The body of a woman believed by police to be missing Swanage student Gaia Pope has been found.
Specialist officers leading a massive search for 19-year-old Gaia discovered the body of a woman near Swanage at around 3pm yesterday, near the coastal path and the field where items of her clothing were found on Thursday.
Detective Superintendent Paul Kessell, of Dorset Police’s Major Crime Investigation Team, said: “Although the body has yet to be formally identified, we are confident that we have found Gaia.”
He added: “Her family have been informed and are being supported by specially-trained officers. Our thoughts remain with all of her family and friends at this very traumatic time. They have requested privacy and that we make no further media releases at this point.
“The coroner has been notified and further forensic examination will continue. This will guide the investigation in respect of the circumstances of the death which at this time remains unexplained.
“I would like to thank the community for their support and understanding while this large-scale investigation continues and their efforts in looking for Gaia.
“We have received a huge amount of support from the public who have contacted us with possible sightings of Gaia and items of found clothing. I can confirm that we have recovered all the clothing we believe Gaia was wearing when she disappeared and, with thanks, we no longer require the public to assist with searches.”
Speaking after the body’s discovery, Clara Pope-Sutherland, the sister of Gaia, paid tribute to “the light” of her life.
In a statement she said: “She is – I’m not going to say was and never will – the absolute light of my life.
“So beautiful, so emotionally wise and in- telligent and so passionate and artistic and creative and understanding.”
She continued that she would “always be one of three” siblings and thanked the public in their attempts to help find the missing teenager.
Gaia Pope’s cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, also thanked the public for the help and support they had given the family.
In a statement, Ms Pope-Weidemann said: “We want to thank each and everyone of you for everything you’ve done.
“If there is one ray of light in this nightmare it is the compassion, humanity and community spirit that you’ve shown over the last 10 days.
“Your dedication and selflessness for a girl that many of you don’t even know has been stag- gering and one of the few things that kept us going.
“This afternoon the emergency services found Gaia’s body. We are absolutely devastated and unable to put those feelings of loss into words.
“We thank you for everything you have done. Our little bird has flown but will always be with us.”
grief and shock
A wave of grief and shock swept through Swanage last night at the end of a day which saw hundreds of people join the search for Gaia, who has been missing since November 7.
Extensive searches have been led by Dorset Police supported by specialist officers and teams, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue, the coastguard, national search advisors, the police helicopter, Dorset Search & Rescue, Wessex 4×4 and the Search & Rescue Dogs Association.
As Swanage saw the biggest search in the West Country since the disappearance in Devon of Genette Tate almost 40 years ago, the mystery which has now gripped the nation deepened as the community asked how did Gaia die and why did she go on the run?
Her heartbroken family had previously revealed that Gaia could have fled because of her fear of a man due to be released from prison.
The day after the search for Gaia began, her 21-year-old sister Clara Pope-Sutherland posted on Facebook: “It has not been 24 hours, but Gaia suffers from increasingly severe epilepsy (we have no idea if she as her medication with her) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of a traumatic abuse incident that occurred two years ago.
“She is currently going through a period of extreme worry/PTSD episode in fear that the abuser will be released from jail. As you can probably imagine, she is very vulnerable.”
Gaia’s father, 57-year-old Richard Sutherland, added to the concerns that she could have been desperately in fear when he tearfully told ITV News that she had suffered a post-traumatic stress disorder after an attack in the past “by some guys”.
He added: “This had a devastating effect. I think this had been coming back into her head. She was scared, confused.”
Confusion also surrounds a post on Gaia’s Instagram page listed as having been made a week ago and which was tagged #sexualassault. It read: “Police are into my phone I think I’m gonna have to put it down till Wednesday now with the talking or I’ll get a real shut up and be put in a cell myself”.
In reply to the post, a social media friend identified only as “jupiturmm” wrote: “Stay safe and don’t worry wait for it all the blow over baby girl xxxx. Of course they’re in ur phone ok don’t worry just run somewhere safe u haven’t done anything wrong ok don’t worry. Run somewhere you know to be the safest place ok. They trying to track u because we are all so sick with worry gaia”.
As hundreds of Swanage residents and volunteers from all over Dorset and beyond yesterday joined the Mass Search For Gaia, organised by her family, her father who also joined the search told the crowds of helpers: “Huge thanks to you all. It’s very heart-warming and the support gives us a lot of hope.”
But within hours his world was torn apart by the discovery of a body by police.
Alarm over Gaia’s safety heightened when a clifftop walker found clothes near the Dancing Ledge beauty spot, less than two miles from her home in Langton Matravers, near Swanage.
When last seen, Gaia was wearing grey and white leg- gings, white trainers and a red checked shirt. Police say the clothes found on Thursday in a field near the coastal path alongside the 70ft cliff matched those Gaia was wearing.
Swanage locals said that the field had already been searched before the clothes were found on Thursday.
Forensic experts spent the week conducting a detailed search of properties in Manor Gardens, Swanage, believed to be the homes of three people known to Gaia.
On Thursday police arrested a 49-year-old man on suspicion of murder. He is believed to be Paul Elsey, who is of the same family as two others also arrested on suspicion of murder who were later released under investigation.
Paul Elsey, a carpenter, is the uncle of Nathan Elsey, 19, who was arrested on Tuesday along with his grandmother, 71-year-old Rosemary Dinch.
Paul Elsey’s father Greg Elsey has insisted his son was completely innocent – and on Friday afternoon Paul was freed from custody.
“He’s protested his innocence 110 per cent and I have 110 per cent belief that he will be released when they find out he has done nothing,” said Mr Elsey before his son was released under investigation while enquiries continue.
Gaia was last seen by Ms Dinch at her home at around 4pm on the afternoon she went missing. Gaia arrived at the property in a distressed state and then left again, without her coat.
Before she was arrested Ms Dinch told BBC News that Gaia had “pounded” on her door then spent 20 minutes with her.
“She was very upset, she slid to the floor at one point, I gave her a cuddle and she responded to me – I have no idea where she is – she just seems to have disappeared,” said Ms Dinch.
Greg Elsey has also defended Ms Dinch, his former wife, against any suspicion. He said: He said: “[Rosemary is] terminally ill and she is 71 years old. The police took her away on suspected murder. She couldn’t even murder a chicken.”
The 69-year-old added that Nathan Elsey was terrified at having been arrested and held by police for 24 hours. Defend- ing him as “a lovely lad who wouldn’t hurt a fly”, Mr Elsey said: “He’s a young lad and he is petrified. He has never been in trouble before”.
Although police released and widely circulated CCTV images of the Gaia just an hour before she disappeared, showing the teenager buying ice cream at St Michael’s Garage on Valley Road in Swanage at 2.55pm, and other footage of her seen run- ning near Manor Gardens, at 3.39 pm, there were no other sightings of her.
Dorset police deployed divers, sniffer dogs, a helicopter and a drone and forensic teams alongside scores of officers combed the Swanage area for any clue to Gaia’s disappearance, and hundreds of local residents and friends responded to the call for help, searching more than 400 locations and flyposting shops, community centres, landmarks and public transport with ‘missing’ posters of the student who had been studying health and social care at Poole and Bournemouth College but had put her studies on hold earlier this year due to her illness.