Police expected to charge a local man Thursday with abducting a four-year-old girl from her family’s camping tent 18 days before police smashed into a locked house and rescued her in an outcome celebrated around Australia.
The 36-year-old man was arrested early Wednesday around the time that police found Cleo Smith alone in the house in the town of Carnarvon. “My name is Cleo,” the smiling girl told the police officers who rescued her and asked her name as confirmation that they had found the right child.
Police Minister Paul Papalia said the suspect, a Carnarvon local, would likely be charged on Thursday. He did not detail those charges, but said the police investigation was continuing.
Cleo had disappeared with her sleeping bag on Oct. 16, the second day of a family camping trip at a campground on Australia’s remote western coast north of Carnarvon, a community of 5,000 people where her family lives less than 10 minutes drive from the house where she was found.
Media have reported he raised suspicion among locals when he was seen buying diapers and was known to have no children, but police have disclosed little information about what made the man a suspect.
“It wasn’t a random tip or a clairvoyant or any of the sort of things that you might hear,” Papalia told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It was just a hard police grind.”
The suspect was taken from police detention to a hospital late Wednesday and again on Thursday, with what media reported were self-inflicted injuries.
Asked about reports the man was injured after banging his head against a cell wall, Western Australia Police Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch only replied that there were “no serious injuries.”
A police statement said the suspect’s “medical matter does not relate to any police involvement with him.”
Wednesday was the first full night Cleo spent at home with her mom Ellie Smith, stepdad Jake Gliddon and her baby half-sister Isla Gliddon since the family’s ordeal began.
As they slept, public buildings in the Western Australia state capital Perth, 900 kilometers (560 miles) south of Carnarvon, were illuminated with blue lights to celebrate the success of the police investigation. In Carnarvon, balloons were raised on buildings and signs were posted welcoming Cleo home.
Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine, a homicide investigator, described his reaction to finding Cleo alive as “shock, followed by elation.”
“We’d always hoped for that outcome, but were still not prepared for it,” Blaine said.
Xanthe Mallett, a criminologist at Australia’s Newcastle University, said finding a victim of stranger abduction alive after more than two weeks was rare.
“Sadly, they’re normally killed quickly, usually during the first three hours,” Mallett said.
The Carnarvon community’s willingness to help police find Cleo was likely a key factor in the investigation’s success, she said. Police had offered a 1 million Australian dollar ($743,000) reward for information, but don’t expect the money will be claimed.
“I always thought that this was going to be somebody with local connections because it was somebody who knew that campsite, so the fact that she was so close to that campsite and so close to Cleo’s home wasn’t a surprise to me,” Mallett said.
Police “engaged so well with that community and had them on board, they had the whole community’s eyes on everyone, reporting anyone suspicious, I think that was really key in this investigation — just great, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground police work,” Mallett added.