A family friend — one of the first people at the Blowholes camping ground just hours after Cleo was reported missing — has described how he launched a drone as soon he arrived while others jumped on quad bikes to start the desperate search for the four-year-old.
And the close loved one has also revealed how he didn’t believe there was any way Cleo’s parents were involved in the disappearance, as he spoke of the tears and emotion of the morning.
The friend has told The West during the first few frantic hours there was no hysteria just raw shock at the enormity of the tragedy that was unfolding.
Campers jumped on quad bikes and others started ploughing through the rough sand dune terrain surrounding the camp site, meanwhile the girl’s distraught mother Ellie also had to care for her youngest child, 18-month old Isla, while looking for her eldest daughter.
“Ellie was just in shock and I think that’s all it comes down to is everyone’s in shock. I mean, you know, there was no hysteria yet but that’s because there’s been such a big shock to the system,” the friend said.
“And we were still in hope that she was just kind of coming out of a hiding spot. That was the same hope all day. Well, same, hopefully, four or five days. The hope started to fade probably around the second day.” The friend — among several friends and family who heeded an urgent SOS to help find the four-year-old — said they leapt into action right away. “Obviously everyone was pretty stressed, crying, pretty upset. As soon as I got there, I had a quick word with Jake, just to see what he had seen when he first started looking because by the time I got there, there was a police block set up,” he said.
“So I put the drone up pretty much straight away. Basically, as soon as I got there about 7.30 I put my drone up and searched.”
The friend said Ms Smith rang his partner at their Carnarvon home shortly after Cleo went missing. “Ellie called us around 6.45 … saying that Cleo was missing and was nowhere to be found. Ellie was pretty upset and crying. I pretty much straight away said to (his partner) we better go and she goes ‘yeah they’d do exactly the same for us’. We went that fast I didn’t find my shoes so I went up there with no shoes,” the friend said.
They were not the only friends racing to the Smith family’s aid, with Cleo’s uncle also driving to the camp site at the same time.
“So he overtook me when we got on the bitumen. I don’t think anyone gave a f… if they got caught by police. And I think that’s his whole mentality the whole way through. There’s a bigger fish to fry than giving everyone a fine that’s trying to find Cleo,” the friend said.
The inhospitable surrounds of the idyllic campground meant the friend thought early on she could not just have walked off.
“You can’t really just go for a walk up into the dunes without pretty good protective gear. So yeah, imagine the four-year-old trying to walk through early hours in the morning. But you know, it was still a possibility that it could have happened,” the friend said.
“It was it always in the back of my mind she had been taken. I mean, there’s always that possibility. Once the police started slowly turning it into more of a dual investigation it started to make you realise more, and that it wasn’t just a search.”
After several hours without any sign of Cleo hopes started fading but no one was giving up on finding the sweet girl.
“There weren’t many conversations on Saturday. It was just all hands on deck pretty much. We probably had a quick conversation here and there about Isla because everyone was helping look after her. The most conversation I had with anyone on Saturday was with the police about security cameras trying to locate where cameras were to eliminate which way she went,” the friend said.
“I mean, we’ve got to just hope that she shows up and that she came home in the end. I mean, you can’t lose hope otherwise you start to lose yourself. We had a few people that were always up there at night. The night is when it became the hardest for them to sit there and face everything.”
The friend said there was no way his friends had anything to do with Cleo’s disappearance. “How many times have the police and media said that the parents aren’t suspects? Countless times, but people still don’t believe them,” he said. “Ellie and Jake would do anything for anyone. They love, as parents do, their kids. And if the shoe was on the other foot they would do the exact same thing for anyone else.”
Friends and locals searched as far as 600km away from Blowholes in the first two days before the search was scaled back later in the first week.
“I think they had police calculate how long a four-year-old could last out bush for and it was four to five days, so that gave us a lot of hope, too. Everyone kept looking because of that. Obviously, the best outcome would have been finding her within the first few hours,” the friend said.
“People still had hope, I guess it was in the back of everyone’s mind that she had been taken. I mean, everyone was concerned that was the case and the reality of it, but we still had hope that she had gotten lost or wandered off.”
A parent himself with children around the same age as Cleo and Isla, the friend said his friends were in hell waiting for any word that Cleo was safe. “You wake up at 1.30 and see your kids there and then you wake up at six and one of them is gone? What do you do? Yeah, they’ve done as much as they could,” he said.