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Australian police find 4-year-old Cleo Smith safe, 18 days after she went missing

Cleo Smith, 4, pictured in a hospital in Carnarvon, Australia on Wednesday. Police rescued her in an early-morning house raid more than two weeks after she first went missing.
WA Police Force via Getty Images
Cleo Smith, 4, pictured in a hospital in Carnarvon, Australia on Wednesday. Police rescued her in an early-morning house raid more than two weeks after she first went missing.

Australian police have rescued Cleo Smith, a 4-year-old girl who went missing from her family's camping tent more than two weeks ago in a disappearance that gripped the nation.

She was found "alive and well" and has since been reunited with her parents, said Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch of the Western Australia Police Force. He credited the work of police with bringing about the much prayed-for outcome.

A police team broke their way into a "locked house" in the coastal town of Carnarvon around 1 a.m. local time and found Cleo inside, Blanch told reporters.

"One of the officers picked her up into his arms and asked her 'What's your name?' " he recounted. "She said, 'My name is Cleo.' "

Those words left seasoned detectives "openly crying with relief," Blanch said, according to The Associated Press.

Police took a Carnarvon man into custody, he added. The West Australian reports that the unnamed 36-year-old was found nearby and is not known to Cleo's family.

A national nightmare

Cleo's family lives in Carnarvon. She disappeared with her sleeping bag on the second day of a family camping trip at Blowholes Campground, some 50 miles away, on Oct. 16.

While she was initially assumed to have wandered away from the campsite, emerging evidence raised fears of an abduction, the APreports.

For example, a vehicle was reported speeding away from the area in the dark hours of the morning, and a zipper on the flap of the tent compartment where she slept was too high for her to have reached. Forensic scientists also examined the outside of the family's home to determine whether there had been any stalking or break-in attempts.

Authorities searched hundreds of kilometers of land and sea as Ellie Smith, Cleo's mother, made emotional public appeals for information that were broadcast on televisions across Australia.

The state government had offered a reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($743,000 USD) for information five days after the girl's disappearance. Blanch said that money was not expected to be claimed, according to the AP.

An emotional rescue and reunion

Western Australia Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said in a radio interview that law enforcement "followed every particular lead that we had," though he declined to elaborate as the suspect was still being questioned.

He described the work of the police as "methodical" and "dogged" and credited Cleo's parents and community members with holding onto hope and helping with the effort.

Police followed up on forensic leads that led them to a particular house, he said. Officers broke down the door to get in and found Cleo inside.

New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller conveyed the news to Dawson, and told a Sydney radio host that "when he got the call this morning, he broke down and cried."

Fuller added that such a reaction by a police veteran is rare, "so it just speaks volumes in terms of the amount of effort they put into finding her."

Other members of law enforcement shared the sentiment, the AP reports.

"When she said, 'My name is Cleo,' I don't think there was a dry eye in the house," Blanch said.

The WA Police Force called Cleo's rescue "the miracle we all hoped for," while Ellie Smith said on Instagram that "our family is whole again."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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