Gaia Pope-Sutherland inquest: Police were told where to look for missing woman

·5-min read
Police found Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s body in the area which her sister said was a favourite location for her (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)
Police found Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s body in the area which her sister said was a favourite location for her (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)

The sister of missing teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland repeatedly told police in the days after her disappearance to search the area where her body was later found, an inquest heard.

Clara Pope-Sutherland said she told three police officers to search the area around Dancing Ledge, close to the Swanage coastal path in Dorset, because her sister was known to go there.

The teenager, who suffered from severe epilepsy, was reported missing from her home in Swanage on November 7 2017.

Dorset Coroner’s Court has heard the 19-year-old had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after revealing she had been raped by a man when she was 16.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found dead near a coastal path in Swanage, Dorset, 11 days after going missing in November 2017 (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)
Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found dead near a coastal path in Swanage, Dorset, 11 days after going missing in November 2017 (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)

At the time of her disappearance, Miss Pope-Sutherland was worried about the man’s imminent release from prison and had also reported to police that she had received indecent images from a different man via Facebook.

A large search operation was launched in the Swanage area for the teenager, including police, HM Coastguard, National Police Air Service, Dorset Search and Rescue, and members of the public.

On November 18, her body was found by police search teams in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point.

Rachael Griffin, the senior coroner, told the inquest in Bournemouth that the Pope-Sutherland family had concerns that Dorset Police did not listen to the information provided to officers when the teenager disappeared.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland was worried that a man she had accused of raping her was set to be released from prison (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)
Gaia Pope-Sutherland was worried that a man she had accused of raping her was set to be released from prison (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)

Giving evidence, Clara Pope-Sutherland, 25, said Dancing Ledge was a significant location for her sister as it was a favourite spot of her late grandfather.

“There were very specific comments and, in the interviews themselves, I distinctly remember the need to try and tell the officer everything I knew about Gaia’s mental health, and what she was going through, but also connections to where she could possibly me,” she said.

“We had racked our brains trying to think where she could possibly be.

“It didn’t seem like they were not listening – not at least to me – but there were certain aspects of the things they were saying and focusing on that didn’t make much sense to me, despite my comments.

“I had said on multiple times and commented on the significance of the Dancing Ledge walk.

“In my mind, it didn’t make much sense that she would be anywhere else other than trying to be there and being close with him, my grandfather.”

Mrs Pope-Sutherland said she told police on “two or three occasions” about Dancing Ledge.

“I believe mentioned it to the family liaison officer, Richard Bailey, during the chat we had, I think, in the first couple of days, that she could be there,” she said.

“I mentioned it to an officer when everybody’s house was searched, including ours, and amongst the chaos of everybody up at my mum’s house of everybody searching everything, I found a police officer and said, ‘I just want to make sure you know that there is a possibility she could be there, or in that area, and could you please let somebody know who is on the search to check there’ – as I wasn’t aware of the routes they checked.

“The other occasion I distinctly remember was talking to Det Con Lovering. When I was asked where I thought she could possibly be, the only place that I could come up would be Dancing Ledge.”

She told the court she drew a rough sketched map including her family home, her aunt’s home, a house her sister was known to have visited on the day of her disappearance and the street where she was last seen alive – drawing a circle around the circumference including the Dancing Ledge area.

“In her state of mind and knowing my sister, I would have expected her to have been there,” she said.

“I drew a circle and said I am not a police officer, but this is the radius of where I would be searching.

“I am not aware of where the police searched but I believe inquiries were looking outside of that area and I remember specifically saying this is where I would search.

“I would have put my walking boots on and gone up there myself. It was November and it was cold and we were consistently advised by family liaison officers and other officers, even throughout the community search that we had set up, not to go up into the countryside where it could be dangerous and where the police were handling the search.

“Having told several police officers this was the area where I thought that she would be, and unfortunately where she was ultimately found, I was under the impression, along with my mum and other members of the family who had also expressed a similar sentiment that she would be in that area, I felt confident that I would have been listened to and that area searched.

“That diagram seems not to have been recorded.”

Mrs Pope-Sutherland told the court her sister had been deeply affected by the decision not to proceed with the rape allegation, with her “bubbly personality reduced to silence and pensive thought”.

“She was told directly the Crown Prosecution Service had looked at the case and decided there was no way of it going forward,” she said.

“I know the perpetrator had messaged her and threatened to kill her and us if she spoke.

“She was obviously extremely frightened but trying to stay calm and trying to just do her best.”

She described her sister’s mental health as a “ticking timebomb” after she learned in April 2017 that the man she said had drugged and raped her was to be freed.

The court also heard that Miss Pope-Sutherland’s seizures had become more severe and more frequent from February to October 2017 and her mental health was also declining.

“I think she was consistently teetering on the brink of unstable and certainly towards the October she was definitely unstable,” Mrs Pope-Sutherland said.

“The family felt the need to take a lot of responsibility to protect Gaia and often, at times, were left to manage Gaia’s mental health without the professional support that we believed was necessary.”

The inquest continues.

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