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Jersey mystery: police find remains of five children but may abandon murder inquiry

Police in Jersey admitted for the first time yesterday that they may never be able to bring murder charges in their child abuse investigation, despite finding the remains of at least five children buried in the cellars of a former children's home.

In an attempt to dampen expectations after months of excavations at Haut de la Garenne, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper publicly disclosed for the first time that a murder inquiry was unlikely because the remains cannot be dated precisely.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Harper, who is due to retire next month, admitted: "We were pinning our hopes on the process of carbon dating. The latest information we're getting is that for the period we're looking at, it's not going to be possible to give us an exact time of death. The indications are that if the results come back the same way as they have now it is obvious there won't be a homicide inquiry."

He told the BBC that the results indicated that the remains could have originated from anytime between 1650 and 1950.

Mr Harper said the identified bones came from children aged between four and 11. He added: "We cannot get away from the fact that we have found the remains of at least five children there. But at the end of the day there just might not be the evidence to mount a homicide inquiry in an attempt to bring anybody to justice."

The startling admission will raise questions over how four months of painstaking forensic excavations at the home have unearthed numerous bone fragments and milk teeth from five different children – but not enough evidence to try to secure any murder convictions. One leading British forensic archaeologist, who did not want to be named, said he was baffled that police have been unable to date the bones. "I'm surprised the evidence is apparently so inconclusive," he said. "It seems strange that we have lots of bones but an announcement that there will no longer be a murder investigation."

The authorities on Jersey have been accused of ignoring allegations of child abuse in the past, and the latest move is sure to raise further questions. Stuart Syvret, a former health minister on the island, said he was forced out of his job for blowing the whistle on more-recent child abuse.

Mr Harper, a 56-year-old from the mainland, was brought in three years ago to "clean-up" Jersey's police force. He launched the investigation last November after a number of former residents at the home said they were drugged, raped and abused in punishment rooms beneath the building. In order to not alert any potential suspects who might flee the island, police kept their inquiries secret until February, when they discovered what they thought was the remains of a child's skull buried in concrete under a stairwell at the home.

The suggestion that children's remains had been found prompted hundreds more victims to come forward, saying they had been abused in the cellars between the 1960s and 1986. It also thrust the small Channel Island, which prides itself on being an attractive offshore banking centre, uncomfortably to the top of the international news agenda.

As the island's politicians struggled to deal with the damage wrought to Jersey's reputation, the list of potential perpetrators grew to more than 80 people. Although many of them are now dead, police are concentrating on at least 18 "priority" suspects who are still alive.

The skull itself later turned out to be a fragment of coconut or wood, but subsequent excavations not only revealed the labyrinth of punishment rooms described by victims, they also uncovered a frightening array of children's remains.

At least four punishment rooms were uncovered alongside a concrete bath where victims described being held in cold water for hours before being repeatedly abused. Also found were flecks of blood, a set of shackles and graffiti above the bath which read: "I've been bad for years and years."

Forensic archaeologists have now uncovered more than 100 fragments of bone and 65 milk teeth. Two of the bones have been identified – one from a child's leg, the other coming from a child's inner ear. Police believe the milk teeth, meanwhile, were extracted after death because many still have large parts of the root attached to them.

Some of the bones are also charred, while others show signs of trauma including lacerations. There is also archaeological evidence suggesting that efforts were made to conceal them at some point during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there was no way of knowing whether children had been killed in the cellar or whether the bones were simply suicides and accidental deaths that had been covered up.

Six people related to the Haut de la Garenne inquiry have been arrested so far. Three have been charged with offences relating to the abuse of children; three others have been released on bail pending further inquiries.

How the investigation unfolded

November 2007

Police begin investigating child abuse claims at Haut de la Garenne, a former children's home.

23 February 2008

Police go public with their investigation after discovering what they believe to be the remains of a child.

25 February

A bricked-up cellar is discovered. Sniffer dogs trained to locate blood point to six "hot spots".

1 March

Police find four cellars, a concrete bath and a set of shackles corroborating victim testimonies.

7 March

Dogs find traces of blood in the bath. Police confirm there are more than 100 victims and 25 suspects.

16 April

Police dig near a dormitory after an ex-resident said staff told him to dig two pits. One is filled with lime.

22 April

First bones and milk teeth found.

9 July

Police search nearby WWII bunkers.

31 July

Police admit murder investigation may have to be abandoned.