Part 2 of the top 21 stories of 2021: Cleo Smith and cyclone Seroja dominate headlines

Phoebe Pin and Kate CampbellGeraldton Guardian
Cleo Smith in the hospital after being found.
Camera IconCleo Smith in the hospital after being found. Credit: WA Police/WA Police

COVID was all over local headlines again in 2021 — whether it be about breaches or the divisive vaccine rollout.

But it was a brave four-year-old girl and a cyclone that crossed near Kalbarri, bringing to ruins large parts of the Mid West, that would be the obvious choices for the top two local stories of the past 12 months.

The search for and rescue of Cleo Smith attracted global headlines and galvanised the Mid West-Gascoyne community like never before. Our resilient community spirit was also out in full force when cyclone Seroja tore through the region in April, devastating many communities.

A police officer on trial for murder, raging floods and devastating fires were some of the other entries in the top 10.

Brian Gallagher and Tess Lutherese Legarde outside their brand new beach shack in Glenfield.
Camera IconBrian Gallagher and Tess Lutherese Legarde outside their brand new beach shack in Glenfield. Credit: Lisa Favazzo/The Geraldton Guardian


The boom and bust nature of the property industry was evident in 2021 as Geraldton home values skyrocketed.

By the end of 2019 property prices in regional WA had fallen a whopping 37.6 per cent since peaking in mid-2014, according to analysts Corelogic.

The market was predicted to collapse even further when COVID-19 hit Australian shores.

But over the next few years the Australian property market took of.

A White Peak construction site.
Camera IconA White Peak construction site. Credit: Lisa Favazzo/The Geraldton Guardian

Dwelling values in regional WA have soared 16 per cent in the past 12 months, with Geraldton property prices rising 25 per cent this year.

While the boom is great news for homeowners and investors, 2021 has been a much more difficult year for renters.

The rental vacancy rate sat at 1.1 per cent over November, with prospective tenants struggling to keep a roof over their head as landlords either sold their properties or increased the rent.

This has seen Geraldton’s homelessness problem deepen, with community services run off their feet trying to help desperate people.

Geraldton builders are also experiencing their fair share of challenges.

Government schemes that saw first homeowners able to access up to $45,000 towards a new build have seemingly done more harm than good.

A Geraldton builder told the Guardian he didn’t make a profit on any of the homes he built in 2021 because the cost of building materials and labour had shot through the roof.

Mandatory vaccines for all construction workers threw another spanner in the works.

Expect building costs to keep going up in 2022.

John Laverack
Camera IconJohn Laverack Credit: Facebook/Kylie Edward/Kylie Edward


The Mid West boasts some the best surfing, fishing and boating spots in the State, but the coast can also be fraught with danger for those who are caught off guard by treacherous conditions.

A fun day out on the water off the coast of Jurien Bay came to a devastating end when a Perth grandfather drowned after being thrown from his boat in April. After a wave hit their vessel, Jakov Silich and his daughter Arna Menna fell into the water without life jackets. Ms Menna was quickly pulled back on board by others on the boat but her father had died by the time he was recovered about an hour after the accident.

Tourists were not the only ones to succumb to the Mid West’s dangerous coast, with experienced windsurfer John Laverack also getting into trouble while surfing in rough waters in Kalbarri. Marine rescue volunteers put their own safety at risk to try to rescue the 72-year-old local, but relentless swells forced them to abandon the operation. Tragically, Mr Laverack’s remains were discovered in the coming days and a beachside vigil was held for the gentle animal lover.

Tragedy struck again when Jurien Bay resident Rockley Heales died in a boating accident off the coast of Green Head.

Mr Heales and a friend plunged into the water after their small dinghy capsized in open water near Dynamite Bay in October. The friend managed to swim to shore and raise the alarm, but Mr Heales had died by the time he was found.

Glenn Anderson and his 11-year-old daughter Ruby Anderson speak to 60 MINUTES regarding their ordeal when their yacht capsized at Jurien Bay.
Camera IconGlenn Anderson and his 11-year-old daughter Ruby Anderson speak to 60 MINUTES regarding their ordeal when their yacht capsized at Jurien Bay. Credit: 60 MINUTES/60 MINUTES

A Perth father and daughter captivated the State after they escaped a boating accident with minimal injuries and a stunning tale of survival neither will ever forget.

Glenn Anderson and his 11-year-old daughter Ruby were thrown from their yacht into the ocean after a huge wave struck the boat off the coast of Jurien Bay in June.

Mr Anderson’s three crew found themselves in the water moments after the father and daughter when a second wave flooded the boat.

It took just five minutes for the vessel to sink, tragically taking the family’s puppy Banjo with it.

Mr Anderson’s friends were lifted to safety first but he and his daughter would spend four agonising hours in rough seas before being plucked from the water by rescuers.

Member for Geraldton Lara Dalton celebrates her victory.
Camera IconMember for Geraldton Lara Dalton celebrates her victory. Credit: Phoebe Pin/The West Australian


Candidates threw around promises of cash for the Mid West and Gascoyne in the lead-up to the State election, but it was Premier Mark McGowan’s COVID-era popularity which analysts say gave Labor its landslide victory in March.

The win signalled some historic changes for the region, with Geraldton electing its first female MP after Nationals candidate Ian Blayney lost the electorate to local TAFE lecturer Lara Dalton. It was second time lucky for Ms Dalton, who unsuccessfully ran in the 2017 poll.

The Agricultural Region has some new faces among its representatives, with Geraldton teacher Sandra Carr, Wickepin farmer Steve Martin and former Shire of Esperance councillor Shelley Payne joining electorate incumbents Darren West, Colin de Grussa and Martin Aldridge.

Labor candidate for the North West Central Cherie Sibosado looked poised to claim victory on election night but messages of congratulations proved premature after postal votes coming from Carnarvon swung the seat back into the hands of Nationals incumbent Vince Catania.

Two-term MP Shane Love retained the Moore electorate.

Geraldton's old Rollerdrome at 15 Simpson Street, Beresford. Picture: Elise Van Aken
Camera IconGeraldton's old Rollerdrome at 15 Simpson Street, Beresford. Credit: Midwest Times


Who could forget the wave of nostalgia and excitement when it looked like the revival of Geraldton’s beloved Rollerdrome was on the cards?

Geraldton Sporting Aboriginal Corporation applied to council in August to “use and develop” the venue as an indoor sports facility.

But hopes were dashed when Mitchell & Brown Retravision bought the building for use as a storage facility.

A new microbrewery is proposed for this Fitzgerald St building part owned by Mayor Shane Van Styn
Camera IconA new microbrewery is proposed for this Fitzgerald St building part-owned by Mayor Shane Van Styn. Credit: Edward Scown/Geraldton Guardian

The Rollerdrome revival fail was not the only City of Greater Geraldton council decision to cause a stir, with plans to develop a microbrewery opposite Geraldton Primary School prompting outrage from some locals.

Those against the proposal raised concerns about antisocial behaviour, noise and smell, traffic problems, and a potential impact to the character of the neighbourhood.

But the development ultimately won the support of the public and council, with the family-friendly Batavia Brewing Company expected to open in March.

One council announcement which saw a rare community consensus was the sale of the derelict Batavia Motor Inn.

The prominent eyesore became a home for squatters after it was abandoned more than a decade ago, with the building also subject to frequent vandalism.

The City launched two legal bids against the owners of the site, the now defunct Singaporean investment syndicate Batavia Village Pty Ltd, for failing to secure or demolish the building and for payment of outstanding rates.

It was finally sold for $572,000 to a company part-owned by Giuseppe Scaffidi, a property developer and husband of ex-City of Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi.

The company has not yet revealed its plans for the site.

The shattered pieces of the Horizon sculpture on Geraldton's Beresford foreshore.
Camera IconThe shattered pieces of the Horizon sculpture on Geraldton's Beresford foreshore. Credit: City of Greater Geraldton

It has also been a big year for the council’s public art collection, with the community devastated by the sudden loss of Geraldton’s popular Horizon ball.

Police have ruled out deliberate damage as the cause of the sculpture shattering to pieces in December, with hot weather and previous vandalism identified as likely contributors to the ball “exploding”.

One artwork which almost no one was sad to see go was the Zephyr II, which council decided to remove instead of repaired because of rust damage.

Perhaps the only critic of council’s decision was artwork designer Dr Nigel Helyer, who sent the City a letter claiming the council failed in its obligation to maintain the sculpture and requested the City pay him $25,000 in reputational damage.

The historic Victoria Hotel on fire in the early hours of Friday, February 19 2021.
Camera IconThe historic Victoria Hotel on fire in the early hours of Friday, February 19, 2021. Credit: Pippa Glynn/Supplied


It was a loss felt by the entire community. The loss of a piece of local history and a landmark — despite being a rundown empty shell in its later years.

In February, a fire which raged for 10 hours gutted the old Victoria Hotel building on Marine Terrace, which had last traded as Blue Heelers Tavern.

The blaze caused $500,000 damage and the unsafe building was swiftly demolished. In subsequent months, Geraldton detectives charged two teenagers over the February 17 fire.

The condemned building was torn down by Saturday afternoon.
Camera IconThe condemned building was torn down by Saturday afternoon. Credit: Liam Beatty/Geraldton Guardian

Many people dealt with the loss by reminiscing over old memories spent at the local watering hole.

The 159-year-old building had sat derelict for the past 10 years after being bought by a now-defunct investment company — Geraldton Investments Pty Ltd.

Later in the year, the Guardian revealed the bulldozed site had been snapped up by a new owner, along with three adjoining properties in Geraldton’s CBD. The site’s future remains unclear at this stage.

Carnarvon floods - damaged roads
Camera IconDamaged roads in the Carnarvon floods. Credit: Facebook / Main Roads Western Au/Facebook / Main Roads Western Au


From bushfires to tropical cyclones, 2021 was full of natural disasters which devastated regional WA.

The Gascoyne was hit with one it its worst floods in 50 years when an intense tropical weather system dumped 200mm of rain on the region in February.

Dramatic images emerged of a sea of orange surging over plantations and roads, with parts of North West Coastal Highway washed away by flooding.

No one was killed in the weather event, but a mother and a daughter endured the frightening ordeal of being trapped in their car for 24 hours before they were rescued.

Carnarvon floods
Photo credit: Scott Morgan / Shark Bay Aviation
Camera IconDramatic images emerged of a sea of orange surging over plantations and roads in the Carnarvon floods. Credit: Scott Morgan/Shark Bay Aviation

The disaster trashed about 20 per cent of the region’s agriculture businesses, with Carnarvon growers forced to wait months for the State Government to deliver its $1m pledge to replenish topsoil so farmers could get on with seeding.

Other growers whose properties escaped unscathed will now reap the rewards this harvest season thanks to record-breaking rainfall during the floods.

##MUST CREDIT Tamati Smith.## 
Rally in Geraldton for JC after the verdict for the JC trial was delivered on Friday the 22nd of October 2021
Camera IconRally in Geraldton for JC after the verdict for the JC trial was delivered on Friday, October 22, 2021 Credit: Tamati Smith/Tamati Smith.


It was the trial of the century in the sense it was the first time a WA police officer had been charged with murder in almost a century.

Geraldton was on tenterhooks as the trial of the first class constable, whose identity remains suppressed, started in October. He was accused of murdering local Yamatji woman and mother, known as JC for cultural reasons, during a stand-off in 2019 when JC was armed with a knife and scissors.

By the end of the month, the officer had been acquitted of murder and manslaughter.

A woman has died after being shot by a police officer north of Perth on Tuesday night. Officers were called to a property in the Geraldton suburb of Karloo at 6.15pm when according to a WA Police spokesperson "during an incident at the address, an officer discharged their firearm". The 29-year-old woman suffered a single gunshot wound and was taken to Geraldton Regional Hospital at 6.50pm but died later than night. ABC radio quoted a witness who said the woman was holding a knife and lunged at the police officer before she we was shot. Pictured: Joyce Clarke, believed to be the victim.
Picture Facebook
Camera IconYamatji woman and mother, known as JC for cultural reasons Credit: Unknown/Facebook

During the trial, the prosecution alleged the officer had no justification for shooting JC, arguing his actions during the frantic 16-second confrontation amounted to murder — because the 29-year-old woman had stopped and was not moving her feet.

But the officer’s defence claimed police officers were entitled to use any force as long as it was reasonably necessary and this officer’s actions that day were justified because he was trying to arrest her and that JC had refused to drop the knife despite repeated requests.

Eight police officers swarmed to the street where JC was, but only one — the accused — drew his gun.

##MUST CREDIT Tamati Smith.## 
Rally in Geraldton for JC after the verdict for the JC trial was delivered on Friday the 22nd of October 2021
Camera Icon##MUST CREDIT Tamati Smith.## Rally in Geraldton for JC after the verdict for the JC trial was delivered on Friday the 22nd of October 2021 Credit: Tamati Smith./Tamati Smith.

The not-guilty verdicts sparked a wave of anger and protests in Geraldton and Perth, with many saying justice had not been served.

WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson described JC’s death as “one of the most difficult chapters in the history between Aboriginal people in Western Australia and the WA Police Force”.

The acquitted officer is understood to be trying to get his job back with the WA Police Force.

Geraldton's first mass COVID-19 vaccination clinc was kicking goals on its opening day, with West Coast Eagles star Josh Kennedy dropping by to encourage Mid West residents to get jabbed.
Camera IconGeraldton's first mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic was kicking goals on its opening day, with West Coast Eagles star Josh Kennedy dropping by to encourage Mid West residents to get jabbed. Credit: Michael Roberts/Midwest Times

3. COVID IN 2021

The arrival of COVID vaccines in WA carried with it the promise of an end to snap lockdowns and virus deaths and the start of quarantine-free travel with the rest of Australia and, later, the world.

But the Mid West was slow to roll up its sleeves with reports of a rare blood clotting side-effect of the Astra Zeneca vaccine making residents hesitant to get the jab.

There were also issues with getting vaccination rates up in younger residents due to regional WA initially being ill-equipped to store the Pfizer vaccine.

Demonstrations were staged in Geraldton in protest of mandatory vaccinations and those who lost their jobs after refusing to be vaccination marched outside the offices of local MPs.

Some Mid West residents have gone so far as to break the law to avoid getting the COVID jab, with a Kalbarri woman currently before the courts after being accused of attempting to bribe a pharmacist to falsify her vaccination records.

Geraldton Health Campus.
Camera IconGeraldton Health Campus. Credit: Lisa Favazzo/The Geraldton Guardian

The ability of Geraldton’s healthcare system to manage COVID cases was called into question when the treatment of a sick seafarer triggered a breach of strict protocols.

The July 7 incident occurred when a crew member from the MV Emerald Indah was taken to Geraldton Health Campus with COVID symptoms.

The man remained in the hospital’s emergency department for three hours before he was transferred to the hospital’s negative pressure room.

It was later confirmed the patient had tested positive for the highly infectious Delta strain of the virus, with one close contact and 55 casual contacts all returning negative COVID test results.

In response to the breach, the hospital was provided with a new portable system to convert spaces into negative pressure rooms.

A review of hospital protocols also saw additional measures introduced to prevent staff from entering elevators or corridors during the transfer of COVID patients.

The town of Kalbarri was smashed last night by Tropical Cyclone Seroja. This was the destruction today.
Picture Simon Hydzik/7NEWS
Camera IconThe town of Kalbarri was smashed by cyclone Seroja. Credit: Simon Hydzik/7NEWS/Simon Hydzik/7NEWS


Everyone knew it was coming, but no one could have predicted the path of destruction cyclone Seroja would leave in its wake in April.

Data on the once-in-a-generation storm was staggering: Wind gusts up to 170km/h caused widespread damage to more than 1100 structures across a 130,000sqkm impact area.

No one was killed during the cyclone and incredible stories soon emerged of families who clung to each other as they sheltered under tables while winds ripped off the roof from over their heads.

Kalbarri bore the brunt of the storm, with about 70 per cent of structures sustaining damage and many households relying on generators for months before power was restored to the town.

Few homes were hit in Geraldton, but businesses which were forced to close during the three-day power blackout lost income.

GEN Cyclone damage at Kalbarri. 
Pic. Iain Gillespie The West Australian
Camera IconCyclone damage in Kalbarri. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

Inland farmers in Mingenew, Mullewa and Perenjori were forced to dodge downed power lines and poles as they turned their attention to seeding. But there has been an unexpected silver lining to the cyclone, as Mid West growers are now harvesting a bumper crop this summer.

Residents, businesses and farmers in 13 local government areas are still picking up the pieces eight months on from the disaster, with problems associated with insurance claims, resource shortages and an under-pressure construction industry affecting the recovery process.

West Australians eager to help donated $7.6m to the Lord Mayor’s Distress Relief Fund, with the State and Commonwealth governments also delivering a record-breaking $104m package to support communities as they rebuild.

Cleo Smith and her family leave the house for the first time since her dramatic rescue. Kelsey Reid
Camera IconCleo Smith and her family leave the house for the first time since her dramatic rescue. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian


“My name is Cleo.” Just four words that still give us goosebumps when we think about the moment little Cleo Smith was rescued by police. Carnarvon was thrust into the spotlight when the four-year-old girl with a smile that melted even the toughest of hearts vanished from her family’s tent at the Blowholes Campground on October 16.

Over the next 18 days, Australia held its breath as police mobilised SES volunteers, marine search crews, drone technicians, mounted officers and homicide squad detectives to solve the mystery of Cleo’s disappearance.

gen Carnarvon Cleo Smith - Carnarvon colour and celebration - Welcome home cleo from CFSS WA LTD and Lotteries House
Camera IconA ‘Welcome home Cleo’ sign from CFSS WA LTD and Lotteries House. Credit: /facebook/supplied

Right from day one it was clear something far more sinister had happened than a child getting lost while going to the toilet.

Parents Ellie Smith and Jake Gliddon fronted cameras in the days after they last kissed their daughter goodnight, with police stressing they were not suspects in the wake of wild social media accusations against the couple.

As the search approached the three-week mark, Carnarvon felt heavy with fading hopes and fears Cleo would never be found.

But behind the scenes, the pieces of the puzzle were rapidly clicking into place.

Terence Kelly appears at Carnarvon Court via video link on charges of kidnapping Cleo Smith
Camera IconTerence Kelly appears at Carnarvon Court via video link on charges of kidnapping Cleo Smith. Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

Police made their move at 12.45am on November 2 when they broke into a Brockman home and found Cleo quietly playing with toys.

Alleged kidnapper Terence Kelly, 36, was arrested shortly after Cleo’s rescue and was later charged over her abduction.

The best and worst story of 2021 rolled into one.

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