Even with resources pulled from all over the country, the odds of finding Cleo Smith alive were still ‘one in a gazillion’. So how did detectives crack the case?
The chances of finding children who have been abducted often lead detectives on a cold trail to an unhappy ending, sometimes no ending at all.
That’s why the longer the search for Cleo Smith stretched on, the more criminologist Tim Watson-Munro desperately hoped for the best and feared the worst.
But the remarkable discovery of the four-year-old inside a locked room at a property in the West Australian town of Carnarvon on Wednesday – 18 days after she first went missing – shocked the nation and especially Mr Watson-Munro.
“The probability of finding her alive were one in a gazillion – it’s just so very rare, it’s extremely remarkable,” he said.
The criminal psychologist – who has gained the trust of some of Australia’s scariest crooks, including Julian Knight and Alphonse Gangitano, in his line of work – cited the baffling cases of William Tyrell and Madeleine McCann.
William was three years old when he went missing from Kendall in NSW in 2014 – he is yet to be found.
The high-profile mystery of Madeleine McCann is also unsolved after she disappeared in 2007 from her bed in a holiday apartment at a Portugal resort – she was also three years old.
Cleo Smith’s case was headed down the same cold trail until 1am on Wednesday when police found her alone inside a room.
“These cases are as rare as hen’s teeth,” Mr Watson-Munro said.
“Children don’t have the resources to escape, which is why it’s extremely rare they are ever found after they’re abducted,” Mr Watson-Munro said.
“In this case police threw enormous resources at it, the community threw enormous resources at, the press threw enormous resources at it – it was a team effort.
“A lot of information came in and it was excellent detective work – it was miraculous they were able to join the dots.”
Criminologist at the University of Newcastle Xanthe Mallett said a child was typically killed within the first three hours of an abduction when snatched by a stranger.
“So when we stretched into 24-hours, 48 hours and the days progressed I became more and more fearful that the news would be bad,” she said.
“So yesterday I was elated to be wrong about that and to see those images of Cleo in the hospital was really special.”
A 36-year-old man arrested on Thursday over Cleo’s disappearance remains in police custody after twice being taken to hospital.
Charges are expected to be laid later on Thursday.
Cleo disappeared from her family’s tent at a campsite near the town of Carnarvon on October 16, triggering the massive search.
Upon being reunited with her daughter, her mother Ellie Smith said their family was “whole again”.
Police footage of Cleo‘s rescue showed her “smiling” and “as well as we could expect in the circumstances”, said WA Police commissioner Chris Dawson.