The investigation into child abuse allegations on Jersey took a further grim turn yesterday after a police sniffer dog picked up traces of either human remains or blood in the cellar of the Haut de la Garenne.
Police have been working round-the-clock at the former children's home to gain access to the bricked-up cellar, which a number of witnesses and alleged victims have claimed was where much of the abuse took place during the 1970s and 1980s.
Speaking outside the home, Jersey's deputy police chief, Lenny Harper, said the dog had shown an "extremely strong reaction" when taken into the cellar, which until yesterday afternoon had been inaccessible to officers. He added that the dog's response was similar to that shown when a child's skull was found under a stairwell in the home last weekend.
The discovery of a trace inside the cellar raises the prospect that further human remains may be found in the home, but the police were also keen to stress that if the trace was blood then there could be an innocent explanation for it. Nonetheless, Haut de la Garenne is being treated as a possible murder scene.
Police confirmed that the number of potential victims of abuse had risen to "well in excess of 160". In the past two days alone they have received 70 calls from potential witnesses. Mr Harper said he was hopeful that arrests will be made. Mr Harper, the officer in charge of the international investigation, also revealed that officers came across an item in the basement that had been described in a number of witness statements and which sources have indicated may be a bathtub. Mr Harper refused to confirm what exactly the item was, but indicated it was an ordinary household item that had been bolted to the floor.
"It would appear as if the cellar is exactly as some of the witnesses who've made statements to us and victims have described," he told reporters.
A forensic examiner also discovered what she believes to be a second room of similar dimensions adjacent to the cellar, which has also been bricked up and will need to be broken into. Mr Harper said that both rooms appear to measure approximately 12ft square and are 3-4ft below ground level.
"There is another room of the same size that appears to have been bricked up," he said. "Some of the bricking-up appears suspicious, but there could be an innocent explanation for it."
An archaeologist and specialist anthropologist are expected to go into the cellar today to start sifting through the rubble and debris inside the first room. The investigation of the house was temporarily halted on Tuesday in order to carry out a survey into whether the 130-year building could withstand the excavations. Officers will have to check regularly that the building is safe to continue working in.
Yesterday, police confirmed the excavation of the cellars alone may take weeks.
Although the police are searching a number of other sites around Haut de la Garenne in which the sniffer dog had shown interest last weekend, the cellar is fast emerging as the major focus of the investigation.
Graham Power, Jersey's top police officer, said that many of the alleged victims who have come forward recently have spoken of "this deep, dark place where they claimed sexual and physical abuse took place. These people told us that sometimes they had been abused in that dark place and on other occasions they had been held in there and given food before they were taken out and subjected to abuse."
Police officers travelled to Thailand earlier this week to interview one potential victim, while two statements were also taken from witnesses in Australia last week.
Mr Harper confirmed at least 40 people were now suspects, including former workers at the home and their friends. Some local police officers are also under suspicion, but not for abuse.