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Cleo Smith discovered: How stunning police work led police to missing girl

The stunning police work that led to Cleo Smith’s rescue weeks after she vanished offers hope that cops could still crack other unsolved cases.

After 18 days missing, fears were growing that leads would dry up and Cleo’s baffling abduction might remain a mystery like that of murdered schoolboy Gerard Ross.

But despite Taskforce Rodia’s race to find the four-year-old, it was meticulous and methodical police work — and the resolute belief she could still be alive — that produced the breakthrough her parents were praying for.

It is not yet known why Cleo’s alleged abductor kept her alive but research suggests she is an exception — though of course her parents’ hope that she would be found safe and well is not.

The desperate families of missing children such as Madeleine McCann and William Tyrrell cling to the hope of such a miracle.

Bruce and Denise Morcombe had hoped for eight long years that their missing son Daniel — who disappeared from the Sunshine Coast in 2003 — would return to them.

Disappeared: Daniel Morcombe
Camera IconDisappeared: Daniel Morcombe Credit: QLD POLICE MEDIA/PR IMAGE

An element of their agony was caused by not knowing what happened to their precious boy.

Years after Daniel’s disappearance, they still didn’t know who took him, if they still had him, where he was or if he was alive.

It wasn’t until 2011, when police charged Brett Cowan with the 13-year-old’s murder and recovered some of Daniel’s remains, that they were forced to accept their son was dead.

Last month, Bruce Morcombe expressed his heartfelt hope that Cleo would be found alive.

“We all wish that of course she’s found healthy and well,” he said.

“We can only hope and pray that is the result. With every day that goes by it becomes more urgent.”

In another baffling case, Gerard Ross vanished during a family holiday at Rockingham, south of Perth, in October 1997.

For two long weeks after the 11-year-old disappeared, his parents Stewart and Cyrese prayed their son would turn up alive.

“For me, it was the worst nightmare that you couldn’t get out of,” Cyrese said.

“Not knowing where he was was so difficult. Thinking about what could be happening to him was unbearable.”

It was the same for Stewart, who tried to hide his fears.

“I just had the feeling that I wanted him back,” he said.

“The thought of never knowing what happened to him was so unbearable. The hope (was) he’d turn up alive, walk back through the door.”

The Ross family felt helpless as the police searched for their son.

“I felt very powerless (because) there was nothing I could do,” Stewart said.

“Being a parent, you want to protect your children, see the best for them, but I was sitting there so annoyed at myself that I couldn’t do anything.

“I thought that something drastic had happened, but I always had the hope that he’d turn up and walk through the door again.”

Then, two weeks later, Gerard’s body was found 20km away in the Karnup pine plantation.

Major crime boss Det-Supt Rod Wilde, who led Taskforce Rodia in finding Cleo, was until recently overseeing the reinvestigation of Gerard’s case.

Gerard’s grief-stricken family remain hopeful — and terrified — of a breakthrough.

In 2019, his parents told The West Australian that the prospect of seeing justice for their son was “very scary”.

“We hope someone is going to come forward and we’re going to have justice for him but that will be difficult too because it’s going to become really real for us,” Cyrese said.

“I’m not saying it’s not real now but … to have a face and a name means that this person is going to have a presence in our lives that they don’t have at the moment.

“When I used to follow what was going on in Australia, the person who murdered Daniel (Morcombe), those kind of people were in my mind but not a name and a face.”

The family of murdered schoolboy Gerard Ross has joined WA Police in a fresh appeal for public help to identify his killer. Eleven year old Gerard was abducted and murdered just over 19 years ago when his family was holidaying in Rockingham. Acting Detective Inspector Jon Munday from the Special Crime Squad said the appeal for information follows a comprehensive review of the Ross homicide investigation in 2014. ?Since then the Special Crime Squad has been working through the review recommendations and opened up new lines of inquiry which police hope will lead to a breakthrough,? Acting Inspector Munday said. ?Several new persons of interest have also been identified.?
Camera IconGerard Ross. Credit: Unknown/WA Police

But nonetheless, they say they need justice for their family to “fully” move on.

“That person shouldn’t be able to live normally without being caught,” Cyrese said.

“They should pay for that, they should suffer – not like us because they won’t but – they shouldn’t be free on the streets to live a normal life.

“They’ve taken so much from Gerard and us.”

Former WA police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan told The West in 2019 that “all cases are solvable”.

“It’s just finding that piece of info, that link, that allows you to prosecute somebody,” he said.

The truly miraculous discovery of Cleo, alive and well, after such an ordeal is possibly WA Police’s greatest success story.

The overwhelming emotion felt across the country on Wednesday at such a positive outcome, achieved so swiftly under such intense pressure, even eclipsed the emotion felt when detectives cracked the Claremont case after two decades — because Cleo was alive.

The three Claremont victims were abducted and murdered between January 1996 and March 1997.

Last year, Bradley Edwards was found guilty of wilfully murdering Jane Rimmer and Ciara Glennon, but was acquitted of the murder of Sarah Spiers.

“The propensity of evidence makes it more likely that the accused was the killer of Ms Spiers, but cannot of prove it beyond reasonable doubt in the absence of any other evidence as to the identity of the killer,” Justice Stephen Hall told the court as the verdicts were handed down.

Sarah’s body has never been found.

“We will never give up trying to locate Sarah,” Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said.

The police investigation into Gerard’s case is now among the largest in the State’s history, second only to the Macro investigation into the Claremont killings.

Solving it has also become the special crime squad’s highest priority, with a $1 million reward for information that leads to a prosecution still available.

Despite almost 24 years passing, Det-Insp. Darryl Cox said “we’re not going away” and that his team is still scrutinising dozens of long-standing suspects in this case.

“WA Police continue to actively investigate the death of an innocent 11-year-old boy,” he said.

“We continue to interview suspects and explore investigative and forensic opportunities. It’s an active and well-resourced investigation.”

The veteran detective, who has worked on Gerard’s case multiple times throughout his 37-year career, said he was confident it would be solved.

“We will always remain committed to solving Gerard’s murder,” he said.

“We’re not going away.”

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