Teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland ran away from home in 2017 and her body was found 11 days later in undergrowth on the Dorset coast.
12 October 2022
Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s family have claimed police “lied” after her death and dismissed evidence that may have helped prosecute her alleged rapist as they called for an independent probe into the investigation.
Miss Pope-Sutherland, 19, ran away from home having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after reporting that she had been drugged and sexually attacked by a man when she was 16.
At the time of her disappearance she was anxious about his imminent release from prison for unconnected sexual offences.
Miss Pope-Sutherland reported she had been raped after being admitted to hospital suffering a mental health crisis triggered by the experience, but police chose not to pursue a prosecution, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, her cousin, said.
Speaking at Doughty Street Chambers in London on Wednesday, Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “I think the decision to take no further action on Gaia’s rape case was devastating for her and why she was so concerned about it was because we knew there were other victims.
“In terms of the police over the next two years what we saw was a consistent and repeated failure to recognise her vulnerability.”
An inquest into Miss Pope-Sutherland’s death found she had died of hypothermia within 18 hours of going missing from her home in Swanage, Dorset, on November 7 2017.
Her body was found 11 days later in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point on the Dorset coast – an area her family had urged police to search as it was a favourite spot of her late grandfather.
Dorset Police apologised for mistakes made in its response to her disappearance, but a senior coroner directed the jury not to consider the force’s failings as contributory factors in Miss Pope-Sutherland’s death.
The inquest also heard a police search co-ordinator retrospectively altered search records relating to the disappearance.
Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “By any common sense definition, what they did was tamper with evidence, they lied to the jury, they lied to the IOPC.”
She claimed the “litany” of police failings had included “(hanging) up” on Miss Pope-Sutherland when she called them on the day she went missing.
“Even on the very day Gaia went missing, she had contact with the police, she was showing clear signs of being in an acute mental health crisis,” she said.
“Not only did they not take any action, they discriminated against and hung up on her.”
Miss Pope-Sutherland’s family are demanding changes to policing and health and social care services as part of their Justice For Gaia campaign.
These include improved funding for mental health services and the creation of a specialist unit dedicated to investigating rape and sexual offences within all police forces.
The family are also calling for an independent investigation of the police probe into the alleged rapist “and his associates”.
Ms Pope-Weidemann added: “We asked for an independent review into the wider investigation into (him) and his associates in order to safeguard our community and address any failures.
“To this day the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has failed to do this… We are calling for a real independent investigation because it is absolutely in the public interest for us all to understand how this could be allowed to happen.”
They say police were aware of significant number of other victims but that each case was presented “as a he-said, she-said, rather than what it was – a he-said, they-said.”
“He was already supposed to be under investigation back in 2014 when he was allegedly grooming Gaia and who knows how many others…. we believe that many of these allegations including Gaia’s were dealt with in isolation,” she said.
“(The alleged rapist) was convicted once again for further child sex offences based on evidence police had been in possession of for years but hadn’t used – we don’t know why.”
Ms Pope-Weidemann claimed a culture of “misogyny” still pervades many police forces – as well as some NHS facilities.
“Right at the beginning when Gaia first disclosed the rape… doctors were already making notes about Gaia’s so-called ‘delusions’ of sexual assault,” she said.
“When she found that out it absolutely crushed her”.
Miss Pope-Sutherland was “pathologised” and given personality diagnoses when she raised concerns with health services about the sexual violence, her cousin said.
“That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘the problem isn’t what happened, what was done to you – it’s in your head’,” Ms Pope-Weidemann added.
“It left her feeling very isolated, very afraid and very hopeless.”
In February 2017, Miss Pope-Sutherland spent time on a mixed-gender mental health ward, which her family voiced concerns about in light of her disclosure that she had been raped.
“I repeatedly asked for a conversation with doctors about that, for her to be moved to another ward – they didn’t even write down that we had those concerns,” Ms Pope-Weidemann said.
“After she died, we were devastated to learn that she had been repeatedly sexually harassed by another male patient.
“She disclosed that to staff, and not only did they fail to take appropriate safeguarding action, they didn’t even log the incident.
“Two days later they discharged her back to the community with no follow-up care and no rape crisis support.”
The Justice For Gaia campaign includes a manifesto for change across mental health and social support in Dorset and nationwide.
The family is encouraging supporters to sign a petition demanding better investment and training in the handling of sexual abuse allegations by health services and the police.
Dorset Police and the IOPC have been contacted for comment.