Australian police charged a 36-year-old man on Thursday 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 a hospital for self-inflicted injuries before being interviewed and charged with various offenses 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 60 miles south of the campsite on the far northwest coast of the state. The house is 2 miles 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.
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”.
Incredible that little Cleo Smith has been found alive & smiling since disappearing 18 days ago in Western Australia. She went missing from her family's tent in the middle of the night & was found after police broke into a locked house. I cannot imagine the her parents trauma pic.twitter.com/6JrABkt0IO
— Julia Bradbury💙 (@JuliaBradbury) November 3, 2021
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.
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Giles Elgood)
Copyright 2021 Thomson/Reuters