Western Australia police say the zipper on the tent in which Cleo Smith was sleeping when she went missing was up so high there was no way the four-year-old could have opened it herself.
On the fifth day of the search for the missing child, Insp Jon Munday also said there was “nothing to indicate” the account given to police by the girl’s parents was anything but “accurate and truthful”.
Munday said police were “alarmed” and concerned for Cleo’s safety because the zippered entry to the tent was open when her disappearance was discovered.
“The positioning of that zipper for the flap is one of the circumstances that has caused us to have grave concerns for Cleo’s safety,” he said on Wednesday.
“That tent has been thoroughly examined by our forensic team and I believe it has been seized and I would imagine that would make its way down to Perth at some point.”
Munday said the family were Carnarvon locals and he understood they had set up their tent “in the same vicinity as people they knew”.
No witnesses have reported seeing Cleo at the heavily-populated campsite but police are comfortable based on “technological evidence” she was there with her parents and younger sister from Friday night.
“When we are satisfied from a land search point of view ... that Cleo is not here, certainly it becomes more possible that that nightmare scenario [that she was abducted] is the one that we have to face,” Munday said.
Cleo’s mother, Ellie Smith, on Tuesday made a desperate appeal for public information, saying her daughter would never wander off on her own.
Drones and SES volunteers are continuing to patrol the area after a temporary suspension of the search due to rough weather on Tuesday.
Detectives were also pursuing reports a car had been heard speeding from the popular Blowholes site, near Carnarvon, in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Munday said investigators weren’t “taking anything off the table”, but nothing had been located in the search area that had been of interest to the team, and there remained no suspects in relation to the girl’s disappearance.
Four square kilometres from the last known position of Cleo had been covered, as police carried out fresh searches of shacks near the family’s campsite.
“Following the rough weather yesterday, we made the decision this morning that we’d revisit the marine environment for searching,” Munday said.
“The water out past the breakers is quite rough, so … we’ve done some drone work in relation to the marine environment.”
Munday said any registered sex offenders that had been identified as being in the Carnarvon area during the time of her disappearance had been spoken to. Homicide detectives were assisting the heavily resourced investigation.
“It is frustrating, it is disheartening, but it just goes to the professionalism of the guys that are involved in this,” he said.
“We’re focused on finding Cleo and we are just going to continue to do that regardless of whether we find anything … until we can put our hand on our hearts and say Cleo is not in the search area, we will continue to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The police assistant commissioner, Darryl Gaunt, told Perth radio 6PR on Wednesday: “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.”
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Cleo was last seen by her parents about 1.30am on Saturday in her family’s tent at the Blowholes campsite, wearing a pink one-piece sleepsuit with a blue and yellow pattern.
“As time goes on, we know the forecast going forward gets worse each day,” Gaunt said. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”
In an emotional interview, Cleo’s mother on Tuesday said she and her partner, Jake Gliddon, had discovered her daughter was missing about 6am on Saturday after checking on her baby sister, Isla.
Smith discovered Cleo was gone and the tent “completely open”. Her red and black sleeping bag was also missing.
“We hold hope that she’s here [near the campsite] because if I think about her being taken … a million other things cross our mind,” she said. “We sit and watch the sand dunes and we just think she’s going to run down it and back into our arms, but we’re still waiting.”
- with Australian Associated Press