The house of horrors reveals its secrets

March 5, 2008 9:28:34 AM PST
Until last month, the British Channel Island of Jersey was known mostly for its tourism, its status as an offshore tax shelter, and for the quality of its milk, courtesy of the famous Jersey cattle. But now, something more sinister has clouded the island's reputation ? a child-abuse scandal that threatens to destroy the reputations of some of Jersey's most well-known politicians and business leaders.

It began with the discovery ? in February ? of skull fragments at a former children's home called Haut de la Garenne.

Rumors about child sexual abuse at the establishment, which closed in 1986, have swirled around the island for years. Although Jersey police confirmed on Monday that results are still awaited on the fragments, the initial findings provoked a storm of phone calls to the police, some from alleged victims and others from people claiming to have witnessed abuse at Haut de la Garenne.

Last Wednesday, police officials were able to break into the cellar of the building, which had been blocked with bricks. They found a room measuring about 12 square feet, containing what appears to be a communal bath made of concrete. The discovery was hailed as "significant" by police, who later said that it seemed "to link with accounts from witnesses."

The police also found a pair of shackles in the cellar, and the first published pictures of the room show a wooden post next to the bath on which someone had scrawled: "I've been bad for years and years."

Abuse Claims Stretching Back Over 50 Years

Although many in the media have speculated on the significance of the cellar, alleging that the staff at the home would abuse children by putting them in freezing water in the bath, police would not confirm the reports.

But a former resident, Winnie Lockhart, tells ABC News that she remembered hearing threats about being taken "into a dungeon" during her days there.

Lockhart, now in her 60s, was only 13 years old when she was sent to Haut de la Garenne in 1955.

"I remember being woken up by screaming boys night after night," she recalls.

"But when I asked the boys about it later, they told me not to tell anyone. 'You will be taken to the dungeon as well,' they said."

Describing herself as a "rebellious sort," Lockhart says she finally plucked up the courage to tell an adult about the noises she was hearing.

"I went to the matron and asked her what was going on, but she just smacked me in response."

"Then," Lockhart adds, "I was sent to a psychiatrist. When I told her about the abuse in the home, she told me to stop making up stories."

"After that I was just too frightened to tell anyone else," she says.

Patricia Thornton oversaw Haut de la Garenne during the 1950s and early 1960s.

The octogenarian ? who was awarded an MBE, a prestigious British award in 1996 by Queen Elizabeth for her services to the community ? insists that no abuse took place under her watch.

"I am quite sure I would have known if there were such incidents," Thornton says in an interview with ABC News.

She even keeps in touch with some of the boys and girls she met in Jersey, such as Lockhart, who describes Thornton as "the mother I never had."

Lockhart's admissions of the abuse suffered by her and other children shocked Thornton.

"She asked me why I didn't come to her," Lockhart says, adding that she was "just too scared by then to talk to any adults about the abuse."

"Besides," Lockhart adds, "the staff changed character whenever Mrs. Thornton came by. She didn't live there, so they could do what they wanted while she was out."

Thornton herself is in a state of disbelief, as are so many Jersey residents.

"It's most disturbing. The whole thing is appalling," she says, her voice shaking.

120 Alleged Victims (and Counting)

Since the investigation began, a police spokesman confirmed to ABC News that 120 people have come forward to share their abusive experiences at Haut de la Garenne. He also disclosed that police have compiled a list of 40 suspects.

On Friday, a local TV station named 13 people as suspects, including a few high-profile government officials. One such individual is believed to be Wilfred Krichefski, a businessman and former Jersey senator who died in 1974.

The Times of London reported that Krichefski allegedly made regular visits to the home to abuse young boys. But police have not confirmed these reports.

Lockhart could not remember if any high-profile figures were involved in child abuse during her stint at the home. But, she says, it would not surprise her to find out that they were.

"I remember a doctor coming to see me when I had a throat infection," she recalls. "Well, he touched every part of my body except my throat. So this sort of thing was not uncommon then."

So far, only one man has been charged. Gordon Claude Wateridge, 76, a former member of staff at Haut de la Garenne, was charged with committing three offences of indecent assaults on girls under 16 between 1969 and 1979.

Until more suspects are charged, police are keeping a keen watch to ensure that no suspects leave the island.

A police spokesman also tells ABC News that veiled threats were made "by a former care worker to a potential witness." Since then, police have issued strict warnings, saying that people who interfere with the inquiry would find themselves in trouble with the authorities.

What's Next for Haut de la Garenne's Victims?

The investigation is expected to take months, with police hoping to break through the cellar to another adjoining underground chamber, and possibly through to a third such room, after witnesses allegedly described a network of rooms where children were abused for decades.

Most of the alleged perpetrators are likely to be "either old or dead," as Lockhart puts it. Still, she believes that the public attention now being given to these claims "will help the victims."

"It will bring peace to people," she says.

Still, as Lockhart herself knows all too well, "you never forget something like this."

"No matter how much time passes, the memories always come back. Every time I read about a child being molested somewhere, it takes me back to my childhood. It's scarred me for life," she says.

More than 50 years later, Lockhart and others like her are hoping to have their voices heard.

"Back then," she remembers," children would just go missing from the home, and we never found out what happened to them."

The discovery of human skull fragments has led many to wonder if the trail of abuse could culminate in a mass-murder inquiry.

For the 88,000 Islanders in Jersey, the traumatic saga spanning more than half a century has prompted many to wonder how their beautiful, peaceful community could harbor such a dark, disturbing secret.

Like many, Lockhart believes that "it will take a long time for Jersey to recover."

For now, the island's residents are waiting with a heavy heart to see what the next wave of findings will reveal about this once pristine place.