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Police told sister of missing transgender woman to call fire brigade, Victorian coronial inquest hears

One of Victoria’s top police officers says he is concerned to hear the sister of a missing transgender woman was told to call the fire brigade to search her apartment, saying it is not “proper process”.

Angela Pucci Love, the sister of 28-year-old Bridget Flack who died in 2020, gave evidence on Monday at a coronial inquiry investigating the deaths of five transgender and gender-diverse young people who died of suspected suicide between 2020 and 2021.

Pucci Love told the court she felt frustrated in the early days of the police investigation into Flack as a missing person. She said she spoke to seven different police officers over the first 36 hours of her sister’s disappearance.

Related: Inquest into deaths of five trans and gender-diverse Victorians to investigate emotional support services

“The feeling I had was it wasn’t anyone’s problem,” she said.

“I don’t believe [Victoria police] understood the level of risk … I remember saying by nature she’s more vulnerable in public. She is more vulnerable to assault.”

Within the first few days of the search, Pucci Love said an officer told her “nothing else could be done”. On one occasion, she said an officer suggested she call the fire brigade and say smoke has been seen to get them to search her flat.

Neil Paterson, an assistant commissioner at Victoria police, said the proper process would be to have permission from the next of kin and determine the method to gain entry into the residence.

“That would concern me because I wouldn’t want Ms [Pucci] Love to arrange that, I would be wanting the police to arrange that,” he said.

Det Sen Const Dan Garside who led the investigation into Flack’s case from 4 December, said Pucci Love’s testimony about being told to call the fire brigade was “pretty hard to listen to”.

“It’s a sister trying to find her sister,” he said.

A Facebook page created by members of the LGBTQ+ community, which amassed more than 6,000 followers, helped raise awareness of Flack’s disappearance and coordinate searches. Police did not participate in the searches in a formal capacity, the court heard.

Flack was last seen by a friend on 30 November in Carlton. Her disappearance made national headlines and members of the LGBTQ+ community discovered her body near a billabong in Kew, in eastern Melbourne, two weeks after she was reported missing.

It was understood she died between 30 November and 11 December, the court heard.

Paterson said improvements could also have been made to the ground search to ensure that members of the LGBTQ+ community did not find Flack deceased, noting the discovery of a dead body can lead to “experiencing some form of trauma”.

Pucci Love described Flack as “smart, artistic and creative from the outset” and a “beautiful friend” who was fiercely loyal.

Flack first told Pucci Love and her husband she was affirming her gender as female in January 2019.

“I do remember her seeming happier and more confident,” she said.

“She was clearly happier in herself as Bridget.”

Pucci Love said her younger sister informed her in November 2020 she was struggling with her mental health and seeking to find inpatient mental health treatment by reaching out to providers.

“As a transgender woman, she did a lot of research into places that would be safer, more inclusive,” she said.

Pucci Love was informed that an inpatient bed at a Melbourne clinic had become available within the first two days her sister’s disappearance.

The court will also examine the deaths of Matt Byrne, a 25-year-old woman who died on 30 March 2021, Heather Pierard, a 20-year-old woman who died on 11 May 2021 and Natalie Wilson, a 33-year-old woman who died on 2 September 2020. The court has ordered that the fifth person be known under the pseudonym AS.

The deceased were all young transgender or gender-diverse people who had affirmed or were on a journey to affirm their identity as female, had a history of mental health issues and had at least one mental health diagnosis.

Gemma Cafarella, the counsel assisting the inquiry, stressed the coroner was not drawing a link between being transgender and experiencing psychological distress or mental illness.

The inquest before the coroner Ingrid Giles continues.

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org