TV Channel Accuses Wrong Man of Kidnapping 4-Year-Old in Facebook Mix-Up thumbnail

TV Channel Accuses Wrong Man of Kidnapping 4-Year-Old in Facebook Mix-Up

Cleo Smith, who was abducted for 18 days, is carried by her mother on November 4, 2021 in Carnarvon, Australia, just one day after being rescued by police.

Cleo Smith, who was abducted for 18 days, is carried by her mother on November 4, 2021 in Carnarvon, Australia, just one day after being rescued by police.
Photo: Tamati Smith (Getty Images)

Australia’s Channel 7 news published photos of an innocent man on Wednesday, alleging he had abducted a young girl from a campsite last month. The only problem? Channel 7 had the wrong guy, apparently because reporters used Facebook and found someone with a similar name, and splashed his photos all over Twitter, Facebook, and the news outlet’s own website.

Australians breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when it was announced 4-year-old Cleo Smith, who’d been missing for 18 days, was discovered by police in a locked house in the town of Carnarvon, Western Australia. The little girl was abducted from a tent during a camping trip with her family in a remote area roughly 50 minutes north of their home, prompting a nationwide hunt for the child.

But there was one question on everyone’s mind after Australia finally learned young Cleo was alive and in good health: Who would do such a thing? Channel 7 thought they had an answer, plastering the internet with photos of someone they believed was the suspect named “Terrance Kelly.” But they picked the wrong guy and the news outlet had to issue an apology on Thursday. Not only is Kelly an extremely common last name in Australia, they got the spelling of Terence wrong.

“Earlier on Wednesday 7NEWS wrongly showed images of a man that were incorrectly labelled as the person under arrest over the disappearance of Cleo Smith,” a notice on the news outlet’s website says.

“These were removed promptly, but 7NEWS apologises for the error,” the notice continues.

G/O Media may get a commission

Indigenous news outlet Ngaarda Media wrote about the mix-up on Facebook, explaining that the wrongly accused man—who’s actually named Terry Flowers but goes by the name Terry Kelly sometimes because it’s his mother’s name—had been absolutely beside himself over the false accusation. Ngaarda also included a screenshot of one of the Channel 7 tweets featuring the innocent man.

A screenshot of the tweet wrongly pinning the crime on an innocent man, with annotations by Gizmodo

A screenshot of the tweet wrongly pinning the crime on an innocent man, with annotations by Gizmodo
Image: Facebook/Twitter

In the tweet, Channel 7 explains a man had been spotted buying “nappies,” Australian slang for diapers, even though he wasn’t known to have any children. And while that anecdote from a witness appears to be true, the photos they used were of the wrong guy.

Australia’s SBS News notes that the innocent man was elated when he found out young Cleo Smith had been rescued but had a panic attack when a relative told him his photo was everywhere as “the person who took the girl.”

“I got really upset yesterday. It put me in a state where I had to come into the hospital,” Flowers told SBS News. “They gave me drugs just to calm me down.”

“What they did was go straight on Facebook. The first person they seen got through my photos and uploaded on social media, and spread it around, not just in Australia, this is worldwide,” Flowers said, adding that he’s exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against the media company.

On Thursday evening Australian time (early morning ET), police officially charged the real suspect, 36-year-old Terence Darrell Kelly with abduction.

From Australia’s ABC News:

Police have been questioning Terence Darrell Kelly, 36, for the past two days and have this afternoon charged him with two offences, including abducting Cleo.

Mr Kelly was arrested on a street in town after police officers broke into the state housing commission home he was living in and found Cleo playing with toys inside.

It’s alleged he took the four-year-old while she slept inside her family’s tent at the Blowholes Campground on October 16.

Again, Kelly is an extremely common last name in Australia. And it’s shocking that Channel 7 would just distribute the photo of an alleged child kidnapper without maybe doing some basic verification work.

Channel 7, which has a long history of incredibly racist reporting, did not reply to Gizmodo’s request for comment. We’ll update this post if we hear back.