Today in court we heard the first of the evidence from Gaia’s family members. After another delayed start due to housekeeping and scheduling matters which we are not permitted to report upon, the jury were brought into court just before 11am. Clara Pope Sutherland, Gaia’s elder sister, was called to give evidence.
After confirming some of Gaia’s personal details, Clara said that there was just under two years, 20months, age difference between her and her younger twin sisters. She had lived with Gaia for most of her life before leaving to go to sixth form, and in turn university.
Asked to describe Gaia she told the court that she was “bright, brave, kind, creative and fiercely loyal… strong willed and independent”. Reading from her statement the coroner commented that Clara had described the last two years of Gaia’s life as a complex and extremely painful time for her and all the family.
The court heard how Gaia’s grandfather, who the family referred to as Pops, had died in September 2016, and Gaia had been particularly close to him. Gaia had enjoyed going for walks with her grandparents:
Coroner: one of those locations she particularly enjoyed was Dancing Ledge, is that right?
CPS: Yes, with him in particular, because he’d take Lucky, the dog for a walk, but we would also go together as a family. If we were gathering as a family at Christmas or something we’d always do the Dancing Ledge walk… that area in particular is very special to us.
Later on in questioning from the coroner, and Ms Collier, for Dorset Police, Dancing Ledge featured on a number of occasions. Upon the Coroner confirming with Clara Pope Sutherland the content of her statement, that the family hadn’t felt that the police had listened to the information they’d shared once Gaia had gone missing, she elaborated:
There were very, very specific comments. In the interviews themselves, I remember distinctly trying… to remember need to tell the officers I was speaking to, everything I knew.
About Gaia’s mental health, and what she was going through, but also connections, where she could possibly be.
We had wracked our brains trying to think where she could possibly be.
It’s not that necessarily in the moment, their body language didn’t look like they weren’t listening, from body language and how they were with us, not that they didn’t seem they were listening, at least to me, but certain aspects they were focusing on that didn’t make much sense to me, despite my comments.
There were two particular occasions, I’d said multiple times, the significance of the Dancing Ledge walk, I mentioned earlier. Gaia had been posting about my grandfather, and our family and how upset she was about that. In my mind it didn’t make much sense that she’d be anywhere else, other than trying to be there and trying to be close with him, my grandfather that is.
Clara Pope-Sutherland told the court how she had mentioned Dancing Ledge to Richard Bailey, the Family Liaison Officer, during a chat in the first couple of days of Gaia’s disappearance. She also recalled telling a police officer who was searching her mother’s house:
I found a police officer and said I really want to make sure you know there’s a possibility she could be there, or in that area. Could you please just let somebody know who is on the search to make sure they checked there, I wasn’t aware of the routes checked.
Ms Caoilfhionn Gallagher for Gaia’s maternal family later confirmed the date that would have been as 8 November, the day after Gaia disappeared, as Clara had not managed to return from university on the 7th when the first search had taken place.
CG: This search, before 10 November, were you under the impression at that time that Dancing Ledge and the road up to Dancing Ledge had already been searched?
CPS: Yes I’d think so. A number of references that had been made, not just by myself, but by multiple family members, to that walk, the significance to my family, and my grandfather who Gaia had been talking about quite a lot leading up to her disappearance. Was under the impression, and would have understood, would have searched already.
CG: you report the officer being very friendly and saying he’s sure they would have searched there if information had been provided.
CPS: Yes, I have a clear memory, but I don’t know if that information would have been passed on.
The other occasion that Clara Pope-Sutherland told the court above was in conversation with DC Lovering, she believed in Swanage Town Hall, late one afternoon.
…also again, when I was asked where she could possibly be, where I thought she could possibly be. The only place I could come up with was Dancing Ledge.
In her state of mind, knowing my sister I’d have expected her to be there.
And I also distinctly remember drawing on the back of a piece of paper, it wasn’t a typed statement, it was a hand written statement, turned over to a blank sheet of paper and drew a diagram of where, not very good diagram, but the best I could do with biro pen on back of paper, where my aunt’s house was, where the Elsey’s resided and where she’d been seen, and where Dancing Ledge was, and where our house was, and I drew a circle.
I said I’m not a police officer, but this is the radius of where I’d be searching, between the Elseys and between Dancing Ledge. Again, I’m not aware of where the police searched but I believe enquiries were looking outside that area and remember specifically saying this is where I’d search.
Now I would have put my walking boots on and gone up there myself, it was November, and it was cold, and we were consistently advised by the family liaison officer, and other officers we came across, even throughout the community search we set up and by community liaison, not to go up into the countryside where it could be dangerous and where the police were handling the search.
Having told several police officers this was the area I thought she’d be, and where unfortunately she was ultimately found, I was under the impression, along with my mum and other members of the family who’d also expressed she was likely to be in that area… that I had anticipated I’d have been listened to and that area would have been searched.
Ms Collier, for Dorset Police, suggested later that Clara Pope Sutherland was misremembering in her evidence to the court and that she had actually identified a number of possible places:
BC: This was the statement you prepared, read and signed following conversations with the police?
CPS: I didn’t fully read it due to time constraints, but had been reassured everything was there, mentioned after a brief skim was some spelling mistakes and so on and said to DC Lovering please make sure to get this diagram to whoever was searching.
We then broke for lunch, and on the return went straight back to Ms Collier’s questioning of Clara Pope-Sutherland. She read from Ms Pope Sutherland’s witness statement which stated that Gaia’s favourite walk had been Dancing Ledges, but also mentions several other possible places, such as the Camden in Ashley Cross and where she’d got a recent tattoo in memory of her grandfather.
BC: Your evidence earlier to coroner was the only place you thought she would be was Dancing Ledge, please understand there is no criticism implied at all, but do we see it was not just Dancing Ledge you mentioned to the police, but other areas as well
CPS: During interviews…. I was pressed as much as possible to think of any possible place, but that was the one place I very much felt she was, and tried to impress upon more than any others… these were places she liked going but weren’t places in my heart I felt she’d go to, it was in answer to ‘are you absolutely sure there aren’t any other places’ type questions…
The Dancing Ledge place, there’s a typo, it’s not Dancing Ledges, it’s Dancing Ledge, impressed upon a lot, very specific on many occasions, was the only place I’d think given the topics Gaia had been telling us about, missing our grandfather and missing that connection, it was the only place I felt she’d truly want to go, not the Camden in Ashley Cross, which is just a bar…
The diagram I wrote was specifically about Dancing Ledge and not any other places on this.
Miss Collier suggested that Dancing Ledge stuck out as a place Clara had thought of, given that was where Gaia was found. Miss Pope Sutherland was emphatic that it was not simply a matter of hindsight:
They wanted as many lines of enquiry as possible… As I said Dancing Ledge, that area, the only other place I mentioned perhaps was my grandparent’s house in Langton Matravers, which had since been sold, but I believe at that time it had already been searched, and Gaia was not found there.
So, Dancing Ledge was the only place, and the only place I impressed upon with a number of officers. These answers were brief, trying to think of where she possibly could be.
The diagram was in relation to our house, Talia’s house, the Elsey residence, not in hindsight… every member of the family, including my mum, and Talia, and my dad, mentioned that Dancing Ledge was a place of very high significance, to the police.
It was the police that said they were dealing with those areas of search and we shouldn’t be going out there ourselves.
Asked by the coroner if she wished to tell the jury anything specifically about the search efforts for Gaia (a topic which the coroner indicated she’d cover with other witnesses at a later date), Clara Pope-Sutherland expressed her concern about whether what she wanted to say was within the scope of the inquest.
Coroner: the family have grave concerns about what happened between 7 November, the timeframe that we’re looking at is to 10 Nov when Gaia may still have been alive. They have concerns about actions undertaken by those at Dorset Police, and those searching for Gaia… [whether they] did all they possibly could to find her
CPS: Very much felt to us, to give context of family involvement and what family were doing at that time, other than having very worried and scared parents, my mum for most of the time was stationed at home waiting for Gaia to come home.
We made, and Marienna and friends of Marienna’s who came down from London in particular, along with my friends, and people in the community, we made very, very quickly a team of people to start searches in the community.
We didn’t sit down and wait for the police to find her. We were wanting to do all we could in co-operation with the police and their efforts they were making to find her, and there were, I played an active role in that, organising community and volunteers and going out on regular, by regular I mean daily, basis to search.
There were several occasions during that time during active role played that felt communication with police was not successful, not on the part of us… there were specific numbers we were told could call 24/7 to talk about anything regarding that situation, there were a number of occasions where I attempted to phone those numbers provided, and either that phone was switched off, or nobody could get through.
Umm, for us as family, it, we sort of, obviously community lines of enquiry were important and very, very appreciated at the time, but for us as family the information we provide, I would have thought and felt to be a high priority. So having to use those numbers at all, numbers provided to community, and having to wait to speak to someone was distressing enough, but not having those lines open to us, those phones not being picked up when we were told something we believed to be extremely important because people were contacting us as well.
We tried our best via social media pages set up to ask people to contact 101 directly but that didn’t always happen, if information we felt important was trying to deliver… to assist and provide information to those looking for Gaia. Often times those lines weren’t answered.
When questioned by the coroner about Gaia’s epilepsy, Clara Pope Sutherland described how Gaia’s epilepsy developed in adolescence “she did her best to handle those [seizures] but they are scary”. Clara confirmed that she’d moved out of home when Gaia’s seizures worsened but had regular phone calls and contact from Gaia, her sister Maya, and her mother:
I think it was very scary for them all, particularly Gaia, particularly when she went to sleep. If she went to sleep, and had a seizure and a pillow in the way she could have died quite easily being in bed. There were times when mum would sleep in her bed with her to enable her to remain on her side in case she had a seizure in the night. She couldn’t bath without anyone being in room or nearby, for same risk…
other than physical effects I think it was very scary for her, and also very limiting…
being able to maintain social life, normal life for teenager, going out and spending time with friends she couldn’t do
She confirmed to the Coroner that epilepsy was life changing for Gaia, and the family as a whole, as family members in effect became Gaia’s carers as they had to watch her at all times, due to the risks associated with her epilepsy:
Particularly when it got severe, mum was doing her best to work, she needed to put food on the table and pay rent, but we tried to ensure there was someone in the house with Gaia at all times.
Asked by the coroner when Gaia’s seizures started increasing, Clara thought that there was a relationship to the sexual assault that she had suffered in 2014:
After her initial breakdown in December 2015. It very much felt to me that she had been suppressing traumatic memories of the rape that occurred… a lot of that time she was coming out and trying to express what I would describe as flashbacks. She was writing those down, and seemed to me to correspond very clearly with that event and with those traumatic memory flashbacks, that the severity of the seizures increased.
She felt that there was a clear pattern that all the family members had noticed. Clara also felt that the only reason Gaia would not have taken her medication, if she had in fact not done so, would have been when she was suffering from a mental health crisis. She described how Gaia was very aware of the risk of seizures and death, if she did not take her medication, and how she “didn’t want to die” and later “she was very responsible and very aware of the side effects, she wouldn’t have risked her life in that way”.
Clara Pope-Sutherland mentioned how Gaia was comforted by her initial consultation with UCL’s Professor Walker, describing how “at that time it was very reassuring because of how thorough it was, or seemed to be” and:
There were certain things he’d gone through with her, I believe, he also described the way her head turns during seizures, her behaviour during seizures, that she hadn’t been taken through before.
That thorough care initially gave her a lot of confidence something could be done about her epilepsy, I think she was grateful for that, but times waiting in between appointments were somewhat stressful.
As a family, and Gaia, was very understanding of the resource strain, we put it down to that, but it was very stressful, for her not having the communication and contact. I’m not aware of her not responding to anything. Do know mum was obviously a back-up contact, and mum was not aware, so, yeh, was just long wait periods that were very difficult for her because obviously she got no answers in those wait periods.
Gaia had also spoken how she got some validation from Prof Walker supporting her belief that her PTSD was causing a deterioration in her seizures. Miss Gallagher asked Clara to share what Gaia’s own views had been about whether the care she was receiving was good enough:
Gaia often felt very frustrated, initially with her epilepsy care, it seemed to not be going anywhere and she was under a lot of pressure, or felt like she was under a lot of pressure, maybe that’s the wrong word, physically a lot of pressure, her body was under a lot of pressure, she was very tired through having to go through medications….
You have to be weaned off over time, and no I’m not a medical professional, but that was the advice Gaia was given, and we all supported her with as she came on and off those medications. Caused her a lot of side effects.
She’d often talk about how she was struggling under those circumstances, and often felt a bit stuck, like wasn’t much moving forward, and certain aspects of the individual treatment by certain medical professionals, particularly Dr Page, Michelle Knight and I think the comments made separately to the epilepsy, made by Dr Kannan in the letter describing the man who raped Gaia as her boyfriend, was extremely distressing to her, and she very, she verbally expressed that, as well as a few other occasions.
Miss Gallagher did highlight that Dr Kannan apologised to the family in court because of that, but it obviously had a considerable impact on Gaia. She took Clara to her statement:
CG: You describe there what you term a very painful dynamic, and damaging dynamic which had established itself. Can you explain what you meant by that?
CPS: painful dynamic and damaging dynamic was mostly because in so far as Gaia was feeling safe and able to report things to authorities, and feel believed and understood, painful being impact of that on her mental health, she struggled with that a lot
CG: you describe Gaia felt actively disbelieved by healthcare professionals involved in her care. Make mention to the boyfriend/perpetrator comment, was that something she spoke to you about, being not believed?
This was described as being a frequent concern for Gaia, and the pattern between her concerns, her stress and the increasing frequency and intensity of her seizures was noted by Gaia, and her family.
CG: you say was a clear pattern we all noticed
CG: Did that include Gaia too
CPS: I believe so, she seemed to think, and understood, and got some validation from that, having spoken to Dr Walker who advised extreme stress and traumatic events, particularly having been drugged during an incident could have impacted her epilepsy… something Gaia was advised and we all thought to be the case, and Gaia felt to be the case
CG: that’s not with hindsight?
CPS: No it was observed at the time, and Gaia observed at the time, was validated after Gaia spoke to Professor Walker.
The final area that Clara Pope-Sutherland was questioned about was Gaia’s mental health, and the relationship between it and being raped. Clara described a change in Gaia’s behaviour throughout 2015, which culminated in a mental health crisis in December 2015, at which time she disclosed that she had been raped. Initially Gaia was unable to verbalise what had happened to her and wrote a lot down:
CPS: She’d been writing down everything she recalled, wasn’t able to get out the words herself but she was writing down memorises of very horrific experiences which seemed to be flooding her, coming back to her… one memory had been given cup of tea and didn’t remember much after that cup of tea…
The court heard that Gaia was traumatised by flashbacks and Clara described an occasion in April 2017 when Gaia, her twin siter Maya, Clara and their mother were on holiday:
We were sat in a cafe in Crete, and a friend of Gaia had sent her… this link to a Dorset Police Facebook post after the perpetrator had been arrested with a friend regarding a completely different case. I believe the Facebook post mentioned how long he’d be in prison for…
Gaia, a very bright, bubbly person… we were on holiday for the first time in a very long time, she was enjoying the sunshine, dancing, having a good time, enjoying Greek food. From that to completely silent and still, was I think a shock to my mum, sister and I who were with her.
Often times like that when something would happen and she’d go completely silent, I’d describe it as pensive, she looked extremely fearful when that would happen.
When Gaia was hospitalised in December 2015 she made a report to the police in respect of the rape:
Coroner: she told you that she felt her report was not being taken seriously, is that right?
CPS: Yes, that was the impression we all got actually. Because Gaia was mentally unwell, this was coming out at a stage when she was doing her best to express and seek help, but struggling a lot. That probably detracted, at least for the officers attending to speak to us and Gaia, from the seriousness of the allegation.
Coroner: that was your view, and her view is that right?
CPS: Yes and the view of our family, taken to room with my sister, wanted express to the police what Gaia had been putting to us, to put in more coherent order… we sat with them, it was our view that they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.
Coroner: Gaia told you the fact she felt she was not being believed caused her distress?
In November 2016 the police informed Gaia that the Crown Prosecution Service had looked at the case and there was no way to go forward. Asked by the coroner how Gaia reacted to that:
Again her normally bubbly persona was reduced to silence and pensive thought for a while, and, she was just trying to process it, I think she was scared.
The coroner highlighted, again, the feeling of being disbelieved about what had happened and the impact that had on Gaia:
CPS: Yes, somebody said to her we believe you, it is one thing people close to you seeing what you go through and saying we believe you, and another thing to hear it in a court of law…. If you’re threatened, along with memories of what happened, it’s not that comforting that the people who love you believe you
C: you say she was threatened by the person she made the disclosure about and was fearful when that person contacted her at the end of 2016, and fearful of his subsequent release from prison
Clara Pope Sutherland elaborated to the coroner about the significance of these developments:
That story from the café in Crete, I described it and still believe, it was a ticking time bomb moment. The thought of his release haunted her and she was very, very scared and she was verbal about that to us all.
Clara also highlighted family concerns that Gaia was discharged from hospital in March 2017, after being sectioned, with only seven days of follow up and no care after that time. There was no further contact between Gaia and mental health services between that discharge and when she was admitted to hospital in October 2017.
Clara Pope Sutherland informed the court of what had happened that day, and how she made two calls to the crisis support line, concenred about Gaia’s health but was told as Gaia was not under the mental health team, she should call the police or emergency services. She told the court that she did not feel that the police were the right service to call in a mental health emergency.
Clara also told the court that Gaia had been made to feel extremely uncomfortable during her hospital admission in February 2017, when she’d disclosed harassment from another patient, and therefore did not want to go back to hospital, she was fearful of going to hospital.
Clara described Gaia’s mental health as “consistently teetering on the brink of unstable, certainly closer towards October she was definitely unstable”. Clarifying further she said:
CPS: When you understand mental health, and the spectrum from this is an emergency situation, I need someone out here now, versus lack of follow up support. The family had to take a lot of responsibility to protect Gaia, and often times were left to manage Gaia’s mental health without professional support that we believed was necessary.
So when I say teetering on the brink, I mean teetering on the brink of an emergency, not of instability… I think she was consistently unstable but the breakdown was this is really serious
Coroner: there would be good times though, you mentioned the holiday in April, so there would be good times?
CPS: Yes, with people she felt safe with, but even then… I’d describe it as a trigger for the PTSD she was diagnosed with
C: you say that was a tipping point, and that would trigger into a downward spiral
Asked by the coroner to describe to the jury Gaia’s mental health deterioration in October 2017, Clara said:
She was really, really struggling with her mental health. There would often be times when she’d get extremely upset and distressed, talking a lot about my grandfather’s passing the year before, talking about the rape and what happened to her, the fact she didn’t feel people understood.
I remember trying to balance her mental health needs with other health needs in the family, making sure everybody was protected. She was hyperaware of that, even in the state she was in herself, so much so that even when she was in, I believe the full swing of her breakdown, she was checking with other people, saying “it’s alright, you’re going to be ok” to other people.
She was extremely loving and extremely caring, even in her darkest times.
The coroner confirmed with Clara Pope Sutherland that the family as a whole had concerns that Gaia was discharged after her admission to Poole General Hospital, and subsequent Mental Health Act assessment, without any follow up care. Asked to tell the jury how Gaia had appeared to her, after the 20 October, Clara said:
Still very unstable. Umm, so she came, I guess, back up in so far she wasn’t shouting and screaming all the time, she wasn’t this is an emergency now state… but the topics she was talking about, topics focusing upon… I don’t think she was sleeping very well either, another sure sign for us she wasn’t very well, she wouldn’t sleep well… party due to fear of epilepsy and partly due to mental health breakdown she was going through.
I remember talking to her on the phone, had experience with people I was living with at university and was very distressing for me… she was very supportive of me, fiercely loyal and defensive of me even when she was struggling.
The last call I had with her was a few days before she went missing, and last words she told me was, she told me she loved me. She was nowhere near her normal self.
Clara felt at that time, despite Gaia trying to be extremely supportive, she had concerns she was very much still “teetering on the edge of something”. Asked by the coroner if there was anything else she wished to tell the jury about the final period up until Gaia went missing on 7 November 2017 she said:
The thing I want to make clear, Gaia is, we’ve heard several people say one of the reasons they weren’t concerned was because Gaia was talkative and engaging.
I wan’t to make very, very clear that there were times when she was talking, she wasn’t completely shut down as witnessed that time in Crete or where she was having to write things down and not making sense of her words, it wasn’t that, but she definitely wasn’t right.
I remember consistent reports from the family, trying to provide context of who Gaia was and what Gaia was like on a daily basis so they’d understand she wasn’t well and did need help.
We consistently felt that that wasn’t listened to, and I think the fact that she ended up running away was a demonstration that we weren’t, and she wasn’t.
The jury had a number of questions for Clara Pope Sutherland. The first was whether the map that she drew was on a separate piece of paper or on the reverse of her statement. The coroner confirmed that it wasn’t on the reverse of Clara’s statement, Clara elaborated:
Not on the printed version. DC Lovering wrote down notes, I think on the statement already printed by Richard Bailey, wrote notes on that… was on a blank page of her handwritten notes what I’d provided for her, but not on the printed version she produced for me to sign.
The follow up to that question from the jury was why it is not in the documents provided to the court and Clara confirmed that the she felt the police would still have it “they took it away with them, it wasn’t on a scrap of paper thrown in a bin’.
The next jury question was whether the interviewing police officer appeared to be knowledgeable of the local area, which the coroner rephrased somewhat:
Coroner: I deem that to be DC Lovering, as far as you’re aware did you believe DC Lovering knew the area?
CPS: No, not 100%. It very much seemed like she was coming from a different area and needed some understanding. And I wanted her to be sure of the context of where we live.
The final jury question asked did DC Lovering suggest pointing out the landmark on an official map, to which Clara confirmed she did not.
The coroner thanked Clara Pope Sutherland for her evidence, and for all the assistance and evidence that she’d provided to the investigation. She acknowledged that she couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it had been for Clara.
The jury were dismissed until tomorrow morning when we’re due to hear more evidence from Gaia’s family members.
All of my reporting from Gaia’s inquest, and all the inquests that I report from, is paid for through crowdfunding. If you have read my blogs, please do share them, and if you can afford to do so please make a financial contribution to support my ongoing work. Many thanks.