Police are preparing to start excavation work at a Gloucester cafe after finding possible evidence that a suspected victim of serial killer Fred West may be buried there.
Digging will begin on Wednesday at the Clean Plate cafe in Southgate Street, where detectives’ probe will focus on “six voids” discovered in the floor of the cellar.
Police have confirmed they are searching the premises in connection with the disappearance of 15-year-old Mary Bastholm, who was last seen less than two miles away at a bus stop on Bristol Road in January 1968.
The hunt began after a TV production company handed police a photo of what appeared to be blue material buried in an area of the underground room.
Bastholm once worked as a waitress at the cafe – then called the Pop-In – where police said Fred West was a regular. She was wearing blue clothing when she disappeared.
In a strange twist of fate, the cafe is now owned by the Nelson Trust, an addiction rehabilitation charity that also supports vulnerable women who are victims of or at risk of violence.
Police revealed the documentary crew identified a void within the floor underneath the toilet in the basement of the property and a cadaver dog, trained to detect human remains, indicated there may be something of interest within the cavity.
On Tuesday, police were seen carrying objects including a number of wooden doors out of the cafe.
The police operation and imposing presence of a large white forensic tent on their high street are “the talk of the town”, locals said.
But some, who have been in the area long enough to remember the 1994 excavation of Fred West’s and his wife Rose West’s “House of Horrors” in nearby Cromwell Street, feel as though they hae been here before.
Gary Mehlmann, who moved to the cathedral city from Salford and now lives round the corner from the Clean Plate, told The Independent it was “the talk of the town” and “everyone is on about it”.
“It’s a bit macabre isn’t it, it’s a bit weird that it’s on your doorstep,” he said as he stood outside his local gazing across at the cafe which now sits closed on the opposite side of the street.
The 49-year-old said he hoped Bastholm’s family would be able to find some closure and perhaps get the opportunity to “bury her properly” if her remains were found at the property.
Vinoth Saravanan, who lives a stone’s throw away from the scene, said he had watched from his window as police officers carrying trays and sealed evidence bags came and went.
“I’m really shocked,” said the 32-year-old. “I was thinking to myself ‘Maybe 50 years ago she was walking across the same roads as I was and maybe was at the same bus stop I was at’.”
Rumours that Bastholm could be buried at the cafe have circulated for years and police previously rejected a petition calling for its basement to be excavated.
Gloucester man Richard White, who works at the Turks Head Inn opposite the Clean Plate, claimed he wasn’t surprised at all.
“That property was looked at back in the 1990s,” said Richard White, who works at the Turks Head Inn opposite the Clean Plate. “It [Mary’s disappearance] was before I was born but I’m just not surprised.”
Another resident, who stopped to chat near the scene, said he was surprised it had taken police so long to examine the cafe.
“I’m quite surprised it took a documentary crew to find it,” said the man, who did not want to be named.
“It would bring her family closure, but I think it was raised in 2012 and he [Fred West] admitted it to his son.”
“We'd just moved to the area when it first all kicked off down Cromwell Street,” he added. “It was grim.”
“It could be [Mary’s remains], you just don’t know, do you. The trouble is this place is full of Roman remains so it might not be her.”
Serial killer West, who died in prison in 1995 aged 53, was previously suspected over Bastholm’s disappearance.
Forensic archaeologists have confirmed there are a number of structural anomalies within the cellar that warrant further exploration.
Police were seen carrying objects, including a number of wooden doors, out of the property on Tuesday.
Detective Chief Inspector John Turner, who is leading the investigation, said West was “always indicated as being involved in Mary's disappearance and possibly her death”.
“We will be searching the basement to find out what, if anything, is there. If anything is found we will carry out a forensic review and we will look to seek people within the investigation that we need to interview,” he added.
“If Fred were alive, undoubtedly he would be interviewed around the disappearance of Mary.”
When the teenager disappeared, West was living with his first wife Rena at a caravan site at Bishop's Cleeve, near Cheltenham – close to where a teenage Rose West was living with her parents.
Mr Turner said his “understanding” was that Blastholm’s disappearance in January 1968 happened before Fred had met Rose – but he did not rule out speaking to her in prison.
The Wests tortured, raped and murdered an unknown number of women over a 20-year period.
Blastholm’s disappearance in 1968 was at a time when builder West was abducting girls in Gloucester.
West is said to have confessed to killing Mary in conversation with his son, Stephen, but never admitted it to police.
Her body was not found during the 1994 excavation of the Wests’ home in Cromwell Street.
Mr Turner said there was conflicting evidence during the original House of Horrors inquiry as to whether West had carried out renovation work at the cafe in 1968 or later, in 1976.
West was charged with 12 murders, but took his own life in a Birmingham prison before his trial.
Rose West was convicted of 10 murders in November 1995 and is serving life.