It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: waking up on a family camping trip to find your daughter is not in the tent.
It’s the reality that Cleo Smith’s parents Ellie Smith and Jake Gliddon found themselves in, during October 2021, with Ellie forced to make a disturbing call, at 6am, to emergency services about her missing child.
“Hi, umm, my daughter’s gone missing,” she said into the phone, holding back tears.
“How old’s your daughter, love,” the operator asks.
“She’s four,” Ellie replied.
This heart-breaking call started a major search for the child all through the remote campsite and wider area of Carnarvon, Western Australia.
While hope was fading that the child would be found, Cleo was discovered alive, 18 days later, in a home filled with dolls, just a few kilometres from where Cleo’s family lived, taken by Terence Kelly.
Kelly, 37, has since been sentenced to 13 years and six months prison. He had been using methamphetamine during the kidnapping, going to the campsite to steal items from the tent between 2:40am and 4:40am, and instead made off with Cleo.
Kelly went about his daily life, locking Cleo away while he went to the supermarket, attended meetings and met with relatives. He would turn the music up loudly to drown out Cleo’s cries for her parents. He admitted that he had ‘roughed up’ Cleo a few times and had tried to tie her with sticky tape.
Eventually, Cleo was found. Asked three times by lead investigator, Detective Senior Sergeant Blaine, what her name was she finally replied, “My … my name is Cleo.”
While it was relief, at first, for Ellie and Jake to see their little girl returned home, there was no denying that she came back a different young girl.
Speaking with 60 Minutes in 2023, they explained, “She still has her sad nights, her nightmare nights…Some things she just can’t explain.”
“(Cleo’s) nightmare nights are the worst nights, it’s just heartbreaking.”
The couple had previously told 60 Minutes what it was like to find their little one was still alive.
“That was just a beautiful moment just to see her as the old Cleo, but you could still see, for us, she’s still different and she always will be and that’s just our life now, ” Ellie said.
“As a parent, you want to… make sure that they stay as a child for as long as they can because you don’t want them to be in this big, bad world, and she lost that. That was taken from her.”
For now, it’s a healing journey Cleo and her parents are on, to process everything she’s been through and come to terms with the trauma of this experience.
Terence Kelly has since appealed his more-than-decade long sentence, with his lawyers citing that his history of childhood disadvantage and trauma was not “appropriate[ly] weighed” against his sentence.