Gaia Pope: man accused of raping teenager from Dorset was already under police investigation, says family

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The family of Gaia Pope-Sutherland are demanding an independent investigation of the police probe into the teenager’s alleged rapist and calling for a “Gaia Principle” whereby officers must check if suspected sex offenders face any other allegations.

The man accused of raping Gaia Pope-Sutherland before she disappeared and sadly died in 2017 was already under investigation before she went to the police, the teenager’s family has said.

Gaia, 19, went missing in Swanage, Dorset in 2017 after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which her family say was caused when she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a man when she was 16. She was found dead 11 days later in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point on the coast – an area her family had urged police to search as it was a favourite spot of her late grandfather.

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Before her disappearance, the 19-year-old had reported she had been raped after suffering a mental health crisis triggered by the experience, but police chose not to pursue a prosecution, according to her cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann. Speaking at a Rape Crisis press conference in London yesterday evening (12 October), Ms Pope-Weidemann said police were aware of numerous allegations against the man accused of raping and grooming Gaia from as far back as 2014.

“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,” Ms Pope-Weidemann said. Gaia was reportedly anxious about her alleged rapist’s imminent release from prison for unconnected sexual offences at the time she ran away from home.

A long-running inquest into the teenager’s death, which concluded she had died of hypothermia within 18 hours of going missing, also found that multiple agencies - including the police and health trusts - missed chances to help her. Ms Pope-Weidemann said this “litany” of failings included the police “hanging up” on Gaia when she called them on the day she went missing.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland, 19, went missing in 2017 after reporting to Dorset Police that she had been raped. Credit: PAGaia Pope-Sutherland, 19, went missing in 2017 after reporting to Dorset Police that she had been raped. Credit: PA
Gaia Pope-Sutherland, 19, went missing in 2017 after reporting to Dorset Police that she had been raped. Credit: PA | PA

When Gaia reported to police that she had been raped in 2014 when she was 16-years-old, by a man then in his early 20s, the alleged rapist was arrested but officers told Gaia he would not be prosecuted and advised her that appealing against that decision would be traumatic. The same man was arrested in December 2015, and jailed in April 2017 for taking an indecent moving image of a child, for possession of indecent images of a child, and for paying for the sexual services of a child. He was also jailed once again in 2018 after inciting a 15-year-old girl to engage in sexual activity over the internet.

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But these cases, according to Gaia’s loved ones, were dealt with in isolation despite the “significant number of other victims” and presented to the Crown Prosecution Service “as a he-said-she-said rather than what it was: a he-said-they-said”.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s family members comfort each other outside Dorset Coroner’s Court after the inquest into  the teenager’s death concluded in July. Credit: PAGaia Pope-Sutherland’s family members comfort each other outside Dorset Coroner’s Court after the inquest into  the teenager’s death concluded in July. Credit: PA
Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s family members comfort each other outside Dorset Coroner’s Court after the inquest into the teenager’s death concluded in July. Credit: PA | PA

During the inquest, a police officer also admitted to altering official logs relating to the search for Gaia, and it was revealed that another officer said the teenager’s relatives were “taking the piss” when they made a series of desperate phone calls on the day she vanished. Ms Pope-Weidemann slammed their actions as “tampering with evidence, lying to the jury, [and] lying to the IOPC.”

Dorset Police has apologised for mistakes made in its response to Gaia’s tragic disappearance and said work had been carried out to ensure search logs “could not be retrospectively amended or updated.”

As part of their “Justice For Gaia” campaign, the teenager’s family are now calling for a “Gaia Principle” in every police force, whereby officers must check if suspected sex offenders face any other allegations and present these to the Crown Prosecution Service. They are also calling for change across mental health and social support in Dorset and nationwide, and demanding an independent investigation of the police probe into the alleged rapist.

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Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “We are calling for a real independent investigation [from the the Independent Office for Police Conduct] because it is absolutely in the public interest for us all to understand how this could be allowed to happen.”

Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s cousin Marienna Pope-Weidemann, speaks during a press conference at Doughty Street Chambers in London. Credit: PAGaia Pope-Sutherland’s cousin Marienna Pope-Weidemann, speaks during a press conference at Doughty Street Chambers in London. Credit: PA
Gaia Pope-Sutherland’s cousin Marienna Pope-Weidemann, speaks during a press conference at Doughty Street Chambers in London. Credit: PA | PA

During the press conference, Gaia’s family also spoke of a culture of “misogyny” that they say still pervades the NHS. Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “When Gaia first disclosed the rape… doctors were already making notes about her so-called ‘delusions’ of sexual assault. When she found that out it absolutely crushed her - it left her feeling very isolated, very afraid and very hopeless.”

Something else discussed was when Gaia spent time on a mixed-gender mental health ward in February 2017. In light of her disclosure that she had been raped, Gaia’s family voiced concerns about this and frequently asked for her to be moved to another ward. “After she died, we were devastated to learn that she had been repeatedly sexually harassed by another male patient,” Ms Pope-Weidemann said. “She disclosed that to staff, and not only did they fail to take appropriate safeguarding action, they didn’t even log the incident.”

Family and supporters of Gaia Pope-Sutherland outside Dorset Coroner’s Court  after the inquest into her death concluded in July. Credit: PAFamily and supporters of Gaia Pope-Sutherland outside Dorset Coroner’s Court  after the inquest into her death concluded in July. Credit: PA
Family and supporters of Gaia Pope-Sutherland outside Dorset Coroner’s Court after the inquest into her death concluded in July. Credit: PA | PA

Amelia Handy, policy lead at Rape Crisis England & Wales, told the press conference yesterday (12 October) that Gaia’s case was “far, far too familiar” and bore a resemblance to thousands of women seen by Rape Crisis, adding, “we call them survivors because surviving is not a given.”

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Meanwhile, Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the Gaia Principle must be followed through with. She remarked that while recent promises from the police to ensure suspects’ backgrounds were investigated were welcome, “if those who are required to do it are not held to account then all it is words and rhetoric and nothing more.”

A spokesperson for Dorset Police said there were “currently no plans” to introduce a dedicated rape and sexual assault team, but all detectives were given sexual offence training and the force had a team of Sexual Offence Liaison Officers.

Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “If this resistance to progressive change continues it can indicate only one thing: that when all is said and done, they put no value on lives like Gaia’s or the holes they leave behind when they are lost.”