CANBERRA: Australian police charged a 36-year-old man on Thursday (Nov 4) with abducting a four-year-old girl from an outback campsite 18 days before she was found safe in a locked house.
The man was twice taken to hospital for self-inflicted injuries before being interviewed and charged with various offences related to the abduction, police in Western Australia state said in a statement.
The girl, Cleo Smith, had last been seen in her family's tent in the early hours of Oct 16 at the remote Blowholes Shacks campsite in Macleod. In the morning she was gone.
Her disappearance triggered an extensive search by land and air, along with roadblocks and scouring of CCTV footage.
She was found safe on Wednesday when police broke into a house in Carnarvon, a town about 100km south of the campsite on the far northwest coast of the state. The house is 3km from her family home, media said.
Police said the charges the suspect faces include one count of forcibly taking a child under 16. The suspect appeared in court and was due to appear again on Dec 6, police said.
During his court appearance the man threatened journalists in the public gallery and asked them what they were staring at, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Media have reported the man 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,” Police Minister Paul Papalia told Australian Broadcasting Corp. ”It was just a hard police grind.”
Lead investigator, detective superintendent Rod Wilde, said police alleged he "acted solely alone" in abducting the little girl.
Police released an audio recording of their entry into the house and the discovery of the girl in a room. "We've got her. We've got her," an officer could be heard saying.
After being asked her name a few times, the toddler answered: "My name is Cleo". She had been found playing with toys with the light on, police said.
After meeting her family, state Premier Mark McGowan said Cleo was a "very bright, upbeat, sweet little girl" and looked "very well adjusted", considering her ordeal.
Specialist child interviewers would speak with her, and authorities had instructed her parents on how to talk to her to preserve her memory, authorities said.
The hashtag #CleoSmith has been trending on Twitter since Wednesday, with a picture posted by police that showed a smiling Cleo waving from her hospital bed drawing nearly 54,000 "likes".
Purple and pink balloons adorned the streets and many landmarks in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, were lit up in blue on Wednesday night to thank police for their efforts.
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 an A$1 million (US$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.