Gaia Pope: Family identify man they say raped her before death and urge other victims to come forward

'We have no more answers today about what happened to Gaia and why than we did when it happened. It is like being in an endless nightmare,' says Gaia Pope's cousin

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 21 November 2019 15:16 GMT
Gaia Pope: A body has been discovered in the hunt for the missing 19-year-old

The family of a teenage girl found dead after saying she had been raped has identified the man they think was responsible – and urged any other victims to come forward.

Gaia Pope, a 19-year-old from Swanage in Dorset, was reported missing from her home in November 2017 and her body was discovered almost two weeks later in undergrowth on a nearby clifftop.

A post-mortem examination came to the conclusion she died of hypothermia.

Connor Hayes, now 26, had been the subject of a police investigation in 2016 after Ms Pope alleged he had raped her.

Police did not proceed with criminal charges after Ms Pope’s allegations, but he was handed a two-year sentence later that same year for an unrelated case involving the abuse of a teenage girl.

Ms Pope went missing around the time he was due for release from prison.

Dorset police are being investigated over how they dealt with both the previous rape allegation and the teenager’s subsequent disappearance. An inquest into her death will be reopened after investigations have finished.

Ms Pope’s family say Hayes, from Bournemouth, has been jailed, released and imprisoned again for separate sex offences since Ms Pope’s case against him was dropped.

Hayes was jailed for 21 months last December for inciting a 15-year-old girl to engage in sexual activity over the internet. He was told he would be placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register for ten years and a Sexual Harm Prevention Order he was already subject to was extended to 2028.

Ms Pope’s family say Gaia suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after she was allegedly raped and argue this was a “the crucial factor” in her mental health struggles and death.

The teenager’s relatives are now calling for other alleged victims of Hayes’ abuse to come forward.

Clara Pope Sutherland, a 23-year-old recent graduate who is the older sister of Ms Pope, said: “We are aware that there are other victims who were abused by Connor Hayes.”

Marienna Pope-Weidemann, her cousin, claimed his alleged abuse is an "open secret" in the local area and the family are in an “enormous amount of pain and distress” over the way her death has been handled.

“The delays to the investigations into her death are profoundly traumatic,” the 28-year-old said. “The fact we don’t have answers makes it impossible to grieve. We have no more answers today about what happened to Gaia, and why, than we did when it happened. It is like being in an endless nightmare. I have been struggling with anxiety, depression and PTSD – these mental health challenges forced me out of two jobs.”

Ms Pope-Weidemann said the family were coming up against the same struggles to access mental health support their deceased relative had faced – adding the “cycle of pain and trauma continues”.​

Dorset Police has the worst conviction rate for rape in Britain – with just 82 recorded rapes per conviction last year.

The family, who says it will not provide further information due to respect for the victims’ right to privacy, called on “other survivors of abuse by Hayes and his associates” to come forward to Dorset Police or to their solicitor Sarah Kellas.

Ms Pope’s family’s statement said: “We have wanted to call for this since day one but it has taken a long time to seek legal advice and be sure we’re not jeopardising our chances of a proper inquest under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, which we desperately need to get to the truth and justice for Gaia.

“Two years since Gaia she was taken from us, there are still countless unanswered questions, but what we do know is this. We know that Gaia reported she was drugged and raped by Connor Hayes. We know that she was denied justice and that this denial of justice, coupled with a denial of adequate mental health support, led to her death. We know that because of this, it is unlikely Gaia’s case can ever be prosecuted.

“But our idea of justice isn’t just about Gaia, it’s not even about Connor Hayes, it’s about supporting survivors like Gaia the way they need and deserve to be supported. We want those who may feel too let down by the system to report to the police to have somewhere else to go. We don’t want anyone else to go through the trauma Gaia had to go through or the devastating loss we live with every day”.

Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales said: “Gaia’s story is a devastating reflection of how our criminal justice system and society too often fail victims and survivors of rape, sexual abuse and all forms of sexual violence.

“We agree with the family completely that those who’ve experienced sexual violence and abuse need and deserve social justice, in the form of properly resourced, specialist and independent support, counselling and advocacy services, as well as a properly functioning criminal justice system. This must be an urgent priority for the next government.”

A spokesperson for the Independent Office for Police Conduct said: “We are working to complete our two investigations as quickly as possible and are regularly updating Ms Pope-Sutherland’s family, the Coroner and Dorset Police on our progress. We expect to complete both reports soon. Our investigations have involved reviewing a substantial number of documents and police communications, scene visits, interviewing and gathering statements from a wide range of witnesses, and considering national and force policies.

“We are grateful for the patience shown by Gaia’s family and all involved while we have conducted an appropriately thorough investigation into such a tragic event.”

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