Missing teenager Gaia feared she was pregnant, inquest hears

·4-min read
Gaia Pope-Sutherland (Dorset Coroner’s Court/PA) (PA Media)
Gaia Pope-Sutherland (Dorset Coroner’s Court/PA) (PA Media)

Teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland had split up with her boyfriend and feared she was pregnant at the time of her disappearance, an inquest has heard.

The teenager’s mental health was deteriorating due to worries about the imminent release from prison of the man she had accused of raping her, and also having been sent indecent images on social media.

The 19-year-old was reported missing from her home in Swanage, Dorset, on November 7 2017 and her body was found in undergrowth 11 days later.

Dorset Coroner’s Court heard that Miss Pope-Sutherland, who suffered from severe epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder, had been experiencing “ongoing manic episodes” since October 22.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s mental health was declining at the time she disappeared in November 2017 and she thought she was pregnant (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)
Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s mental health was declining at the time she disappeared in November 2017 and she thought she was pregnant (Dorset Police/PA) (PA Media)

Forensic pathologist Dr Russell Delaney told the hearing her naked body was found in deep undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point. She had died from hypothermia.

Miss Pope-Sutherland’s clothing was found scattered across a field as if she had been removing it as she walked.

Dr Delaney said that at the time of her disappearance she had recently split from her boyfriend and had become convinced she was pregnant, even though a test was negative.

He said there was no medical evidence she was pregnant at the time of her death, and she had been due to see her GP for an appointment at 5pm on the day she vanished.

The teenager left her aunt’s home at around 3.40pm and went to a friend’s where she was “behaving irrationally and began undressing”, Dr Delaney said.

Miss Pope-Sutherland redressed but left the property without her coat. The last known sighting of her was a few minutes later on Morrison Road.

Dr Delaney said the post-mortem examination found no signs of trauma, but there was evidence of Wischnewski spots in the lining of her stomach – a sign of hypothermia.

The court heard there were several possibilities why Miss Pope-Sutherland had undressed before her death.

The teenager’s body was found in undergrowth near Swanage coastal path (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)
The teenager’s body was found in undergrowth near Swanage coastal path (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)

The pathologist said she could have been suffering from “paradoxical undressing” – whereby she thought she was too hot and removed her clothing – or her declining mental health could have been a factor.

“It is possible she was undressed because of her deteriorating mental health and that has made her vulnerable to hypothermia,” he said.

“The deterioration of her mental health has led to her being outside, and cold and wet, and led to her becoming more confused with hypothermia.

“The undressing is typical of paradoxical undressing and hypothermia.”

She also had minor cuts to her feet and shins, consistent with walking through gorse and brambles while not wearing shoes or socks.

Dr Delaney described a condition called “hide and die” where someone suffering from hypothermia burrows into a closed space.

Miss Pope-Sutherland, who used cannabis and ecstasy, was prescribed medication to treat up to five seizures a day, but Dr Delaney could not be sure she had suffered one before her death.

“I am certain that hypothermia has made a significant contribution to her death,” he said.

“It is significant to explain her death alone. It could have acted in concert with epilepsy.

“In the absence of anyone witnessing the seizure, there isn’t a way of determining to a significant degree of certainty that someone has had a seizure immediately prior to death.”

Dr Delaney said he believed Miss Pope-Sutherland had died a “number of days” before her body was found but was unable to say exactly when.

“I would always urge caution by trying to be too specific and narrow the time frame down too much,” he said.

Research entomologist Martin Hall has previously told the inquest that having examined blow fly larvae recovered from the teenager’s body he believed the latest she was alive was November 9.

The inquest also heard from specialist epilepsy nurse Michelle Knight, who works for the University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust, and who first saw the teenager in July 2015 when she was referred to her service.

She said she wanted to help Miss Pope-Sutherland because she was a “very determined individual who had real aspirations”.

Mrs Knight said she was part of a team of two who worked across Dorset where there are 10,000 people with epilepsy.

Sophy Miles, representing the family, asked: “You mentioned there are two nurses for 10,000 people in Dorset.

“Do you feel you have the resources to do all the things you need to do to benefit all the people with epilepsy in Dorset?”

Mrs Knight replied: “No.”

The inquest was adjourned until Tuesday.

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