The Dorset teenager Gaia Pope died of hypothermia after either burrowing into undergrowth on an exposed clifftop or falling into the bushes and may have been experiencing a mental health episode or epileptic seizure at the time, an inquest jury has been told.
In the hours before she vanished, Pope, 19, said she thought she was pregnant and had split up with her boyfriend before dashing out into “rotten weather” without her coat, the jury heard.
The court has been told that Pope was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after reporting being raped at the age of 16. Shortly before she vanished, a man had sent her indecent images, which caused flashbacks and anxiety.
On the third day of her inquest in Bournemouth, Dr Russell Delaney, a Home Office pathologist, said Pope had a history of mental health issues and epilepsy.
He said on the afternoon of her disappearance, 7 November 2017, she began behaving “irrationally” at a friend’s house in her home town of Swanage and revealed she thought she was pregnant, though a test the day before had proved negative.
She also said she had split up with her boyfriend, started acting in a “highly sexualised manner” and undressed. Someone persuaded her to put her clothes back on and she ran away.
Delaney said a member of the public found items of her clothing on 16 November in a field around a mile from where she was last seen and close to the spot “deep in undergrowth” where her naked body was eventually found on 18 November.
The pathologist said she suffered few obvious external injuries apart from scratches on her torso and legs likely to have been caused by goris and brambles. Delaney said these could have been caused if she had burrowed into the undergrowth or fallen into it. An internal examination picked up indications that she had died of hypothermia, the court was told.
Delaney said Pope may have suffered a mental health episode and taken her clothes off on the clifftop, leading her to becoming cold and wet and suffering hypothermia. It was also possible a phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing” occurred in which a person suffering from hypothermia begins to remove clothes because the brain mistakes the feeling of coldness for warmth.
The pathologist told the jury Pope may have exhibited a behavior called “hide and die”, which is believed to be a primitive response to hypothermia and can involve “burrowing” into an enclosed space.
The court was told that Pope had five to 10 seizures a day at one point but Delaney said it was not possible to say if she had a seizure just before she died. Asked on the balance of probabilities if epilepsy had played a part in her death, he replied: “I don’t think it’s possible to say either way. It may have done, it may not have done.”
Delaney said death may have taken several hours but could not put a precise time on it. He also said it was not possible to say when she had died – only that it was a number of days before her body was discovered. But he said the characteristics of some of the scratches suggested she died soon after sustaining them.
The pathologist said he had been told by police that Pope was due to see her GP at 5pm on the day she disappeared and said a relative had called the police at 6.18pm.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who is representing members of the Pope’s family, highlighted that the court had been told the police were called by a member of the teenager’s family at 3.42pm. Delaney said police had not told him that.
Neither was he told that Pope had been due to meet police about the indecent images she had been sent or that her family were worried she had vanished without her medication.
The inquest continues.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.