‘Time is not on our side': Grim admission as police reveal up to 20 sex offenders living in the area where Cleo Smith vanished

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Between 10 and 20 registered sex offenders are living in the area where four-year-old Cleo Smith vanished five days ago amid growing fears she was abducted from a West Australian campsite.

Deputy Police Commissioner Darryl Gaunt said officers had made inquiries into the registered sex offenders in the Carnarvon area but none of them were suspects.

“Part of the investigative strategies have included reaching them and making inquiries into their whereabouts and movements,” he told 6PR radio on Wednesday.

“At this point in time, we’re very comfortable with where we sit with those inquiries.”

Cleo was staying in a tent with her family at the Blowholes Campground in Macleod, near Carnarvon, when she was reported missing about 6am on Saturday.

As the frantic search entered day five, Mr Gaunt said authorities remained hopeful of finding Cleo alive.

“While time is not on our side, there have been instances in the past where even small children lost in remote areas have still been found safe and well,” he told 6PR radio on Wednesday.

“There’s been some rain — that gives us hope that there’s water on the ground … we keep searching with every bit of energy that we have.”

Mr Gaunt said police were still first and foremost treating the case as a search and rescue mission, despite growing fears Cleo may have been abducted.

“From the moment this incident was reported to us, we launched parallel activities around a search and rescue operation, as well as an investigation phase,” he said.

“To say we’re treating this as an abduction is not correct. We’re treating it as a search and rescue mission, first and foremost, and that remains our mission.”

Mr Gaunt said police had received a lot of information from people who had been at the campground and reported hearing “certain noises” and seeing suspicious activity.

“We’ve investigated and responded to the vast majority of that. Most of them are explained,” he said.

Asked specifically about reports of a car heard screeching about 3am, he said: “We haven’t ruled it out or in, it’s a little bit unsubstantiated but we haven’t ruled it out.”


Camera IconCleo Smith was last seen at the Blowholes campsite, about 70km north of Carnarvon. Supplied: WA Police Credit: Supplied

Mr Gaunt agreed with the proposition that Cleo wandering off from the tent in the middle of the night with her sleeping bag did not seem to add up.

“No, it doesn’t and look, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and I think all of our hearts go out to the family,” he said.

“Their hands are tied as to what they can do.

“If I can give the comfort, the amount of effort that is going into this is second to none. We’re not holding back any resources.”

Mr Gaunt said Cleo’s father was interviewed in Mandurah, where he lives, but he was never suspect in her disappearance.

“He was never ruled in as a person of interest, so he was interviewed predominantly for background and also to eliminate any possibility to confirm his movements,” he said.

“We’re very comfortable of his movements that he was nowhere near the blowholes area.”

Asked if police had questioned Cleo’s mother and stepfather in the same way, Mr Gaunt said no but there had been a lot of communication with them.


Camera IconThere are fears Cleo was abducted. Credit: Supplied

Mr Gaunt urged anyone with information to come forward.

“We’re getting information coming in from around the world and certainly interstate … the public response to this has been enormous,” he said.

On Tuesday, Cleo’s devastated mother Ellie Smith spoke publicly for the first time, describing the past few days as “horrendous”.

“We’re going to find her — we have to,” Ms Smith said.

She said Cleo would never wander off alone and would have asked for help to unzip her one-piece sleeping suit if she needed to use the toilet.

“She would never leave that tent alone,” Ms Smith said.

Asked if they feared someone had taken Cleo, Ms Smith said the family was still hoping to find her safe.

Ms Smith said someone had to know where Cleo was.

“Someone has to — it’s been four days,” she said.


Camera IconCleo Smith’s mother Ellie Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon broke their silence on Tuesday. Supplied by ABC News/James Carmody Credit: Supplied

The last time Ms Smith saw her daughter was at 1.30am on Saturday when Cleo woke up to ask for water.

Cleo was sleeping beside her younger sister Isla who was in a cot, while Ms Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon slept on a mattress in a room next to them.

Just a few hours later, Ms Smith discovered Cleo was missing.

“She was gone. The tent was completely open. It was about 30cm from being open,” Ms Smith said.

Speaking about the ordeal through tears, an exhausted Ms Smith revealed she had not been sleeping since Cleo vanished.

“Everyone asks us what do you need and really all we need is our little girl home,” she said.

“We sit and watch the sand dunes and think she’s going to run down it and back into our arms, but we’re still waiting.”


Camera IconCleo Smith’s mother Ellie Smith says she just wants her daughter to come home safely. Supplied by ABC News/James Carmody Credit: Supplied

The search was hampered for several hours on Tuesday due to wild weather but was back on track by midday local time.

A GoFundMe page has been set up by local man Bill Kent to help Cleo’s family and the search efforts, so far raising more than $54,000.

Anyone with information is urged to call police on 131 444.

Anyone who passed through the area between Friday and Sunday is also urged to come forward, especially if they have dashcam footage.

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