Ben O’Shea: Why Cleo Smith’s smile will stay with me forever

Headshot of Ben O'Shea
Ben O'SheaThe West Australian
Four-year-old Cleo Smith waves as she sits on a bed in hospital.
Camera IconFour-year-old Cleo Smith waves as she sits on a bed in hospital. Credit: RR/AP

Hosting the West Live podcast, I’ve spent the past two weeks talking to Carnarvon locals, forensic and crime experts, and colleagues who have reported tirelessly from the scene of Cleo Smith’s disappearance on October 16.

As more time elapsed, logic and crime statistics suggested a positive outcome was increasingly unlikely.

So, when I was notified by WA Police in the early hours of Wednesday morning that Cleo had been found, I was prepared for the worst.

Turns out what I was not prepared for was the image of little Cleo, with a big smile on her face, waving cheerfully with an icy pole in the other hand, safe and sound in a Carnarvon hospital bed.

Even looking at the image now, it feels like my heart is in a vice and it takes a conscious effort to stop tears streaming down my cheeks.

Until that photo arrived, it was possible, but not easy, to treat this like it was any other story, even though the specifics were horrifying and exceedingly rare for WA.

In this job you encounter death, disaster and the detritus of humanity on a daily basis.

Focus on the task at hand and gather information, wherever you can find it, and share said information with the public in the hope it can provide some light in the darkness.

That’s the job.

Don’t, under any circumstances, frame the disappearance of Cleo around your own daughter, I told myself repeatedly over the past 18 days.

To do so, I knew, would be paralysing, so instead I held fast to facts, while trying desperately to keep some distance from the raw emotion expressed by Ellie Smith time and time again as she struggled to cope with her loss.

What does “every parent’s worse nightmare” even mean? I wasn’t about to contemplate it.

But when I looked at Cleo in that hospital bed — the perfect, impossible, miracle of her smiling face — any facade I’d built to maintain a separation from the emotion collapsed.

I wasn’t even seeing Cleo in that moment — all I could see was my own daughter when she was four years old, holding a Zooper Dooper and shooting me a cheeky grin.

And that’s when the true horror of Ellie Smith’s living nightmare hit me.

That feeling only intensified later, seeing the body-cam footage of little Cleo in the arms of her police rescuers, so small and fragile, yet resilient as all parents know their kids to be.

Cleo will recover, you can be sure of it, and through the loving support of her family the ordeal will, hopefully, become just another forgotten memory as she gets older.

But that image of her smiling face will linger with me in a way I can honestly say a career as a journalist didn’t prepare me for.

Maybe it’ll make me a better one in the future, and I’ll always have Cleo to thank for it.

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