A teenager who accused a man of raping her was told by police there was no chance of a successful prosecution and that a trial would be “very traumatic”, leading her to fear she would never be believed.
The body of 19-year-old Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found 11 days after she ran away from her aunt’s home in Swanage, Dorset, on November 7 2017.
Ms Pope, who suffered with severe epilepsy, had died of hypothermia.
Her cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, told Dorset Coroner’s Court that Ms Pope changed following the alleged rape, which had taken place when she was 16 years old, and she began suffering with cycles of severe mental health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
She said her cousin experienced repeated crisis points in the years that followed while she and the family desperately tried to get her adequate support.
Despite repeated hospitalisations under the Mental Health Act, Ms Pope-Weidemann said Ms Pope would often be discharged with “no care plan”.
Ms Pope-Weidemann said she was often made to feel “like a nuisance” when enquiring about the care of her cousin, who she acted as an advocate for.
She recalled being hung up on and being told to stop calling several times, and said: “There were call terminations that followed sentences like ‘there’s nothing we can do for you, there’s no one available’.”
One psychiatrist who assessed Ms Pope wrote she had “delusions of sexual assault”.
Ms Pope-Weidemann added: “It seemed that mental health services had made up their mind that it was a delusion.”
She had sat with the college student while she was interviewed by Dorset Police about the alleged rape in December 2015, a process she said her cousin felt was “re-traumatising”.
By June the next year the force had said they did not intend to prosecute him, and Ms Pope said officers sought to dissuade Ms Pope from appealing the decision saying: “They described what it would be like in court being cross-examined by a defence layer.
“They said, ‘we don’t think there is any chance of it being successful and it would be very traumatic’.”
Some months later, Ms Pope saw a Dorset Police Facebook post announcing the man she had accused of rape had been jailed for other sexual offences.
She continued to be contacted by her alleged attacker but police refused to offer her any protection. At the time of her disappearance, she had concerns about him soon being released from prison.
“She lived with fear pretty much every day for the rest of her life,” her cousin told the jury.
She said she thought her cousin was again having feelings of not being believed before she went missing.
When Ms Pope fled, Ms Pope-Weidemann said the family were “terrified”, and said: “We’d been afraid for a long time that something like this might happen.”
The family sprang into action printing posters, coordinating a growing number of volunteers and attempting to coordinate area searches with the police. But Ms Pope-Weidemann said they felt like the force were resistant to working with them.
At times, she said, it was difficult to get through to anyone in the force and the number she was told to ring changed repeatedly.
A recording of a call Ms Pope-Weidemann made to the force was played to the court on Thursday, during which a call handler attempted to put her through to officers only to be told to contact another officer.
While Ms Pope-Weidemann waited on hold the frustrated sounding operator could be heard telling a colleague: “This is a joke. No one will take the call.”
She finally told Ms Pope-Weidemann that she promises to have someone call her back, but no one ever did.
The family were also told by the police to stop searching in a rural areas, including the coastline near where Ms Pope was eventually found, with an officer reassuring them that: “If she was there, we would have found her.”
When, days later, Ms Pope’s clothes were discovered in that area, the police offered to send officers to guide a large volunteer search operation planned the next day, but no officers came.
“There were members of the public, the press, our MP, but no police guidance,” Ms Pope-Weidemann said.
The court has heard how police officers failed to fill in a ‘missing person form’ with the family. A procedural document used by forces to gather vital evidence about a missing person to help with an ongoing investigation.
Ms Pope-Weidemann said was “devastated” hearing about the existence of such a form during the inquest, and that there had been technical issues with the computer programme being used to log information on the case.
She questioned why no one had come to the family to clarify facts about Ms Pope and the circumstances of her disappearance, saying: “I think it would have changed everything.”