The father of Dorset teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland has criticised the police response to his daughter going missing, saying she could have been found earlier had officers listened to her family, an inquest heard.
Richard Sutherland said after his 19-year-old daughter went missing police were told by several family members to search the area where her body was later found in Swanage.
Dorset Coroner’s Court heard that Ms Pope-Sutherland’s father, mother, sisters, cousin and aunt all told police to search an area of coastline around Dancing Ledge because she was known to go there.
The teenager, who suffered from severe epilepsy, was reported missing from her home in Swanage on November 7 2017.
The college student had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after revealing she had been raped by a man when she was 16.
At the time of her disappearance, Miss Pope-Sutherland was worried about the man’s imminent release from prison and had also reported to police that she had received indecent images from a different man via Facebook.
A large search operation was launched in the Swanage area for the teenager, including police, HM Coastguard, National Police Air Service, Dorset Search and Rescue, and members of the public.
On November 18, her body was found by police search teams in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point.
In a lengthy statement read to the court, which cracked with emotion, Mr Sutherland praised the many members of the public and volunteers who helped search for his daughter.
“To me the big issues here relate to whether the police operation was well led and managed and from the information we have so far, and the early reports of Gaia going missing were not fully or properly acted on,” he told the jury.
“I understand that the police initially claimed that their policy was that she was only ‘medium risk’ and did not require an immediate full search effort.
“Later we learned that the officer who took the initial call or calls did not follow the procedure and going home without fully logging and handling the case over to colleagues in the correct manner.
“One major concern is that it appears that information numerous family members gave to various police officers in the early stages of reporting her missing, and the search on November 7 and 8, and the location where Gaia was finally found.
“I mean it is reasonable to suggest there was a failure of intelligence gathering by the police.
“All her close family – parents, sisters, aunt and cousin – independently told police officers early in the search that that if Gaia had gone missing on her own and in a distressed state one of the most probable routes, destinations was Priest’s Way leading to Dancing Ledge.
“I believe that had the police search operation coordinated that information early in the search then a more intensive effort along that route and destination could well have discovered her earlier, whether still alive or not.
“Even in the latter case, many days of needless suffering for the family might have been avoided.”
Mr Sutherland questioned whether the force directed enough resources to finding his daughter in the first 48 hours.
“This all suggested to me that after the delays to the search starting, Dorset Police never really got hold of a search and investigation from the flawed start,” he said.
Answering questions from Rachael Griffin, the senior coroner for Dorset, Mr Sutherland said Detective Chief Inspector Neil Devoto had taken over the inquiry as he was “not happy” with the investigation.
Ms Griffin asked: “He told you that he had not been happy with certain aspects of the way that the search and investigation had been conducted. Is that right?”
Mr Sutherland replied: “That’s correct, which were his reasons for taking over.”
The coroner: “That is not accepted by Mr Devoto that he said that to you, you are adamant he did?”
He replied: “He specifically stated that. I am sorry to hear the man can’t recollect.”
During his statement, Mr Sutherland said he hoped lessons would be learnt from his daughter’s death, so that other families would not go through the same experience.
“We’ve waited too long for this day to come. The only positive thing that can come out of our wait is that real change is made where needed so that others may not suffer the way we have,” he said.
“Clearly nothing here can fill a hole that she leaves in our lives but if we see that the old cliche lessons learned is not just a platitude to be forgotten that may go some way to honouring Gaia.”
The inquest continues.
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