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Troubling case for Jersey police

Sanchia Berg
The Today programme

Police officer at former home Haut de la Garenne
The child abuse inquiry centres around a former children's home in Jersey

When I arrived on Jersey on Monday, 24 February, I was one of scores of journalists to descend on the island.

All of us had come because of a police statement two days before.

Lenny Harper, deputy chief of the island's police force, had announced his team had found "what appears to be the partial remains of a child" while excavating the site of a former children's home on the island: Haut de la Garenne.

Few of us were aware before we arrived that the police had been investigating allegations of child abuse, dating back many years, at the home and elsewhere on Jersey.

By itself, the investigation was unlikely to have made many national news headlines.

What caught the news editors' attention was the idea that a child might have been killed.

Sniffer dogs

It was not clear that what was found was a small fragment, only that possibly a piece of bone.

Lenny Harper made his announcement just hours after the initial discovery, on the basis of a preliminary analysis by the anthropologist on site.

Lenny Harper
Lenny Harper was renowned for his openness at press briefings

Talking to journalists, he stuck to his line of "partial remains".

The first wire report - from the Agence France Presse - quoted a police spokeswoman referring to a "skeleton".

And when the Sunday papers picked the story up the next day, the "partial remains" had been transformed into "a child's body".

By Monday, the only question was: "What next?"

The police were using a dog trained to sniff out human remains. As it had identified six more sites of interest, did that mean there could be six more bodies?

Lenny Harper was unusually courteous and helpful for a police officer on such a major investigation.

At his regular daily briefing he did his best to answer all journalists' questions.

I even remember one press conference where the journalists were drifting away and he was still there asking: "Any more questions?"

He was careful to put caveats in his answers - "there could be a perfectly innocent explanation" - but nonetheless it was, of course, the dramatic first part of the sentence which got picked up.

Nightmares

We all started looking for former residents of the home. Some did talk, telling terrible stories of rape, cruelty and physical abuse.

I met one woman who said she had blacked out much of what happened to her at Haut de la Garenne because it was too traumatic.

She had a nightmare every night, she said, where a man was standing over her bed. She would wake up screaming.

The police began excavating the cellars at the home. It was reported that shackles had been found.

This was not confirmed at the time by police, who simply said they had found evidence confirming what witnesses had told them.

I spoke to the Police Chief Graham Power, Lenny Harper's boss, after a special church service. He told me witnesses had said they had been held in the cellar where they were physically and sexually abused.

He also said they had talked of children disappearing. "But in children's homes, children sometimes run away and these disappearances may have a perfectly innocent explanation," he added.

I came back to London, but the excavation continued.

Police found a bath. The reaction from the specially-trained dogs indicated there were blood spots in it. The search proved slow going for daily news and interest gradually waned.

Jersey home search
Police teams excavated the cellar at Haut de la Garenne

In May, the Daily Mail reported the "human bone" was in fact more likely to be a piece of coconut, but meanwhile the police said they had found teeth and other bone fragments.

Lenny Harper was due to retire in August. I went back to Jersey to talk to him in July. I asked him to explain exactly what he had found by then.

He said his team had discovered bone fragments, two of which had been analysed as belonging to children, and 65 milk teeth, which dental specialists told him could only have come out after death, and they came from at least five children.

He said he doubted there would be a homicide inquiry as they were having great difficulty dating the bone fragments. He also said due to imprecise record keeping, he did not even know who the children might be.

But Lenny Harper said they had still found forensic evidence supporting witness statements which was valuable.

Evidence demolished

All of that has now been dismissed by the new police team, led by Detective Superintendent Michael Gradwell.

Step by step, yesterday, he demolished the evidence.

First, he said experts had dated the "partial remains of a child" to Victorian times, and, far from being part of a human skeleton, the fragment was most likely a seed pod, or a piece of coconut shell.

Item thought to be shackles
Police thought a rusty piece of metal found at the home was shackles

Then he declared the "shackles" were simply pieces of metal. There was also nothing sinister about the bath: no indication it was used for torture, nor were there any blood spots.

His expert analysts had advised there was nothing suspicious about the teeth. Contrary to what Lenny Harper had been told, they generally had the appearance of being shed naturally.

As for the bone fragments, only a handful were human, and they had been dated to at least 300 years ago.

There is however still a child abuse inquiry.

Arrests

Before the new police team took over, three people had been arrested, two of them had had been charged. Of those, two are connected with Haut de la Garenne.

Lenny Harper told me he had many more cases which were well advanced.

The police say they intend to draw a line under the excavation and the suggestions of child deaths and to push ahead with the abuse cases they have.

It will be interesting to see whether these cases get anything like the publicity given to the cellars at Haut de la Garenne.



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