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Officer who searched for Gaia Pope said they were ‘crying out for help’

Gaia Pope died of hypothermia (Dorset Police/PA)
Gaia Pope died of hypothermia (Dorset Police/PA)

A police officer who was tasked with searching for a vulnerable teenager the day after her disappearance has told a coroner he and his team were not given the support they needed to find her.

Pc Lee Lawrence was working as a response officer with Dorset Police on November 7 2017 when Gaia Pope-Sutherland went missing from her home in Swanage.

The 19-year-old was found 11 days later near Dancing Ledge, a clifftop, having died of hypothermia.

On November 8, Pc Lawrence and a small number of officers from the Purbeck area unit were told to search a 300-metre radius from the house of Ms Pope-Sutherland’s aunt, which was assumed at the time to be the last place she was seen.

It was later discovered she had last been seen in Manor Gardens.

Pc Lawrence told Dorset Coroner’s Court on Monday: “We were left to it, the Purbeck section, and there’s not a lot of us.

Gaia Pope inquest
Gaia Pope-Sutherland died in November 2017 (PA)

“It was a big ask for us to find Gaia that day.

“We were doing what we could but we were crying out for help,” he added.

“We were looking at each other and saying ‘we need more than this’. We knew there was something wrong.

“Unfortunately, it ended the way it did.”

Pc Lawrence said other officers had called for search teams but that none arrived until 24 hours later and that there was no management on the ground.

“We didn’t get the help we needed, even though we were asking for it,” he said.

He said it was more than a day later when he saw the first plain clothes officers in Wareham and said: “I remember clearly thinking ‘great, they’re taking this seriously now’.”

Gaia Pope missing
An appeal poster for missing teenager Gaia Pope in a window of Beales Department Stores in Poole (Rod Minchin/PA)

The day prior to him becoming involved in the search, Pc Lawrence had received a number of phone calls from Ms Pope-Sutherland and her family.

In the first call with Ms Pope-Sutherland he described her as speaking “fast” and “rambling”, and said he could not make sense of what she was telling him.

She made several unusual statements about people on a local street being “paedos” and saying she had raped somebody.

He hung up on her after she began calling him a “drag queen”.

“She started calling me ‘a drag queen’ and I hand on heart did not know what she was talking about,” Pc Lawrence said.

“I thought it was a hoax call.”

He later told a call handler to stop passing calls through to him from Ms Pope-Sutherland and her family, saying he believed they were “taking the piss”.

Gaia Pope missing
Police perform a fingertip search in the open space above the coast near to Swanage in Dorset by officers investigating the disappearance of Gaia Pope (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Asked whether he was concerned about Ms Pope-Sutherland’s mental health, he said: “Looking back at it now, it’s clear she was suffering, but at the time I had no idea what it was about.”

He denied any knowledge she was vulnerable or about any aspects of her past such as her being a rape survivor.

Statements from former Dorset Police constable Roan Doyle were read out by the coroner during the hearing.

Mr Doyle, who was the officer in the case and family liaison officer from November 8 until a few days later, revealed he had sent an email to an inspector “setting out his concerns over how the investigation was handled”.

In the note to Inspector Andy Keel, he wrote: “At some time shortly after 8am on November 8 2017 I was appointed as OIC (officer in the case).

“I immediately assessed there to be a high risk that Ms Pope-Sutherland had or would come to harm.

“I flagged this up on several occasions, made multiple requests for a police search adviser (POLSA) and requested that consideration be given for Dorset Search and Rescue and Police Air Service (NPAS) to search.

Gaia Pope missing
Gaia Pope’s body was found near Swanage (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“It appeared to me at the time that, despite my repeated requests, that these were not being actioned.”

He also said a search of Manor Gardens, the last place Ms Pope-Sutherland was seen, was delayed because of a false belief that she had last been at her aunt Talia’s home address.

Ms Pope-Sutherland had left Talia’s house at about 3.30pm and visited the home of Rosemary Dinch, who saw her between 3.30pm and 4pm.

Ms Dinch said she was sweaty and not making sense and that she stripped down to her underwear before being convinced to get dressed. She then headed in the direction of the high street looking “panicked”.

Inspector Matthew Chutter, critical incident manager, also became concerned about the pace of the investigation early on, and told the coroner that a POLSA should have been deployed when “there was a significant intelligence change”.

“The place last seen for Gaia had changed. The understanding of Gaia had changed as well. Her needs and vulnerability and that she was probably in crisis,” he added.