Family friends of Cleo Smith open up on first hours of frantic search

Inside the hunt for Cleo Smith: Family friends open up about the first hours of search for four-year-old girl, the moment hope began to fade and why the parents need to be left alone

  • Friends used drones and quad bikes in first hours of search for Cleo Smith
  • One friend said they were hopeful Cleo would come out of a ‘hiding spot’ 
  • The four-year-old has now been missing for two weeks from Western Australia
  • Police say all 200 reported sightings were tragically false alarms in investigation
  • But they urge the public to continue reporting any information they may have  

Family friends have opened up on the first few hours of the frantic search for missing Cleo Smith and the early hopes the four-year-old was just playing hide and seek.

Close friends were among the first to join a search party just hours after Cleo had vanished from the Blowholes campground near Carnarvon, Western Australia, in the early morning of October 16. 

One friend said they launched a drone to search the surrounding inhospitable terrain while others jumped on quad bikes.

The search party was weighed down by a terrible feeling of shock at the sudden disappearance but also hope that Cleo would suddenly reappear.

‘And we were still in hope that she was just kind of coming out of a hiding spot,’ one friend told The West Australian.

‘I mean, we’ve got to just hope that she shows up and that she came home in the end. I mean, you can’t lose hope otherwise you start to lose yourself.’ 

Close friends were among the first to join a search party just hours after news had broken that Cleo had vanished from the Blowholes campground near Carnarvon, Western Australia, in the early morning of October 16

One friend said they launched a drone to search the surrounding inhospitable terrain while others jumped on quad bikes

Cleo had been sleeping in a family tent with her mother Ellie (left), 18-month-old sister Isla and stepdad Jake Gliddon (right) when she disappeared with her sleeping bag

Cleo had been sleeping in a family tent with her mother Ellie, 18-month-old sister Isla and stepdad Jake Gliddon when she disappeared with her sleeping bag.

The family friend recalled a shaken and distraught Ellie trying to comfort Isla while the family joined the search.

Cleo’s uncle was also among the search party who arrived at the campground around the same time as the family friend. 

They claimed the uncle frantically overtook them while driving on the road in order to reach the campground and begin searching as soon as possible.

‘So he overtook me when we got on the bitumen,’ they said.

‘I don’t think anyone gave a f*** if they got caught by police. There’s a bigger fish to fry than giving everyone a fine that’s trying to find Cleo.’ 

The family friend said hope of finding the little girl was slowly beginning to fade before it was replaced by a much more sinister fear. 

Police now believe that Cleo had been abducted from the family tent she was sleeping in on the night she vanished. 

The friend claimed they had early suspicions as it was unlikely a four-year-old girl would be able to walk very far on her own through the surrounding rugged terrain.

They also hit back at trolls who have pointed the finger at the family for the sudden disappearance – even though police have ruled out the mother and stepfather as suspects.

‘How many times have the police and media said that the parents aren’t suspects? Countless times, but people still don’t believe them,’ they said. 

‘Ellie and Jake would do anything for anyone. They love, as parents do, their kids.’ 

Police have revealed they were on the scene less than an hour after Cleo Smith’s mother woke up and found her four-year-old missing.

On Friday morning local time (2pm AEST), Detective Superintendent Rob Wilde revealed Ellie first called 000 at 6.23am – despite initial reports she searched the campground for hours before police arrived.

‘Police arrived at 7.10am and by 7.26am set up a protected site,’ he revealed. 

Inspector Jon Munday initially told the public police arrived ‘about mid-morning’ at the scene, but this was proven incorrect on Friday.

By 11am, homicide detectives had been sent to the area and police were already searching cars in and out of the campsite. 

Cleo’s mother Ellie Smith (pictured) urged the public to contact police if they have any information 

 Police were unable to check inside many of the shacks immediately because most were bolted shut with padlocks

‘Those police did a really good and thorough job,’ Mr Wilde said.

Police were unable to check inside many of the shacks immediately because most were bolted shut with padlocks.

Mr Wilde also explained away the lapse in time before detectives searched the family home in Carnarvon, citing the need for ‘priorities’ in a case as far reaching as Cleo’s.

‘Our priority was at Blowholes and in the tent,’ he said. ‘We knew from what Ellie and Jake had told us that she went missing from the campsite’, so the home was not considered a priority.   

It comes after it was revealed detectives in the 100-strong taskforce had responded to 200 potential sightings of Cleo in the two weeks since she disappeared.

‘Unfortunately all of those have proved unfruitful,’ Mr Wilde said.

‘That’s been national as well, other policing jurisdictions have helped us and followed those leads through for us, so we’re very grateful for that.’

They’re still desperately trying to find Cleo’s sleeping bag. 

While none of the leads have been accurate yet, he is still calling on the public to continue searching for Cleo and reporting any potentially useful information.

Pre-schooler Cleo Smith (pictured) is still missing after vanishing from a camping ground in remote Western Australia almost two weeks ago

Little Cleo Smith’s mother is holding out hope that the four-year-old will ‘come home’ to her

Police initially believed Cleo simply wandered off at the remote campsite, but are now convinced she was snatched in the dead of night by a child predator. 

Investigators scoured the area, conducting sea, air and land searches, but there was no sign of the missing child and police admit they have no ‘concrete’ suspects. 

Superintendent Wilde said more than 100 campers who stayed at the Blowholes site have been interviewed by police.

‘We do however believe there are still other campers that were staying in that Blowholes vicinity who we have not yet identified,’ he said. 

Detectives have ‘fully reviewed past incidents’ that have been reported at the site after Daily Mail Australia revealed a mother complained in 2014 of a ‘man in his 40s trying to lure her daughter to his car’.

The girl’s distressed mother lodged a complaint with police at the time, warning the man asked her daughter to ‘go for a drive in his car’ but she refused and ran back to her family.

In the attempted abduction from 2014, the little girl wasn’t able to provide a thorough description of the man’s appearance, and it appears nothing ever came of the police report.

But she shared the post publicly hoping to warn other parents who might bring their children to the area, adding it would be a ‘good time to remind our precious ones of stranger danger’. 

Mr Wilde said all previous complaints had been investigated and that nothing of a similar nature had been reported recently.

Police are also still scrambling to find a car witnesses say was travelling in the vicinity at the same time where Cleo disappeared. 

The vehicle was turning south off Blowholes Road, near the area Cleo’s family was camping, and headed for Carnarvon.

The timing of the car sighting coincides with evidence from other campers that they heard the sound of screeching tyres rapidly leaving the campsite about 3am.

Pictured: A map showing the possible roads Cleo Smith travelled in the time between when she went missing and police arrived

The witnesses were travelling north on the North West Coastal Highway on their way to work when they spotted the mysterious car leaving the camping ground.

They were unable to give a description of the car or how many people were inside as it was too dark.  

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday revealed the Australian Federal Police are using sophisticated technologies to help track Cleo down.

Without getting into specifics, he said there are options available to the officers globally that could bring Cleo home.

According to Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker, Mr Morrison could be referring to satellite data that might’ve captured key moments from the campground on the night Cleo disappeared.

‘The high resolution ones, you’re a bit more limited, so they’re not going to be overhead at every single point – every half a day, sure, but not every hour or minute,’ he told WAToday.

‘If they think there was something during the day at the campsite that was present on the day Cleo went missing, such as a car, they may be trying to use satellite imagery to track down a timeline.

‘There is a strong chance they may have gotten something, it may not have been the highest resolution, but it could have been something.’

Timeline of events the day Cleo’s family realise she’s missing 

About 6am: Ellie Smith wakes up and realises Cleo and her sleeping bag are missing.

6.23am — Ellie calls 000 to report her eldest daughter missing as she continues to search the camp ground.

6.30am — The first two officers are dispatched from Carnarvon police station. They travel to Blowholes as a matter of priority, with sirens and lights.

6.41am — A second police car with another two officers is sent to Blowholes, also with lights and sirens.

7.10am — The first police car arrives. The second is only minutes behind. 

7.26am — Police on the scene establish a protected forensic area which is taped off to the public, surrounding the family tent where Cleo was last seen. 

7.33am — A drone operator is called upon to search from the skies.

7.44am — A third police car is dispatched to the Blowholes.

8am — Family and friends of Cleo’s parents begin to arrive to help with the ground search. 

Another group of detectives briefly searches Cleo’s home to make sure she’s not there. They then head to Blowholes and begin stopping cars coming into and leaving the area.  

8.09am — A helicopter from a local company arrived at the scene and started searching  as police request an SES team attend the Blowholes search. 

8.24am – Police airwing and volunteer marine searchers are called in to assist with the search.  

8.34am — Roadblocks are set up at the entrance of Blowholes as detectives gather the names, registration details and addresses of people coming and going. Police search cars. 

9.25am — Nine SES personel arrive at the Blowholes to assist with the search.

9.30am — Detectives sit down with a distressed Ellie and remain by her side for the rest of the day while other search crews hunt for Cleo. 

11am — Homicide detectives from the Major Crime Division are called and begin travelling from Perth to assist with the search.

1pm — More homicide detectives and search experts are flown in from Perth. 

3pm — Officers and search experts arrive in Carnarvon to offer their expertise.

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