Tragedy of the innocent grandmother driven to an early death after being wrongly accused over missing teenager Gaia Pope
On the day she disappeared in November 2017, teenager Gaia Pope had knocked on the door of the pensioner she had come to regard as her second grandmother.
Rosemary Dinch used to collect Gaia and her twin sister, Maya, from their primary school in Swanage, Dorset, along with her grandson, Nathan.
During the summer holidays she would take the children on trips to nearby Poole Park, buy them ice creams and watch over them while they played.
But the moment she opened the door to 19-year-old Gaia on Tuesday, November 7, 2017, marked the beginning of a hellish ordeal for the frail 71-year-old and her family.
For when Gaia went missing later that day — to be found, dead from hypothermia, on a remote clifftop 11 days later — Rosemary, her son, Paul Elsey, and grandson, Nathan Elsey, suddenly found themselves at the epicentre of Dorset Police’s botched investigation.
The events which followed were traumatic indeed. Hours of questioning, homes ransacked, humiliating and intimate physical examinations, and, ultimately, a family left haunted by an ongoing finger of suspicion pointed by those who believe there can be no smoke without fire.
When Gaia went missing later that day — to be found, dead from hypothermia, on a remote clifftop 11 days later — Rosemary, her son, Paul Elsey, and grandson, Nathan Elsey, suddenly found themselves at the epicentre of Dorset Police’s botched investigation
For even though a pathologist confirmed that Gaia — who had severe epilepsy — had died from natural causes; even though CCTV footage showed Gaia leaving Mrs Dinch’s home unharmed; and even though Gaia’s own family thought the arrests outrageous, Rosemary, her son and grandson remained under investigation for two years before being released without charge.
Now, after an inquest last month revealed devastating failures by both Dorset Police and local health authorities in the days leading up to Gaia’s death, the Elsey family has decided to speak exclusively to the Mail about their ordeal.
Aside from their fury that crucial opportunities to find Gaia were missed while time-stretched officers focused their misplaced attention on them, they say the horrific ordeal drove Rosemary, who suffered from a lung disease and required an oxygen machine at home, to an early death last November.
‘It was a witch-hunt from start to finish,’ says Rosemary’s 55-year-old daughter, Deborah Elsey, whose Swanage home, in the same street as her mother’s, was also turned upside down.
‘Mum’s only crime was to open the door to Gaia that day, but she ended up shunned by the whole community,’ she says.
‘We had people on Facebook saying we should all be hanged.’
Deborah, who runs a nail salon, says her mother never got over the thousands of pounds worth of devastation caused by police to her home, in which drawers and cupboards were ransacked, pipes removed and her stair lift derailed.
Officers even stuck their fingers into Rosemary’s home-made Christmas pudding in their futile hunt for clues.
‘They turned our homes into a crime scene,’ says Deborah. ‘They cut a hole in my mattress. But they also helped themselves to tea and coffee and used the radio.’
On the day she disappeared in November 2017, teenager Gaia Pope (above) had knocked on the door of the pensioner she had come to regard as her second grandmother. Rosemary Dinch used to collect Gaia and her twin sister, Maya, from their primary school in Swanage, Dorset, along with her grandson, Nathan
The ordeal, says Deborah, has left her family suffering from chronic stress and anxiety.
Her 24-year-old son, Nathan, once an aspiring actor who appeared as an extra alongside Harry Styles in the 2017 film Dunkirk, is a shadow of his former self and rarely leaves the house. Deborah’s 54-year-old brother, Paul, a carpenter who has since struggled to find work locally, has moved away.
After Rosemary’s death, Deborah found a note her mother, who graduated in law at the age of 50 and worked for her local Citizen’s Advice bureau, had written: ‘Why is this happening to me? I haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘Dorset Police has ruined our lives,’ Deborah says tearfully. ‘My mother never got over the shock of it. She was shunned by the community afterwards. She once went into a cafe and people moved tables away from her. She asked the police about counselling and they laughed and said: ‘You’re not a victim.’ ‘
The family has still not received an apology from the police. Nor have they been told the outcome of a complaint they made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. This week, a spokesperson for the IOPC told the Mail that the delay was due to the inquest — the report contains evidence which was to be heard by the coroner.
‘Now that Gaia’s inquest has concluded, we have advised the complainant that they will receive our report shortly,’ he said.
But Deborah says the delay meant her mother died without any closure.
‘No one has said sorry. No one has been held to account,’ she adds. ‘What happened has changed us, but we have been abandoned to cope with it. We have no pleasure in life. We’re all tormented. My mother looked 90 before she died.’
Deborah remembers every detail of the afternoon Gaia arrived on Rosemary’s doorstep, on November 7. She stayed for barely ten minutes.
‘Nothing she said made sense,’ says Deborah. ‘She fell against the wall and slid down it. I think maybe she was having some kind of seizure. Mum cuddled her and then Gaia said she was going to see another friend. She’d taken her coat off because she was complaining that she was too hot, and Mum begged her to put it on again but she refused.’
After her mother told her what had happened, Deborah phoned Gaia’s mother, Natasha.
‘I said that Gaia didn’t sound right, and she said that she really wasn’t well. She asked where she’d gone and I told her what she’d said to Mum.’
When Gaia failed to return home in time for a 5pm appointment with mental health services, her worried family contacted police. In the hours and days that followed, Deborah drove around looking for Gaia and kept in touch with Natasha. She and family members also gave statements to the police.
Officers, meanwhile, focused their attention on Rosemary and her family. Their homes — as well as Gaia’s — were searched, but nothing was found.
Rosemary and Nathan were arrested on Monday, November 13, 2017 — six days after Gaia had gone missing. Rosemary’s son, Paul, who was living with his mother at the time, was arrested three days later.
He recalls the moment police swooped in several cars and ‘surrounded’ Rosemary as she arrived home. ‘She shouted: ‘Paul, I’ve been arrested for kidnap and murder,’ ‘ he recalls.
‘She didn’t have her oxygen and I could see she was about to collapse. I shouted: ‘For God’s sake. Hold her up.’ ‘
Moments later, Nathan was brought out of his home opposite in handcuffs.
While Rosemary and Nathan were arrested on suspicion of murder and taken for questioning to Poole police station, Deborah, who was on her way home from work, received a call from Dorset CID asking her to bring in her mother’s oxygen machine.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ she says. ‘It was like something off the TV. I was in shock.’
She and Paul were later told to go to a Premier Inn, where their mother arrived in the middle of the night after being released on bail.
Meanwhile, police officers searched their homes again, removing and cutting up drainage pipes. ‘When I got back they’d disconnected my boiler and we had no heating,’ says Deborah.
They have since said police seemed disinterested in their suggestion that she might have fled to a clifftop beauty spot she used to visit with her grandfather. This spot is close to the very place her body was found 11 days later
‘I poured milk down the sink and it leaked everywhere. A policeman told me: ‘You’re going to need a plumber.’
‘That’s when I realised they’d pulled out the pipes. They thought we’d cut [Gaia] up and tried to flush her down the pipes.’
Both Deborah’s home and her mother’s, she says, were left in chaos; bath panels removed, paperwork muddled up and returned to different drawers.
‘It felt like psychological warfare,’ she says.
Three days after Rosemary and Nathan’s arrest, Paul was arrested at his solicitor’s office in Southampton and his car taken away.
‘There was no evidence,’ he told the Mail. ‘It was a witch-hunt.’
Like his mother and nephew, Paul was released on police bail without charge.
Both he and Nathan were left ‘humiliated’ after being strip-searched in front of female officers. Photographs were taken of their genitals for signs of sexual crimes — and despite their innocence the photographs can be kept by police for up to seven years.
But it was last month’s inquest which really re-opened the family’s wounds. Quizzed by the coroner about their botched investigation, a senior Dorset police officer attempted to justify the decision to focus on the Elsey family by saying there had been ‘very powerful’ reasons for arresting the three innocent family members.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Devoto said he stood by his decision to arrest the trio, describing their movements as ‘suspicious’ and arguing that it was his job ‘to make hypotheses and use strategies to prove or disprove them’.
For her family, says Deborah, his comments were devastating.
‘We were shocked that he was allowed to cast doubt on us again in public,’ she says.
‘The IOPC said the inquest would exonerate us, but instead that man has thrown suspicion on us again. Dorset Police don’t want to admit they made a mistake.’
The Elseys paid £3,000 to solicitors who discovered that the police had based their case on false allegations made against the family by neighbours with whom they had a long-running dispute — a dispute of which, Deborah says, Dorset Police was aware.
Among the outlandish claims were that a young girl had been heard screaming inside Mrs Dinch’s house for hours, when, in fact, Gaia had stayed for only ten minutes.
Another untrue allegation was that Paul had been seen removing plastic sheets and an electric saw from his car boot. None of it, says Deborah, was true. What makes the Elsey family’s arrests even more disturbing is that when Gaia’s family reported her missing, they told officers of her fragile mental state and where they should look for her.
People searching a hillside for missing Gaia Pope
They have since said police seemed disinterested in their suggestion that she might have fled to a clifftop beauty spot she used to visit with her grandfather. This spot is close to the very place her body was found 11 days later.
At last month’s inquest, a police officer admitted altering search logs after it was alleged by a QC at the inquest that he had ‘beefed up’ records to make the police search appear more thorough.
Perhaps most astounding of all is the fact Gaia herself had phoned the police on the day she died. She was trying to confirm the details of an appointment to report online sexual harassment.
Thanks to an anonymous police whistleblower, it was later revealed that the officer Gaia spoke to assumed she was making things up. They told colleagues that Gaia and her family were ‘talking rubbish’ and that no more calls from them should be transferred.
Gaia had previously turned to Dorset Police for help in 2014, when she reported that she had been raped by a man who had threatened to kill her. While they dropped the case after five months, the man was eventually imprisoned for other child sex offences.
On the day she disappeared, Gaia had also dialled 999 in the midst of an acute mental health crisis. A review by the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust found that it had failed to take appropriate safeguarding action.
And yet while the greatest risk Gaia faced was clearly to herself, the police chose instead to swoop on Rosemary and her relatives.
Gaia’s body was discovered on November 18, the day Paul Elsey was released from custody.
‘Nathan just fell to the floor and cried,’ says Deborah. ‘We were absolutely devastated that she was dead, but we also all thought that now the police and everyone would know we hadn’t hurt her.
‘We had no idea that this ordeal would go on and on. It has taken over our lives.’
After Rosemary’s death last year, the family sold her home. Deborah, too, now plans to sell up and move away in the hope of making a fresh start.
‘The inquest was a whitewash,’ she says. ‘Dorset Police has not been held to account. There is no justice for Gaia or for us.’
Senior coroner Rachael Griffin said that it was ‘arguable that acts or omissions by Dorset Police may have been or were contributory to Gaia’s death’, but that even though the force had admitted failings in the search for Gaia, there was not enough evidence to find they had contributed to her death.
Gaia’s family have also been left outraged.
Speaking on behalf of the Pope family, her cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, says: ‘We stand in support of the Elsey family who, like us, are still owed answers and, like us, deserve justice and the support of this community until they find it.’