In the end it was four simple words which ended 18 days of desperate searching and fading hope – and sparked troubling questions about another missing daughter on another continent.
“My name is Cleo,” uttered four-year-old Cleo Smith as she was found by shocked officers in a bedroom in a locked bungalow in her remote home town of Carnarvon, Western Australia on Wednesday, after her abduction from her family’s tent some 40 miles northwards in a coastal campsite.
Her rescue was declared a “remarkable” result by the emotional Premier of WA, Mark McGowan, and one which appeared to stun those involved in the search as much as the entire nation – as news alerts pinged on phones in unison over breakfast.
The bubbly child had been dubbed Australia’s Madeleine McCann, who went missing at almost exactly the same age. While Cleo was reunited with her overjoyed young parents in hospital, it’s a conclusion which is likely to serve as bittersweet news for Gerry and Kate McCann, whose daughter became a global household name for the worst possible reasons after being snatched from their holiday apartment in Portugal in May 2007.
For 14 long years there has, tragically, been no sign of the toddler – a fact Australians were well aware of as the frantic police search passed the two-week mark, with the public urged to check bins and roadsides for the red sleeping bag that Cleo was sleeping in the night she disappeared.
Her safe rescue triggers new and difficult questions over whether the Portuguese police could and should have done far more in their investigation, especially in those initial hours and days which are so critical in child abduction cases.
There is certainly huge pride in what has been achieved in finding Cleo. McGowan declared in a news conference that the officers, detectives and analysts of the Western Australian Police Force had barely slept, having worked around the clock in their bid to find Cleo alive. He added that he expected their “amazing piece of detective work” would be analysed by police forces across the country and indeed around the world. He could well be right.
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The Blowholes campground where Cleo was taken from her tent in the dead of night is one of the most remote holiday locations on earth, over 550 miles north of Perth, surrounded by scrub and endless coastline. It wasn’t the relatively busy Algarve holiday resort of Praia da Luz with hundreds of tourists, locals and resort staff among potential witnesses and suspects.
Cleo, said by police to be thankfully “physically unharmed” is now settling back home, just four miles from where she was discovered.
On Thursday, Terence Darrell Kelly, 36, appeared in court and was charged with “forcibly or fraudulently taking or enticing a child under 16”. He did not apply for bail and was remanded in custody until December 6.
In a short statement issued by police, Cleo’s parents, Ellie Smith and Jake Gliddon, said they wanted to take the opportunity to thank all those involved in her rescue: “We are so thankful that our little girl is back within our arms and our family is whole again.”
A key part of the investigation that led to Cleo’s rescue was the swift clearing of her parents from any suspicion of guilt. Initially, police said they “weren’t ruling anything out” in relation to her bizarre disappearance from her mother and step-father’s tent in the middle of the night. Suspicion unfairly, if perhaps inevitably, fell on them – particularly online – but police extensively monitored the couple and tapped their phones before publicly concluding they were not involved.
One of the many documented faults of the Portuguese investigation was their clumsy policing in the initial hours after Madeleine vanished as she slept alongside her twin siblings.
While the Australian police immediately sealed off the tent where Cleo and her family had been sleeping, in Portugal they failed to make the McCann’s holiday apartment a crime scene. As a result, up to 40 people, including police and resort staff, trampled through the accommodation, literally wiping out any chance of DNA evidence or other forensic clues. An entire volume of evidence was essentially – and possibly fatally – erased.
The Telegraph’s crime correspondent Martin Evans, who spent months reporting in Portugal on the Madeleine story, recalls how there was also seemingly “no strategy in place” at the inexperienced local force.
“The investigation was flawed from the very start as it was clear the police were totally out of their depth,” Evans says. “They were unsure what they were even investigating for far too long – was it a missing person they were dealing with or an abduction? They had no idea.”
During the Cleo investigation, a thorough and detailed land and sea search, involving helicopters and drones, was called off after a few days, leading local police, backed up by senior detectives flown in from Perth, to focus their resources solely on investigating the abduction theory.
In contrast, the Portuguese police led a chaotic, scatter-gun operation and spent weeks speculating Madeleine may have just wandered off, before slowly exploring other lines of enquiry. Then came the extremely flawed “distractions” to the entire investigation, including the theory the McCanns had killed their own daughter and later placed her body in the boot of a hire car.
This harmful accusation, including declaring the parents “arguidos” (suspects), scuppered the chances of investigating local s-e-x offenders and other vital lines of enquiry for some time.
Writer Miranda Levy witnessed the visceral grief of Kate McCann up close in the Algarve in 2007, when she interviewed her to mark 100 days since Madeleine vanished. By then, suspicion had already turned to her parents: “I found [Kate] heartbroken, fragile, but also resolute,” Levy says. “‘It could have happened to anyone,’ she told me. ‘I feel like the unluckiest person in the world.’”
In 2011, when Scotland Yard started their own inquiry, dubbed Operation Grange, they went back to basics – going over every theory and lead in detail, also carrying out excavations and land surveys near the holiday resort. But by then it was tragically too little, too late.
The Australian police had one major advantage that the Portuguese police didn’t have at their disposal in 2007, being on the right side of the smartphone revolution and abundant CCTV street cameras.
Luck, of course, often plays a role – alongside good old-fashioned policing. After all, it was sheer chance that two 10-year-old British girls were discovered in a flat in January 1999 after going missing for four days after being snatched off the street by p.a.e.dophile Alan Hopkinson in St Leonard’s, East Sussex. The case dominated the headlines as 300 officers frantically searched for them, yet they were only found because police went to his home to do a spot check in relation to his previous crimes.
In finding Cleo, Australia has its miracle ending. But Levy’s first thoughts, on hearing the happy news, turned to what the McCanns must be feeling. “Relief, that another family won’t have to go through what they suffered, and that a little girl has been reunited with her family?” she wonders. “Or, an ache that this was a happiness denied them: that they still don’t know what happened to Madeleine? Most likely, it’s a mixture of both.”
Last year a German prosecutor declared Christian Brueckner, a prisoner currently behind bars for an unrelated matter, to be the prime suspect in Madeleine’s disappearance. However they have so far failed to release precise details of their evidence and as a result her parents still don’t have closure or final answers.
“For Kate and Gerry McCann, the pain of losing Madeleine never goes away,” note Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, authors of the book Looking for Madeleine. “Every new ‘child missing’ headline must exacerbate that pain. A successful resolution, as in the case of the little girl in Australia, is in happy contrast. Could it be that the McCanns’ persistent badgering of officialdom to find their child, their determination to raise public awareness, has spurred on another police force, helped another stricken family? One can certainly hope so.”