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The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed


Wednesday 23 April 2008; last revised 6 May 6.40am
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The discovery of a bone fragment at a former children’s home in Jersey led to a media frenzy about murderous paedophiles. But the facts tell a different story.
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AT 9.30 AM ON SATURDAY 23 February a team of police officers and forensic experts made a discovery which would transform an obscure police inquiry in a picturesque corner of Jersey into a global media frenzy.

The discovery took place inside the main building of the former Haut de la Garenne children’s home. It was reportedly made not by the officers themselves but by a trained sniffer dog which had previously taken part in the search for Madeleine McCann. Almost immediately the police issued a press release saying that they had found ‘what appears to be potential remains of a child’.

A press conference was held and the effect on journalists was electric. News of the discovery rapidly shot to the top of radio and television news bulletins. That evening the BBC website headlined its story ‘Child’s body found at care home’. It went on to say that ‘parts of a child’s body’ had been discovered and that the remains were thought to date ‘from the early 1980s.’ Deputy Chief Police Officer Lenny Harper was quoted as saying that detectives ‘think there is the possibility they may find more remains.’

Within 24 hours this gruesome story spread around the globe amidst talk of a possible paedophile ring. The Guardian reported that ‘half a dozen bodies’ might be found and quoted Harper as saying: ‘There could be six or more. It could be higher than that.’ Journalists descended on Jersey from all over the world. Massive resources were poured into what has by now almost certainly become a multi-million pound inquiry, and teams of experts were brought in from all over the UK.

There was only one problem. This was that practically every element of the initial story, as relayed by the media, was untrue.

In fact, no child’s body had been discovered. Nor had the police found anything which could reasonably have been described as the 'remains of a child'. All they had found was a small piece of bone which was later said to be a skull fragment ‘about the size of a 50p piece’. There was no evidence to suggest that this fragment belonged to 'the early 1980s' and nor is it clear that it has ever been reliably identified as belonging to a child.

The small piece of bone, however, became the most important piece of evidence in the entire inquiry. It was immediately placed in a polythene bag and sent to a laboratory in the UK for carbon dating. Although results were initially promised in two weeks, the wait proved to be much longer. During this wait some journalists appear to have become sceptical. On 3 March, after a full month had passed, Jersey Evening Post reporter Diane Simon even ventured to ask during a press conference whether the skull fragment might turn out to be a red herring.

More than a month later, on 8 April, her question was partly vindicated when the police announced that scientists had been unable to date the fragment at all.

It is perhaps a tribute to the Jersey Police’s adeptness in handling the media that what was, on any reasonable view, a dismal forensic failure, was either not reported in the press at all or, even more remarkably, was presented as an investigative triumph. This was largely because the police announced the failure to carbon date the fragment in the context of three pieces of information which were entirely new.

In the first place the police reported the on-site archaeologists as saying that the bone could not have been found in a much less favourable environment as ‘there was a large amount of lime present’. It was this, the police implied, which had destroyed the collagen in the bone (on whose presence carbon dating depends).

In the second place the police reported the archaeologists as saying that ‘from a study of the materials in the location where the find was made, the bone was placed at that location no earlier than the 1920s’. This, they pointed out, ‘was some seventy years after the home opened as an Industrial School for Boys.’

In the third place they said that, according to the archaeologists, the fragment might have been deposited more recently than the 1920s:

It could well have found its way there more recently than that, but no earlier.  This leaves us with no knowledge of how, when, or indeed, where, the person died.  All we can say is that the bone was placed where we found it in the 1920’s or more recently [italics added].

The effect of surrounding the news of the disappointing outcome of the carbon dating tests with these three new pieces of information was remarkable. This can best be illustrated by the story which appeared at the time in the Daily Mail which turned the story about the failure of carbon dating completely upside down.

The substantive story here was that no forensic testing had been possible. However, the way in which this news had been presented by the police evidently persuaded the Daily Mail’s sub editor to pen a headline which conveyed the exact opposite of the truth: ‘Child skull found at Jersey care home “WAS put there while building was a children’s home”, forensic tests confirm.’

A similar story appeared on the same day in The Sun, where the claim that the skull fragment was ‘definitely put there while it [Haut de la Garenne] was a children’s home’ was specifically attributed to the police.

It is is difficult to imagine a more successful public relations coup than the one the police managed to achieve at this point. For they had effectively reversed the true import of the story by turning defeat into victory.

However, it can now be revealed that this coup had something in common with their original public relations triumph when they suggested that they had found the ‘remains of a child’. For, like their original claim, none of the three new pieces of information the police presented to the press at this stands up to closer examination.

The reporter, the archaeologists and the police

IT IS THE JERSEY EVENING POST which should take the credit for making the first part of this discovery. On 18 April, the Post ran an extremely significant story, the most important points of which have, quite inexcusably, been ignored by the press on the mainland.

In a front-page headline, reporter Diane Simon revealed that the murder inquiry relating to the skull fragment had been abandoned. But the real significance of her story is that it flatly contradicts the claims about dating which were made by the police. It does so on the basis of exactly the same authority the police originally invoked – the archaeologists:

The fragment of a child’s skull definitely predates the abuse inquiry period and will not be the subject of a murder investigation.

And the layer of earth in which it was found means that the fragment could even have been placed there as long ago as the Victorian period, the forensic archaeologists who found it have said.

The particular layer in which the skull fragment was found contained Victorian brickwork and a Victorian penny bearing the date 1851. Perhaps more importantly still, it is said to have been sealed in by a layer of aggregate dating back to the 1940s. In other words, the bone which, as Simon notes, ‘ sparked a frenzy of interest from the world’s media’ has turned out to be exactly the kind of red herring she speculated it might be when, during a press conference held on 2 March, she posed the question which every other journalist seemed too timid to ask.

The Post reported that: ‘Forensic archaeologists with many years of experience have advised [Deputy Police Chief Officer] Harper that although the skull fragment could not be dated, they have “very securely” dated the context in which it was found.’ This suggests that the two crucial claims made by the police in their press release of 8 April – namely that the fragments could not have been deposited earlier than the 1920s, and that it might have been deposited more recently – were both untrue.

It follows from the Evening Post story that the two crucial claims made by the police in their press release of 8 April – namely that the fragments could not have been deposited earlier that the 1920s, and that it might have been deposited recently, were both untrue.

Of course the fact we now know that an 1851 penny was found nearby does not in itself provide a secure date since, as the archaeologists note, such coins would be in circulation long after they were minted. But the presence of the coin raised the possibility that the depositing of the skull fragment had nothing whatsoever to do with Haut de la Garenne’s use as a children’s home, which only began when it opened as the Jersey Industrial School in 1867 – a full sixteen years after the penny was minted.

Carbon dating and the disappearing collagen

WHILE DIANE SIMON’S DISCOVERY will be known at least to those who read the Jersey Evening Post, the second discovery, which relates to carbon dating, is reported here for the first time.

This discovery concerns the third new piece of information that the police had used in what appears to have been an attempt to spin the bad news about the result of the carbon-dating tests. ‘The protein “Collagen” had been completely destroyed in the bone’, said the police press release. 'Archaeologists state that the bone could not have been found in a much less favourable environment as there was a large amount of lime present.’ It is for this reason, the police imply, that the carbon-dating tests failed.

It is true that successful carbon dating depends on the continued presence of collagen. But the implication of the press release was that the collagen in the skull fragment had been destroyed by lime and that this is one of the worst environments for preserving bone. When I investigated this claim, it too turned out to be highly questionable. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the skull fragment may be many hundreds of years old – or even thousands.

Bones are relatively stable objects, and bones which are 50,000 years old can sometimes be carbon-dated successfully. When, in their press release, the police revealed that the collagen in their bone sample had been ‘completely destroyed’, the obvious question to ask was whether this in itself might be significant, and might point in the direction of the probable age of the skull fragment.

The world of carbon dating is a small one and I soon discovered that it was Dr Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, who conducted the carbon-dating tests on the Jersey fragment. It was therefore not surprising that, although he agreed to speak to me, he did so on the understanding that he could only talk about general principles and could not discuss any specific case.

Higham also told me that lime is far from being one of the worst burial environments from the point of view of carbon dating. On the crucial question of whether the absence of collagen from a bone sample gave any indication of its date, he said that no hard and fast conclusion could be drawn since everything depended on the bone's state of preservation. But it would tend to point towards the bone being older rather than younger: ‘It would be surprising if you were dealing with a sample which was supposed to come from after 1800 and it came out with no collagen. In such a case I would think that the sample would probably be old and probably not forensic’, said Dr Higham. Such samples, ‘'would probably be older than 1800’.

‘Bones are very difficult to identify on the basis of a small sample’, he continued. It was sometimes very difficult to distinguish between human and other mammalian bones.

Professor Pieter Grootes, a carbon-dating specialist at the Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, who recently gave a conference presentation entitled Dating Bones Without Collagen, was more forthright. When I ask him what he would think if he had been presented with the Jersey skull fragment and had found it to contain no collagen, he said: ‘I would wonder whether that was a modern piece of bone and had anything to do with child abuse.’

The fact that there had been a great deal of lime where the fragment was found did not change his view: ‘I would not expect lime to penetrate bone.’ A bone found on the Channel Islands with no collagen was likely to be old, he said. How old? ‘A few thousand to few hundred thousand years.’

The neolithic burial place

SINCE THE FIGURE OF a few hundred thousand years would take us back into the early Neanderthal era, it was presumably intended as a notional one. But it should be noted here that the Haut de la Garenne building is some three or four hundred yards away from La Pouquelaye de Faldouët or the Faldouët Dolmen.

This is a neolithic passage grave which was constructed some 6,000 years ago and has occasionally been mentioned in connection with the current investigation. On a BBC discussion board a former Jersey resident wrote:

As a Jerseyman living in the UK I would be interested to see if the archaeologists on site at the boys home unearth any Late Neolithic/early Bronze Age human remains as the home is just a stones throw from the Dolmen du Faldouet . . . where I played as a child. Cist burials were very common around sites such as this and when the home was first built it would have been possible to have disturbed one or two and the remains discarded into the backfill. It may well be that the human remains found thus far could be far older than was first thought.

At the same press conference at which Jersey Evening Post reporter Diane Simon asked Lenny Harper whether the skull fragment might be a red herring, he was also asked whether it might have come from the Faldouët Dolmen. He replied at the time that there was no evidence to suggest this.

Blue pointer indicates Haut de la Garenne, red marks the dolmen

There is, of course, still no evidence which conclusively connects the bone fragment with the neolithic burial ground just across the road from Haut de la Garenne. But now that we know a little more about the views of the various archaeologists both on and off-site, we can say with some confidence that it is rather more likely that the fragment is neolithic than that it has anything at all to do with the building’s use as a children’s home.

Why was the carbon dating necessary at all?

ONE QUESTION REMAINS: why was the skull fragment ever submitted for carbon dating in the first place? For as soon as the archaeologists working on the site had ‘very securely’ dated the fragment to the 1940s or earlier then its irrelevance to any criminal investigation should have been apparent. Who could possibly be arrested and charged for a potential crime that may have taken place 60 or more years ago?

It would seem clear that, from the point of view of the police, the entire saga of the skull fragment and the protracted attempt to carbon date it, has been an extremely successful exercise in news management. In fact it was a great (if unintended) theatrical coup. The discovery of this fragment, and its prompt promotion to the media by way of a press conference, suddenly turned the Haut de la Garenne investigation from an obscure police inquiry into a global media phenomenon. This in turn has been used to justify expenditure on the investigation on a scale which is completely out of proportion to the evidence which has been found.

This theatrical coup seems to have succeeded principally because the police launched it by making the untrue or misleading suggestion to the press that they had discovered the ‘remains of a child’. Then, at the very point when the entire story was on the verge of collapse, – because of the carbon-dating failure, which could not possibly show that this was part of a ‘child’s body’ from ‘some time in the 1980s’– the police apparently sought to mitigate a potential public relations disaster by supplying three more pieces of information, all of which have turned out to be untrue or misleading.

That it should now emerge, after two months of horrific and sensational publicity, that the skull fragment has been effectively eliminated from the investigation by the very archaeologists who helped to find it, and that it may in any case be thousands of years old, is sobering indeed. And the fact that the most recent developments have effectively been hidden from the general public in mainland Britain by quiescent, slumbering or complicit journalists, may well have come as a relief to the police.

More horror stories

THIS DOES NOT MEAN, of course, that the horror stories have now ceased. No sooner had the Jersey Evening Post made preparations to publish its story about the archaeologists than a fresh press release sent into circulation an entirely new story. On Wednesday 16 April, two days before the story about the difference of opinion with the archaeologists appeared in the Post, the police let it be known that two pits had been dug at the home during the late seventies or early eighties. Having been dug they had then almost immediately been filled in again. The police had already excavated one of these pits and had discovered that it contained nothing but a large amount of lime.

The enquiry team can think of no reason why this pit would have been created nor why it was filled with lime.  We would emphasise that we have no evidence of any motive.  We are currently excavating the second pit which is very close to what was the boys’ dormitory. 

The language of the press release was restrained. But its effect was entirely predictable. The following day most mainland newspapers carried the story. Some, including the Telegraph and the Guardian, immediately put their own gloss on it, pointing out that lime ‘can be used to disintegrate corpses’ (Telegraph) or ‘is often used to try to accelerate the decomposition of soft tissues in buried remains’ (Guardian).

What no mainland newspaper recorded was the report which appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on 16 April, which said that ‘the information about the pits came from a member of the public soon after police work had started at the site in February’. The question which this raises is why, if this information was so important, was the excavation of the pits left for more than a month? And why, since the police had already found nothing (except lime), in the first pit, did they not wait until they had finished digging up the second pit before giving the story to the media?

One answer to this question, of course, is that press releases which announce that excavations have been completed and no skeletons have been found do not make good horror stories. And it is on good horror stories that the ‘success’ of the investigation in prompting publicity and, through it, more allegations, has so far depended. Perhaps, for the police, a new horror story might be particularly welcome at a time when anything which distracted attention away from Diane Simon’s story about the archaeologists would, presumably, be helpful to them.

An important note: none of this should be taken to indicate that there is no substance at all in any of the allegations which have been made in relation to children’s homes on Jersey. Since the story of the lime pits was announced, the police have broken two more stories.

On Friday 18 April they claimed that they had found ‘blood-stained items’ the nature of which they declined to specify.They might have 'an innocent explanation', the police said. And last week, the police attributed malign significance to two milk teeth they had found, linking them to some fragments of bone which have not as yet even been identified as human.

Even if these latest horror stories lead nowhere, as seems quite likely, it is almost certain to be the case that some of the allegations which have been made about care workers on Jersey are well-founded.

Two sets of victims

THE PROBLEM IS THAT THESE complaints about abuse have not been followed up by the kind of careful and sensitive police inquiry required in such circumstances. Instead they have been met with a high-profile, sensational investigation which has been conducted at times with quite extraordinary recklessness. The officer in charge of this investigation has, by his own admission, deliberately sought maximum publicity, and has done so with the explicit purpose of generating more allegations against former care workers.

For the reasons which I have outlined in an earlier article, Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal, this method of investigation is dangerous, not least because it will all but inevitably have had the effect of generating a large volume of false allegations.

Those who may end up suffering because of such false allegations are not only the many innocent care workers who were employed at Haut de la Garenne over the years. They are also almost certain to include those who genuinely were abused. For one of the dangers of conducting investigations in a manner which unintentionally encourages false allegations is that these will ultimately undermine any true allegations which have also been made.

As I wrote in my book The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (which examined a child abuse scandal at care homes in North Wales):'

One of the factors … which makes this modern witch-hunt uniquely terrible is that it has claimed, and continues to claim, two sets of victims. For it is not only those who are falsely accused who suffer anguish and misery. Among the other victims are all those who genuinely have been abused. Because of the huge number of false allegations which have been made in the last thirty years, the veracity of almost all allegations of abuse may begin to be called into question. As a result many people who have made truthful complaints of having been abused in children’s homes, of rape, or of incest, may find that they are disbelieved or may fear that they might be. They may feel, in consequence, that they have been robbed of their own integrity and their own history. That, too, is a tragedy and we should not underestimate the distress which such disbelief can cause (p. 551).

It is because of the pain which scepticism of any kind about allegations of abuse can inflict on those who genuinely have suffered abuse, that many people, including police officers, social workers, lawyers and journalists, are sometimes prepared to accept on trust any allegation. This attitude is dangerous for the simple reason that it tacitly encourages fantasy and fabrication. To make a false allegation against an innocent person is itself a serious crime, and tolerating such false allegations, or creating conditions in which they flourish, is unwise. Indeed, it is just as dangerous to a democratic society as tolerating any serious crime would be.

The Haut de la Garenne investigation in Jersey, and the manner in which it has been conducted, has already, I believe, created conditions in which false allegations are being inadvertently encouraged. And if the inquiry continues on its present course, then it is likely to cause immeasurable harm.

Having spent more than 10 years investigating the North Wales child abuse scandal, and the nationwide trawling operation against residential care workers which followed, I have seen too many innocent people put in prison for crimes which neither they nor anybody else has committed. Of these care workers, who have been given sentences of up to 15 years, some have been released, some have died in prison, and some are in prison still. Any writer who, knowing this, failed to ask critical questions about the inquiry at Haut de la Garenne would, I believe, be both negligent and irresponsible. If the climate of moral panic which has been created around this investigation is not challenged, more innocent people will almost certainly suffer.

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Richard Webster is the author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (2005). The long-delayed paperback of this book, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing, will be published later this year. His earlier article on the Jersey story, Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal was published here on 4 April. The second part will appear in May.

My thanks to the editors of Arts and Letters Daily who featured this piece as one of their ‘Articles of Note’ and to Brendan O'Neill the editor of spiked, who has republished it here.

This screen version of this article has been viewed 6886 times since Wednesday 23 April. (This does not include the version of the article carried by spiked. Last updated 8.43am, 29 April.)

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