Press release: we confirm the identity of sex offender Gaia accused of rape and call for other victims to come forwards

If you think you may have been a victim of Connor Hayes, you are invited to contact the family’s solicitor, Sarah Kellas, who can be reached via the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce on 02079110166.

For emotional support, the family recommend survivors call the Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999.

  • Connor Hayes, from Bournemouth, has been imprisoned, released and imprisoned again for separate sex offences since Gaia’s case was dropped by Dorset Police.
  • Gaia’s family say the Post-Traumatic Stress caused by this rape was “the crucial factor” in the 19 year old’s mental health challenges, disappearance and death.
  • Dorset Police has the worst conviction rate for rape in the UK, with 82 reports per conviction last year.
  • The inquest into Gaia’s death is on pause pending conclusions from two IOPC investigations: one into how Dorset Police handled her disappearance, another into their investigation of her rape allegation.

21 November: Gaia made an allegation of rape against Connor Hayes in December 2015, just over a year after her family say the rape occurred. Gaia then reported to Dorset Police, who said they had insufficient evidence to prosecute and discouraged the teenager from appealing their decision using the Victim’s Right of Review.

In a supporting statement, Gaia’s family say:

“We want to call on other survivors of abuse by Connor Hayes and his associates to come forward, either to Dorset Police or to our incredible solicitor, Sarah Kellas from the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce. 

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 about supporting survivors like Gaia the way they need and deserve to be supported. We want to do our part to keep women and girls safe in our community. We want those who may feel too let down by the system to report to the police to have somewhere else to go. We want support for survivors to improve in the South West and nationwide. We want rape taken seriously and the women who report it heard. 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 says:

“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. Her family’s tireless efforts to seek justice for her and others who’ve been subjected to these traumatic crimes is an inspiration.

We agree with them 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.”

Today, Gaia’s twin sister Maya and her older sister Clara Pope-Sutherland, alongside Gaia’s cousin Marienna Pope-Weidemann, gave interviews with BBC South Today and ITV Meridian. They called for others who may have been victimised by Connor Hayes, to come forward.

Though Gaia’s rape case was dropped by police, Hayes was later sentenced to two years in prison in December 2016, after admitting to taking an indecent moving image of a child, possession of indecent images of a child and paying for the sexual services of a child. Gaia’s family say Gaia was aware he would most likely serve just half that sentence and be due for release in the early part of 2018, a prospect which terrified her because she said Hayes had threatened to kill her and her family if she reported criminal wrongdoing on his part to the police.

Some time after Gaia’s death in November 2017, Hayes was released early, then imprisoned for a second time. This time, he was sentenced to 21 months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of causing or inciting a child aged 13 to 15 to engage in sexual activity and causing a child aged 13 to 15 to watch a sexual act. On this occaision, he was sentenced alongside William Wright, the third man in his family to be convicted for similar offences. Connor Hayes was placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register for 10 years and a previous Sexual Harm Prevention Order was extended to 2028 and amended to exclude him contacting girls aged under 16. The terms of this order are not known to the family.

Family members involved in the Justice for Gaia campaign say they have have good reason, beyond Gaia’s own testimony, to believe that many other women and girls may have been victimised by Hayes and/or his associates. The family says it will never release further information out of respect for the victims’ right to privacy.

Monday 18 November marked two years since Gaia was found dead following an 11 day disappearance and mass public search. During the anniversary of her disappearance (7-18 November) supporters and members of the public have lit candles in Gaia’s memory, some shared on social media with the hashtag #JusticeForGaia.

If you think you may have been a victim of Connor Hayes, you are invited to contact the family’s solicitor, Sarah Kellas, who can be reached via the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce on 02079110166.

For emotional support, the family recommend survivors call the Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999.

The family also extend their deepest thanks to INQUEST, their legal team at Birnberg Peirce, civil society allies, friends, supporters and local community for their unwavering support.

Press Release: family appeal for information on anniversary of Gaia’s disappearance

Released 7th November via the INQUEST website

On the anniversary of her disappearance, Gaia’s family appeals to members of the public to come forward with any relevant information. The family is also convening an art project in her memory and to highlight the crisis in service provision for rape survivors and young people with mental ill health.

The inquest into Gaia’s death has been postponed until March 2018 while the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) probe Dorset Police’s response, both to her disappearance in November 2017 and her prior rape case. The family welcomed both investigations and look forward to the outcome.

Natasha Pope, Gaia’s mother, says: “This year has been more painful than words can say. Sometimes I can’t believe I have survived it, but with my every breath I love and demand justice for my daughter. Since the Me Too, we have seen a rising movement for the rights of women and girls. Change is coming.”

Marienna Pope-Weidemann, Gaia’s cousin, says: “When she was missing, it was the support and dedication from the public that kept us going. You gave us hope that we would find Gaia. A year after her death, we must call on you again to help us find justice for her. We can’t do this without you. If you know anything that might aid the investigation into Gaia’s rape case or the missing persons investigation and help us learn the truth, please come forward; not just for Gaia’s sake, but for the sake of anyone else who might be at risk.”

Harriet Wistrich, award-winning civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice who is representing the family, says: “Nothing will dull the pain for those who loved her on the  first anniversary of Gaia’s death, but the Justice for Gaia campaign represents their hope that something good can come from this, shining a light on failures by the police and demanding better from the police in the investigation of crimes of sexual violence.”

Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, says: “Already one year on from Gaia’s disappearance, it is important that her family see a prompt and robust investigation. There has never been greater disquiet about victims of sexual violence being failed by statutory agencies. There is a clear link between the trauma of rape and mental ill health. The longer the delay in identifying any systemic failings, the greater the risk of more young women like Gaia dying.”

Emily Fields of Sisters Uncut says: “Gaia’s story shows the devastating impact that being poorly treated by the criminal justice system can have after sexual violence. Survivors need support not suspicion. That’s why we’re fighting data gathering policies that further traumatise those reporting abuse.”

Gaia’s family have organised #ArtForGaia, a creative project in Gaia’s memory, which is being followed by BBC News. With the inquest postponed, they say the project is a chance to show that Gaia won’t be forgotten – however long it takes – and create a forum for others affected by sexual violence and mental health issues to share their experiences through creative work. In addition, the family are appealing for artwork from Gaia’s friends and anyone who was involved in the search for her as well as the wider public.

People are being invited to photograph their work, submit it via the website and share it on twitter with the hashtag #ArtForGaia. Find out more at www.justiceforgaia.com/artforgaia

Gaia deserved a chance to see the world, to fall in love. That was taken from her – and we want justice, writes Gaia’s cousin Marienna for the Guardian

Today is the 365th day I’ve woken up with a hole in my chest where my heart used to be. The 11 days my cousin Gaia Pope was missing before her body was found felt like an out-of-body experience. We somehow lost the need to eat and sleep; nothing in the world mattered except bringing her home safe.

The community-led effort to find her was a grassroots miracle, filled with enough love and power to obscure that cold feeling in my gut and the whisper that said what we all already knew: she would never have left us.

The press often call her “tragic Gaia Pope”, which I hate not just because it does her no justice but also because her death was not tragedy; it was travesty.

Gaia was my cousin, but I loved her like a sister from the moment I first held her as a baby in my arms when I was seven years old. As a woman, she was let down by the services we all trust will be there for us in our hour of need. She fell through the cracks in the system and she died there.

First, she was let down by Dorset police when they chose not to prosecute for an alleged rape that took place when she was just 16. She is not alone in this: the prosecution and conviction rates for rape are worse now than they were 40 years ago.

The stigma and indignities she was subjected to as a survivor, along with the failure of the police to make her feel safe, drove her deep into post-traumatic stress. She received only a few weeks of crisis counselling from local mental health services, even though we, her family, felt that she needed a lot more. Meanwhile, her mother was being forced to leave her to work every night, just to keep a roof over their heads.

She is not alone in this, either: contrary to government rhetoric, mental health services have been decimated by austerity, none more than youth services. They receive just 7% of mental health funding even though 75% of mental health issues start young, and provision in Dorset, where my family is from, is particularly poor.

Eventually, her declining mental and physical health drove her first out of college and then work. Now it was the turn of the welfare system to relentlessly interrogate her trauma and undermine her sense of self-respect. She was forced to fight a lengthy battle for the personal independence payments (PIP) to which she was entitled.

Again, this isn’t just Gaia’s story: the PIP system has since been ruled “blatantly discriminatory” towards people with mental health issues and a great many people have died waiting for, fighting for or having given up on the support they deserve.

On 7 November last year, triggered, we believe, by an incident of sexual harassment online, Gaia passed the point of her endurance. With no phone, no cash, no coat and daylight fading, she simply disappeared. This was the last opportunity for the state to intervene and save her life. We begged them from the first moment to search for her along the coastal paths we had walked since childhood. “If she was out there, we’d have found her,” one police officer told me. It took 11 days for them to find her body there. By then it was too late.

One year on we know very little more than that. The postmortem said she was killed by hypothermia. I say it was a death by indifference. Gaia was a child soldier in a war that has cost more than 120,000 lives in Britain alone since 2010. She was fighting to survive and growing up poor in the age of austerity and that is a bloody, hard fight. She battled bravely for her rights but also for those around her; she never once let go of her humanity, her creativity, her determination to see the best in others. I am so profoundly proud of her for that.

Gaia deserved better. All of us do. She deserved the chance to fulfil her potential and give back to her community all the courage and compassion she had to offer. It’s not just her loved ones who have been robbed of someone precious, and our local community knows that.

Gaia deserved a chance to see the world, to fall in love, to have a family of her own. All that was taken from her – from us – and I want justice for that. But I also want justice for those left behind: the one in five women and girls who have endured sexual violence in this country; the 70% of young people with mental health challenges not receiving proper support; the countless families up and down the country who have been sacrificed on the altar of austerity; the lives not yet lost, precious, worth fighting for.

The world is a darker place without Gaia, but she still lights our way. We honour her memory when we fight for justice for her and for the better world that she believed in. In that sense, with support from and as part of a much wider movement for social justice, she will triumph yet.

One Year On…

We can’t believe it, but tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of Gaia’s disappearance. Her twin sister Maya has spoken on camera for the first time in an incredibly courageous interview for the BBC, which you can watch here.

In this extended radio interview, Clara and Maya speak about their grief, their hopes for the campaign and why Gaia would want justice for us all. We are so proud of them and we know Gaia is too.

@ Ministry of Justice with Sisters Uncut

Gaia’s cousin Marienna speaking outside the Ministry of Justice at a powerful action by Sisters Uncut to demand #SupportNotSuspicion for survivors of sexual violence.

Rape is the only crime you have to sacrifice your privacy to report. The Crown Prosecution Service demand that police download all phone data of anyone reporting sexual assault. The average download contains 30,000 pages of personal data, which could be handed over to the abuser’s defence team.

Read more about why this is so important to oppose.

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