Family raise questions after vulnerable missing teenager was found dead
Updates on this case listed at the foot of this item
Gaia Pope, 19 years old, was found dead 11 days after going missing near the Dorset coastal path on 18 November 2017. Following the discovery her family said that “vital questions” about her death remain unanswered. A subsequent post-mortem examination came to the conclusion Gaia died of hypothermia.
Following Gaia’s disappearance on 7 November, searches by police, the coastguard and police helicopter – along with hundreds of volunteers – were carried out in the Swanage area.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann, a cousin of Gaia and the volunteer search coordinator, said; “When Gaia was missing we didn’t want anything to distract us from the search, so we said nothing about how our family was treated by the police and how poorly they coordinated the incredible search effort by the community.
“But now we have to ask the tough questions. Why did it take 11 days to find her? Could she have been saved? Could proper support from mental health and social services have stopped this whole tragedy before it started? This isn’t just about Gaia.
“How many women and girls have gone through this whose stories never make the papers? Gaia wanted justice for them and so do we. Time’s up.”
Her family believe she died due to failings by police and mental health services following an allegation of rape. Gaia suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the rape and it was argued this was to be a significant factor in her mental health struggles and subsequent death.
It was claimed that actions or omissions by police may have contributed to the death of
Gaia. Rachael Griffin, senior coroner for Dorset, said a wide-ranging inquest into her death would be held. The police investigation would form part of the inquest, she said.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) launched an investigation into Dorset Police’s missing person inquiry, and at a pre-inquest review hearing Ms Gaia’s family asked to delay the full inquest into her death due to “significant gaps in the evidence”.
Natasha Pope, the mother of Gaia said; “My daughter should still be with us today. She was a survivor. She had a sharp wit, she was intelligent, compassionate and so courageous; she was magnificent. Gaia was inspired by the challenges she faced to work in health and social care and dedicate her life to others.
“She tried to carry on her education but her epilepsy was deteriorating as she remembered more about the sexual assault she had endured. In hospital she would speak about what she had been through but it felt like no-one outside our family wanted to listen. Now, our family has been torn apart. As a mother my heart will always be broken.”
In late 2019 the family announced that they had identified the man they think was responsible for raping Gaia, and urged any other victims to come forward. Connor Hayes, aged 26, had been the subject of a police investigation in 2016 after Gaia alleged he had raped her. Police did not proceed with criminal charges after the family’s allegations, but he was handed a two-year sentence sometime later for an unrelated case involving the abuse of a teenage girl.
Deborah Coles, Executive Director of INQUEST said; “There are serious questions about the actions of Dorset police and their duty of care that this investigation must address. Gaia was a vulnerable young woman, due to the trauma and mental and physical ill health she was experiencing as a victim of sexual assault. How her life could end this way deserves the utmost scrutiny. This family and the public need answers in the hope of preventing another young life lost.”
Sarah Kellas, solicitor for the family said; “It is hoped the IOPC investigation will be the start of the process by which the family can begin to pursue answers to their questions about failures in the police response and that this will feed into a full and fearless inquest exploring all the significant circumstances surrounding Gaia’s death.
“Nothing can take away the pain of this tragedy, but truth and accountability will assist the grieving process.”
In November 2020 Gaia’s family and supporters released a guide to help others when their loved ones go missing. Gaia’s Guide was released on the third anniversary of the teenager being found. The family said; “Designed to help loved ones when someone goes missing, Gaia’s Guide provides step-by-step guidance on how we did it.”
Gaia’s Twin Sister Maya Pope-Sutherland said; “When Gaia went missing I didn’t know what to do, none of us knew what to do. We knew with public backing and attention the police would have to do something but I didn’t know how to get the word out.
“If it wasn’t for Marienna and all the volunteers I think we’d still be searching. We want to offer the guide so families know what to do. When someone you love disappears it’s hard to even think straight. Hopefully Gaia’s Guide will help.”
Paying tribute to her sister Maya wrote on Facebook; “Can’t find any words right now. Gaia is my everything and I am heartbroken. I thank everyone who was involved in searching for my beautiful twin. Going to make her so proud.”
Cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, also paid tribute, saying; “My beautiful baby girl, so sunny and kind but tough as f***. We hold you in our hearts forever. Know you are with Nan & Pops now but miss you beyond words. You will have justice. Fly on. #JusticeForGaia.”
Family’s guide to help search for missing people
18 November 2020
Gaia Pope death: Family wants answers to ‘vital questions’
16 September 2020
Gaia Pope death: Police actions to be examined in inquest
6 February 2020
No third party involved in ‘unexplained’ death of teenager Gaia Pope
20 November 2017