MELBOURNE, Australia — A 4-year-old girl who vanished in the dead of night while camping with her family in a remote area of Western Australia was found “alive and well” 18 days later in a locked house, the authorities said on Wednesday.
The girl, Cleo Smith, was freed after the police broke into the empty house in Carnarvon, the same town where she and her family lived. The police later detained a 36-year-old man and said he had no known connection to the family.
“One of the officers picked her up into his arms and asked her ‘What’s your name?’” Col Blanch, Western Australia’s deputy police commissioner, said in a statement. “She said, ‘My name is Cleo.’ This is the outcome we all hoped and prayed for.”
Many questions remain, such as why the girl disappeared and if the man will be charged. The rescue brought an end to a case that had gripped Australia and had led to a major search effort involving 100 police officers and military surveillance planes. The authorities had offered a reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($740,000) for information leading to Cleo.
It is rare for missing children to be found alive after so long when they are taken by someone who is not a relative. In Australia, approximately 25,000 young people are reported missing each year, according to the authorities.
“The likelihood of her being recovered alive was very low and getting lower as the days passed,” said Xanthe Mallett, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Newcastle. “For a child to be taken and found well after nearly 19 days, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of outcome.”
Terry Goldsworthy, an associate professor of criminology at Bond University, said the issuing of a reward so quickly after the disappearance was also unusual. “Normally, you have rewards issued when normal investigative techniques are exhausted and it becomes a cold case,” he said.
The police said it was unlikely that the reward would be claimed because it was a combination of factors, not a single lead, that had to led to Cleo’s rescue.
Cleo went camping on Oct. 16 with her mother, Ellie Smith, her stepfather, Jake Gliddon, and a younger sister. The last time Cleo was seen was around 1:30 a.m. the next day, when she asked her mother for a glass of water, the police said.
When her mother awoke later, she noticed that the girl, along with her sleeping bag, was missing. The tent’s zipper had been undone to a height that Cleo could not have reached, officials said.
When the Western Australian government announced the reward for Cleo, hundreds of calls about sightings poured in from around the country. There were reports that bounty hunters traveled to the area, hoping to cash in on the reward.
The police interviewed 110 people who were at the campsite the night she disappeared. The popular but remote spot, called Quobba Blowholes, is along Western Australia’s coast and an hour’s drive north of Carnarvon, a coastal town of about 5,000 people.
Officials investigated reports of past predatory behavior in the area and examined the outside of the Smiths’ house for signs of a stalker who might have attempted to break in, according to local news reports. They also sifted through bags of rubbish, scoured the dark web and examined thousands of records from cellphone towers.
About 1 a.m. on Wednesday, a police team found Cleo.
“They’ve been looking for that needle in the haystack,” Deputy Commissioner Blanch told a local TV station. “Late last night they found that needle that led them to that address and rescued Cleo.” He did not elaborate further.
“Our family is whole again,” Ms. Smith said on social media after Cleo’s rescue.
“What wonderful, relieving news,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Twitter.
Western Australia’s police commissioner, Chris Dawson, said on local radio on Wednesday: “We are thankful for the way the community came together, because this strikes at the very heart of every parent, of every Australian. To have a young child abducted from an iconic sort of location, camping with the family — it touches everyone.”
In September, a 3-year-old Australian boy, Anthony Elfalak, was found safe near a creek about 650 feet from his home after he vanished in rural New South Wales, spurring an extensive three-day search. The New South Wales Police’s Twitter account posted video footage showing him sitting alone and drinking water from the creek.