Police: Britain's 'house of horrors' exaggerated

/ Source: The Associated Press

The evidence appeared to paint a shocking picture. Detectives investigating claims of widespread sexual abuse at a former home for troubled children on the island of Jersey said they found underground rooms, rusted shackles, bone fragments and a piece of a child's skull.

After the lurid discoveries earlier this year, media from around the world descended on the English Channel island to write about what the British press dubbed a "house of horrors."

On Wednesday, Jersey police said the horrors had been exaggerated. The underground chambers were just cellars, most of the bones weren't human and the skull fragment was most likely from a Victorian-era coconut.

"There is no suggestion there has been murder or any bodies destroyed," said Deputy Chief Officer David Warcup, who was put in charge of the island's police force on Wednesday.

Victorian-era home
Police believe crimes did take place at Haut de la Garenne, a forbidding-looking Victorian-era home for troubled and delinquent youth which closed in 1986. More than 100 people have come forward to say they were physically or sexually abused by staff, and three men have been charged with sexual abuse.

But authorities say there is nothing to back up the other grisly scenarios outlined in briefings to the media by former deputy police chief Lenny Harper, who retired in August. Jersey police chief Graham Power has been suspended pending an investigation into the abuse case.

After the allegations surfaced in February, the voluble Harper kept the media briefed on the forensic team's myriad discoveries: bone fragments, teeth, bits of metal that could be shackles. He said detectives found the burned and scarred remains of at least five children, ages 4 to 11, and that attempts had been made to conceal bodies.

Detective Superintendent Michael Gradwell, who took charge of the investigation in September, said Wednesday the rooms described as underground chambers where children were beaten and raped were "just cellars."

Animal bones found
Most of the bones found at the home were from animals and the few that might be human dated from between 1470 and 1670; the alleged shackles were "just rusty metal," Gradwell said.

The fragment identified as a piece of a child's skeleton "was more likely a part of a coconut" from the 19th century, he said.

"The purpose of today is to say there is a child abuse inquiry but in terms of Haut de la Garenne, there was no murder," Gradwell told a news conference.

The case caused rumors to fly on Jersey, an insular island of 90,000 off the coast of France known as a tax haven and for its idyllic beaches, French food and English efficiency. Although a possession of the British crown, it is not part of the United Kingdom and has its own legislature, the States of Jersey.

After the discovery of the alleged skull in February, international media — including The Associated Press — arrived to describe grim images of an imposing stone structure perched on a cliff overlooking stormy seas, and to hear former residents' accounts of abuse at the home.

The reports also recounted part of the island's history most in Jersey would rather forget: it was the only part of the British Isles occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and Haut de la Garenne was used by the Nazis as a signaling station.

The saga of Haut de la Garenne, which means "Forest Heights," began when it opened in 1867 as an industrial school for "young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children." Juvenile delinquents also were placed there.

Shuttered in 1986
Later it became known as the Jersey Home for Boys, though at times girls were also housed there. The rundown building was shuttered in 1986 and after an extensive renovation, it reopened in 2004 as a youth hostel popular for its views of the open sea.

On Wednesday Warcup, the interim police chief, expressed "regret that information has been given by police that was not strictly accurate."

Jersey's Chief Minister, Frank Walker, said the investigation had damaged Jersey's reputation and cost $6.7 million, including $2.2 million spent on excavation work.

"I am disappointed to learn that the investigation has not been undertaken in the manner in which it should have been," he said. "It would appear there have been certain sums of money that did not need to have been spent."

Harper, who now lives in Scotland, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper he had been right to raise the possibility of murder.

"When we found bone fragments and teeth in a home where we were investigating alleged abuse, what did people expect us to do? Ignore it? You won't find any police force in the country which would have kept that quiet," he said.