By Peter de Kruijff
The sun would have nearly set when the family of four from Carnarvon caught sight of the Indian Ocean.
After driving north for just under an hour – passing dusty orange plains, the vast flats of Lake MacLeod, and thick Acacia shrublands – beautician Ellie Smith and salt mine worker Jake Gliddon reached the T-junction at the Quobba Blowholes with her daughter Cleo Smith, 4, and their baby Isla in tow.
There they would have been greeted by a message of death all too familiar to locals like themselves: a wooden board painted with white capital letters and suspended between two telegraph-like poles framing the raging water in the background, “KING WAVES KILL”.
Mother Ellie Smith with Cleo, who is now missing, and baby Isla. Credit:Facebook
The sign is an unsubtle reminder of the lives lost along the stretch of low rocky coastal cliffs which start several hundred metres to the left and run northward. Several locals have met their end at those cliffs, consumed by gigantic waves that come out of the blue.
But taking the left at the T-junction and meandering for a kilometre down the limestone track — past the blowholes where seawater blasts through the ground (a coveted sight for Instagram-loving tourists) — the family arrived at about 6.30pm on October 15 at a picturesque cul-de-sac featuring a coral lagoon and campsite protected from the fury of the raging sea.
Littered with shacks owned by Carnarvon locals, the spot has served as the perfect weekend family getaway for generations of residents or as an overnight stopover for travellers on their way to tourist-driven pastoral stations and remote surfing breaks further north.
Cleo Smith’s mother Ellie Smith and partner Jake Gliddon.
The Blowholes campsite has always had an inherent feeling of safety for the people who grew up spending their holidays there thanks to its calm waters and neighbours who watch out for each other.
Those feelings were shattered one week ago when Ellie and Jake woke up the morning after the late camp set-up to every parent’s nightmare. A wide open flap at the front of their tent and no sign of Cleo. Her sleeping bag was gone.
One week later and the disappearance of Cleo Smith — a bubbly girl with bright eyes and a love for rocks and wearing princess dresses — has gone from a desperate land and sea search around the campsite to being treated as a presumed abduction.
The case has captured the nation’s attention as the sleepy town of Carnarvon finds itself in the headlines for a mystery which could loom over the town for years to come.
Carnarvon was gazetted as a town in 1883 to support several pastoral stations established in the area. Jetties were built and the horticultural industry soon became one of the Gascoyne shire’s strongest sectors known for its lunchbox-friendly little bananas. Rio Tinto is a major employer with its salt and gypsum mine while the ‘big dish’ in Carnarvon, part of the communications chain for moon landings, is now a museum.
The town is also used to facing the worst of nature’s elements as it falls within WA’s cyclone alley.
Floods have ruined crops, property and lives while storms have done just as much damage. The town always rebuilds and the community rallies.
There is a $1 million rewardfor information leading to finding Cleo or convicting someone involved in her disappearance.Credit:WA Government
They have certainly rallied this week in a mammoth search effort to find Cleo, who was last seen wearing her pink and blue butterfly pyjamas.
But all the helicopters, drones, the army, mounted police, boats, and hundreds of volunteers have been unable to find any trace of Cleo at the Blowholes camp.
Searchers believe it unlikely the girl would have wandered a kilometre in the dark sometime between 1.30am — when she woke her mum to get a drink — and 6am when she was discovered missing, all the way to the cliffs and blowholes while dragging her sleeping bag.
To walk inland also seems unlikely. It is rocky and hilly terrain with spiky prickle grasses and dense Acacia shrub.
The dunes and shrublands parallel to the camp have been difficult for the State Emergency Service volunteers to navigate in the daylight, let alone for a four-year-old in the dark.
Ellie said Cleo did not even like to walk five minutes to the shops from her house without her mum.
“She would never leave us, she’d never leave the tent. She was wearing when she left a jumpsuit, and she can’t go to the toilet without my help unzipping it,” she said on Tuesday.
Ellie and Jake had been within a separate section of the tent but the front zip had been opened to a point that was out of reach for Cleo, police said on Wednesday.
With no physical leads to show Cleo had wandered off alone, it was announced on Thursday the camp search would be wound back. The criminal arm of the investigation, codenamed Rodia, has been ramped up to include a taskforce of 100 officers led by Superintendent Rod Wilde.
Wilde has led the cold case investigative unit in the past and was in charge of a taskforce which found and arrested the assassin of former WA Rebels bikie boss Nick Martin shot dead in December at a crowded Perth motorplex.
WA Premier Mark McGowan announced on Thursday a $1 million reward for information which resulted in finding Cleo or securing a conviction for anyone involved in her disappearance.
University of Newcastle criminology associate professor Xanthe Mallett told this masthead that announcing such a sizeable reward after one week was unusual but positive.
Such lofty rewards have come decades down the track for missing people in WA but in the case of three-year-old William Tyrrell — who disappeared from his foster-grandmother’s house in Kendall, NSW in 2014 — it was two years.
Mallett says Cleo’s case was similar to William’s as they were both in cul-de-sac-type location with no trace of what direction they may have gone.
Cleo Smith loves princess dresses and collecting rocks.
She says offering an early reward could be the sign of a lesson learnt by government in not leaving such monetary options “until it’s too late”.
“It is a sign they’re struggling with [finding] information but on the flipside they’re highly incentivised to get as much information as possible,” Mallett says.
“It just shows how quickly they want to move on this and how quickly they want to be seen to be moving on this. It’s such a high-profile case now they really need to be doing the right thing and be seen to be doing the right thing.
“And to dampen wider fears in the community as well … until we know who took her and why, it’s really difficult to say whether there is any recurring risk.”
Police have tried to reassure the public there is no danger for others but have no leads on who may have taken Cleo.
No forensic test results from the tent have been released to the public. Registered sex offenders living in the region are being interviewed by police as they eliminate individuals from a potential list of persons of interest.
But anyone who stayed at the camp during the time of Cleo’s disappearance could still be a suspect, police say.
All the more troubling is that not everyone who was at the Blowholes that night may have been registered.
“We believe there may have been people around that campsite that didn’t check in [to let the shire know they were staying there],” Wilde said.
No one has come forward publicly to say they saw Cleo at the camp but Wilde said one of the shacks had CCTV, which police are reviewing.
But just because everyone at the camp could be a suspect does not mean Ellie and Jake are being treated as such by police.
The distraught couple has only spoken to the media once in an emotional one-on-one interview with a journalist from the ABC, a trusted broadcaster in the region with its fire and cyclone coverage, rather than face the large media contingent covering the disappearance.
Armchair sleuths and internet detectives, in an age of seemingly endless true-crime podcasts and documentaries, have hurled “vile” online accusations at the parents, who have refused to leave the campsite as they wait for Cleo to return.
Mallett says there was a tendency for people to jump on the social media bandwagon in high-profile cases, like the case of the American blogger Gabby Petito, who went missing recently and was later found murdered in a Wyoming national park.
“I think what people fail to realise is there’s a whole gamut of emotional responses to a situation like this,” Mallett says.
She says it is unfair to judge people based on their responses such as if they were not tearful or openly distraught.
“Lindy Chamberlain is the ultimate example. She was very stoic and people judged her very harshly,” Mallett says.
“I would caution against judging anyone based on their responses because they don’t know how we will respond.”
Ellie and Jake have put their faith in police to find their little girl. The end of the search around the campground means Ellie’s fears of third-party involvement may now be a reality.
Such a scenario opens up millions of possibilities in her head, she said, all of which are hard to fathom.
Without a trace
The size of the task facing police is more than immense. WA has a history of people going missing in its wide open regions.
Several cold cases are still open, including that of 24-year-old backpacker William French, who disappeared from Carnarvon in 1997 and Glenyce McGowan who went missing from the Nanutarra roadhouse, 370 kilometres north of Carnarvon, in the mid-1970s. This case is now subject to a coroner’s investigation.
But there is always hope for a breakthrough. In 2015 the attempted abduction of a child in Dongara, 350 kilometres north of Perth, was solved thanks to advances in forensic technology.
Meanwhile, Cleo’s family face a heartbreaking wait. Smith said the family hadn’t slept and felt “hopeless and out of control”.
“Everyone asks us what we need and all we need is our little girl home,” she says.
Anyone with information is urged to contact WA Police on 131 444 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
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