facebook names, Mr Kelly regularly conversed in public posts with other users he claims to have been family members. But Carnarvon locals told media after his arrest that Mr Kelly was not known to have children of his own.
In one post about online safety, he wrote that he had given his daughter’s phone to police to investigate possible inappropriate behaviour from a man on Instagram. He wrote that he was the father to five children aged 11, 16, 17, 19 and 21.
“As a parent it’s [sic] gives you goosebumps and very real knowing predatory people can strike behind the screen and keyboard,” one Facebook post read.
“I also feel the need to protect my kids more and their friends too also other children around us we must look out for.”
Photographs also revealed Mr Kelly had a passion for collecting toys and would refer to himself as a “Brat” or “mamma’s little brat” – in reference to the brand of Bratz dolls he collected and displayed in his home.
Captioning photographs he shared online, he wrote that he liked taking his dolls for drives and taking selfies with the toys.
Neighbour Henry Dodd told media on Friday that he had told police he saw the accused kidnapper with a dozen dolls in the back of his dark blue Mazda last week.
Mr Dodd said neighbours had also seen Mr Kelly buying nappies at the supermarket on Monday.
“We didn’t click on who it was or what he was buying them for,” he said.
Senior Sergeant Blaine, who was one of the four detectives to rescue Cleo from the locked house, said police were still “exploring all the facts”.
“We’re getting information from, still, a number of different sources. Some of that information is completely wrong,” Sgt Blaine said.
“So we’re careful about what information we share with people, we want to make sure we’re 100 per cent sure of the facts.”
Detective Superintendent Rod Wilde said police were not sure if Cleo had been in the home for the whole period since she went missing.
“That’s still something that we’re going through and trying to establish,” he said.
They have called for residents and businesses to hand over dash-cam and CCTV footage from across the whole Gascoyne region – including anyone with vision of Friday, December 15, the day Cleo’s family travelled to the Blowholes campgrounds, and Tuesday.
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