POLICE yesterday rejected claims they put undue pressure on a key witness in a satanic abuse investigation on the Isle of Lewis, after she admitted lying to detectives following days of intense questioning.
Angela Stretton, 39, says she was put under severe pressure by detectives investigating systematic abuse claims from three girls and eventually "told them what they wanted to hear".
Her comments have raised questions about the way police handled the investigation, which led to eight people from Lewis appearing in court charged with serious sex offences involving children. The charges were dropped by prosecutors nine months later because the evidence was not of a sufficiently high standard.
Despite that, social work inspectors found more than 220 incidents of abuse between 1990 and 2000 - including allegations of satanic rituals - involving at least four adults.
Their report described how the girls were made to go without proper food, clothing or bedding and how one girl routinely slept in a cupboard. It is also claimed another was so hungry that she ate cat food.
The Social Work Inspection Agency report found that despite the children, who were born in England in 1989, 1991 and 1993, telling other adults what was happening to them, they suffered "severe and prolonged abuse". Ms Stretton, who has learning difficulties, said that after repeated questioning she told police and social workers she witnessed her mother, brother and several other islanders abusing children.
She said: "I had lots of meetings with police and social workers. They kept questioning me about different people. It was a different person every day. They had a list of names, including my mum and my brother. They said things about taking photos and killing animals and drinking their blood.
"At first I said no, they wouldn't do that. But they kept on and on at me. They said I had to tell the truth for the children. I felt really under pressure, so I suppose I told them what they wanted to hear. I just agreed with what was being said.
"Plus at that time I wanted to get my own back at my mum. I know this is wrong. I just want to try and put things right. I want to say sorry to them and clear their names." She has written to police confessing that she made false allegations.
Lawyers criticised the police for building a case relying on Ms Stretton - who had a conviction for making hoax calls to the emergency services - as the only adult witness.
David Brookens, a solicitor who represented Susan Sellwood, one of those falsely accused, said: "People were hung out to dry. In addition, by relying on her as a witness, the door has been closed on prosecuting those who should have been prosecuted. Police spread the net very widely in this case and caught nothing."
Several of the accused have demanded an apology. Mrs Sellwood, who is fighting to clear her name and that of her husband, said: "We were subjected to vigilante attacks and our lives have been destroyed physically, financially and emotionally. People think the case was dropped because they didn't have enough evidence, rather than because police and social services made appalling mistakes."
Northern Constabulary yesterday insisted they had questioned Ms Stretton in an appropriate way and highlighted the damning findings contained in the SWIA report.
"In response to allegations made in her letter, police can confirm that Ms Stretton - who has learning difficulties - was accompanied by an appropriate adult at all times when being interviewed by police to ensure that all questions were proportionate to her understanding and to show that we, as an organisation, recognised her needs."
A Crown Office spokeswoman said: "Extremely serious allegations were made in this difficult and complex case, by a number of witnesses. It was necessary for such serious allegations, involving children under the age of 16, to be thoroughly investigated."