ActivePaper Archive PROBE IS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE - The West Australian , 10/30/2021



Internationally renowned criminologist Dr Graham Hill takes a look at the highly unusual case unfolding in front of investigating officers. By John Flint

It is pitch black. The usual canopy of hundreds of stars is masked by clouds, as is the moon. The tent is buffeted by the wind while the ocean roars in the near distance. But all is still inside.

Outside, there is a predator lurking in the gloom. One bold enough to unzip a tent and steal a sleeping child, with her parents close by.

That is the scenario Taskforce Rodia detectives are being asked to respond to by Cleo Smith’s parents, who believe their four-year-old toddler didn’t get up and go for a walk. Instead, they believe someone took her.

It’s a scenario police are duty-bound to take seriously, no matter how strange and rare — not just as a crime, but even compared with past child abductions.

Following unfolding developments in the case closely from the other side of the world is Dr Graham Hill. The former detective superintendent with Surrey Police is one of the world’s leading authorities on child abduction and murder.

After he left the force, he became head of behaviour analysis at the UK’s Child Exploitation Online Protection Command. He now teaches police forces in the northern hemisphere about child abduction.

His curiosity in the case was piqued when The West Australian reached out to him more than a week ago. As an ex-cop, he knows it can be annoying for detectives working difficult cases to have their actions second-guessed and micro-dissected by “experts” who aren’t on the ground or seeing the same picture.

It’s why he won’t criticise them.

But as someone who understands the modus operandi of child abductors and how they think he has valuable insights to share. The criminologist, who has interviewed dozens of them in jails, said the scenario at the top of this article was very much “outside the norm”.

“I’ve interviewed these men all over the world and there’s not many people who are going to stumble around a camp site in the dark trying to get into a tent that they know the parents are in as well,” he said. “That’s high-risk, desperate activity, which is highly unusual and highly unlikely.

“If she was abducted, the person that took her out of that tent must have seen her when she arrived (at the Blowholes site). Otherwise, they would never have known she was in that tent.

“So the person who took her — if someone took her — had to be on that camp site when the family arrived. If someone did approach that tent in the complete darkness on a windy night, find a zipper on a tent, pull it up quietly and take a little child, they are an enormous risk taker.

“Child abductors tend to be reactionary, they tend to react to what they see and what they hear. And they act on the spur of the moment. . . They’re confronted with a set of circumstances in which a child is either alone, or they see a child alone, and they seize the moment. They’re opportunistic, and they’re situational.

“None of that fits with the scenario we’ve got.

“Clearly, if she has been taken by someone, it’s far, far riskier to do it that way. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person that commits these types of crimes who is going to take those kinds of risks . . . The risk is enormous.”

Dr Hill said the idea of Cleo’s family being stalked by a predator at their home in Carnarvon was the stuff of movies only. “That’s not how sex offenders work,” he said.

The criminologist is curious to know how police have independently corroborated that Cleo was at the camp site in the first place.

Officers have said her voice can be heard on CCTV footage from a nearby shack.

“Who’s telling them that’s the little girl’s voice?” Dr Hill asked. “If you can’t corroborate she was at the site, it changes the whole dynamics of the investigation.

“You need an independent person to say that’s her and even then you couldn’t be certain it was (Cleo).

“It could be a child that sounds like her . . . Are there independent witnesses that can put that little girl on that camp site on that night? I would also want to know in detail what the family did from when they arrived (at the Blowholes) on that until they raised the alarm.”

Dr Hill said detectives have a saying about “clearing the ground under your feet”. And before they can move to the next stage of an investigation “they have to be certain that the people close to the child are not involved”.

More than two weeks on, he anticipated the investigation would be moving into a “slow phase” where police review the information they’ve collected so far.

“They go back and revisit the evidence that they’ve collected and analyse it and look at it and review it,” he said. “It’s really important to go back and look at who you’ve already spoken to, what they’ve said, are you happy with it? The worst case scenario is that you’ve already spoken to the person that did it. Or you’ve got a vital bit of information in the system that you just haven’t identified how important it is. My gut feeling is the answer (to the case) is on that camp site.”

He said Det-Supt Rod Wilde’s visit to the coastal spot was essential.

As head of the investigation it was important for him to “walk the scene”. “You’ve got to get a feel for it” in a way you can’t get “by just looking at photos and maps”, he said.

Dr Hill said police would be doing “phone work” not least to identify as many people as possible who were at the campground or in the vicinity when Cleo disappeared.

“In a remote part of the country where this took place there’s only going to be a few telephone masts,” he said.

“So every time someone uses a phone, it goes to the nearest mast or bounces on to the next mast. So you can do a lot of triangulation as to where phones are.

“Whoever the service provider for the mast is, you ask them to do what’s called a cell dump where they download all of the numbers that bounced off that mast within, say, a 48-hour period. That gives you all the numbers, and then you can do subscriber checks on all of those numbers. And it should tell you who owns the phones.

“It doesn’t identify who’s got the phone in hand, but it will give you an idea of witnesses that have got away from the scene that you haven’t spoken to.”

The prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann, case, Christian Brueckner, could have been identified earlier if Portuguese police had acted on their own data. “They did a cell dump, but didn’t look at the numbers,” Dr Hill. “They now know that (Brueckner) made a phone call very close to where she went missing around the same time. They had the data, but no one went through it.”

Investigators would also be eagerly going through all the CCTV footage showing vehicle movements on the North West Coastal Highway, both north and south of the Blowholes turn-off. It also made sense to obtain vision from before the weekend that Cleo vanished, Dr Hill said. “Even if you can’t see a car leaving (the area) in the dark it had to get there,” he said. “So I’d be looking for (vision of) it going to the site.”

Conversely, if a vehicle of interest isn’t picked up on any footage heading away from the camp site, it can be assumed it left in darkness. “You’re implicating them by the fact you can’t see them as opposed to you can see them,” he said.