Police search expert denies rushing Gaia Pope-Sutherland inquiry to go home

Sergeant Anthony Skeldon rejected an assertion he did not carry out out a detailed assessment on the missing 19-year-old.

Rod Minchin
Monday 30 May 2022 17:28
The police officer advising those looking for missing teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland has denied rushing a review of her case because he wanted to go home (PA)
The police officer advising those looking for missing teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland has denied rushing a review of her case because he wanted to go home (PA)

The police officer advising those looking for missing teenager Gaia Pope-Sutherland has denied rushing a review of her case because he wanted to go home.

Sergeant Anthony Skeldon rejected an assertion he did not carry out a detailed assessment on the 19-year-old, who had been graded as a high-risk missing person.

The college student, who had severe epilepsy, ran away from her aunt’s home in Swanage, Dorset, on the afternoon of November 7 2017.

Dorset Coroner’s Court was told Miss Pope-Sutherland’s case was originally graded as medium risk before being upgraded by a control room inspector at about 1.30am the next day.

Gaia Pope-Sutherland was found dead near a coastal path in Swanage, Dorset, 11 days after going missing in November 2017 (Dorset Police/PA)

They then contacted police search advisor (PolSA) Sgt Skeldon, who was about to go off duty.

Sgt Skeldon reviewed the police logs and recommended searching a 300-metre area around Morrison Road, where he understood Ms Pope-Sutherland had last been seen.

The search, which Sgt Skeldon said would have taken “several hours”, was done by a police officer and two police community support officers, the inquest heard.

Sgt Skeldon went home at about 2.30am after speaking with the inspector, critical incident manager Andrew Elkins, though he did not contact the teenager’s family directly, the inquest was told.

He said: “We discussed I had been through the log and there was some confusion of the place last seen and the timings of it and that would need to be addressed.”

Ms Pope-Sutherland was last seen at the home of Rosemary Dinch in Manor Gardens, off Morrison Road, though Sgt Skeldon understood she had last been in Morrison Road and directed searches from there.

He returned to work later that afternoon, carried out a review of the search and created a PolSA log.

Rachael Griffin, senior coroner for Dorset, suggested the log should have been created when Miss Pope-Sutherland was upgraded to high risk and not when Sgt Skeldon returned to work over 12 hours later.

“Is it not right you did not do the PolSA log because you wanted to go home?” she asked.

Sgt Skeldon said: “No. At that point, from my previous experiences, those logs hadn’t been started at all in slightly protracted investigations.

“I had done the initial review and had transferred that over to the log.”

Ms Griffin also asked why Sgt Skeldon made log entries on Miss Pope-Sutherland’s mobile phone when it was already known she did not have it.

She said: “Did you actually read this log thoroughly?”

He replied: “I did read the log, yes.”

The coroner went on: “If you read the log, why are you making inquiries about her mobile phone and that work being done if you know she hasn’t got it?”

Sgt Skeldon said: “If you know where the phone is, you can start working out her movements.

“There may be key information on there to help find her, who she has called, who she has contacted, and that can give us further inquiries.”

The teenager’s body was found near the coast 11 days after she went missing (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The coroner suggested to Sgt Skeldon that he “never really got to grips” with the case.

But he said: “No. There is an awful lot going on with a missing person inquiry and in relation to the Coastguard; the lost person manager can task the Coastguard and do frequently.

“I would have been liaising with (the) lost person search manager and the areas being searched and I wouldn’t have reason to question that.”

The coroner asked whether Sgt Skeldon made “sufficient inquiries” and deployed the “available resources at the earliest opportunity”.

He replied: “Maybe I could have called Dorset Search and Rescue earlier in the day and certainly during daylight hours would have been better.

“The routine for us, when we don’t have the direction of travel, is the initial 300 metres and that is what I was concentrating on at that point.”

Sgt Skeldon did not speak to the Coastguard or consider deploying police dogs, the inquest heard.

Ms Griffin said: “Is it right to say there were a number of missed opportunities in terms of the search?”

Sgt Skeldon replied: “There were no specific search areas so we started with the 300 metres. We started there and worked our way outwards.

“Yes, I could have called the Coastguard, I’ll accept that, but that is a long way outside the 300 metres but I have no indication at that point she is going to the cliff top.

“I think at that point you have to prioritise the 300 metres.”

Ms Pope-Sutherland was found dead in undergrowth between Dancing Ledge and Anvil Point, close to the coastline, by police search teams on November 18 2017, 11 days after she went missing.

The inquest continues.

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