How raider robbed 37 Suffolk churches

CHRISTOPHER Coulthard's bright red Mazda was a familiar – if elusive – sight zipping at twilight along the back roads of Suffolk during the first week of last February.

CHRISTOPHER Coulthard's bright red Mazda 626 was a familiar – if elusive – sight zipping at twilight along the back roads of Suffolk during the first week of last February.

But soon the registration plate J490 EGJ would be the must hunted in the county.

Georgina Wroe chronicles the churches he plundered and the role of one Suffolk verger in tracking him.

When Christopher Coulthard returned to his £60 a night hotel at the Scole Inn, near Diss, few of his fellow guests would have known what kept the quiet 40-year-old, who always carried a camcorder, out all day.

But in one week Coulthard was responsible for a seven-day criminal spree that left a trail of 37 churches broken into and nearly all of their collection boxes laid bare.

Last week Coulthard, the country's most prolific church raider, was sentenced in Swansea Crown Court for four years for raids on 517 churches.

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His barrister even said he could have saved himself from his crimes "for the love of a good woman".

Today the Evening Star reveals the names of the churches and the role Suffolk police played in tracking down the church raider.

Detective Constable Martin Stagg, one of a three-officer team based in Stowmarket, said: "We were aware of Coulthard for a long time before he was arrested.

"A couple of eye witnesses had seen him acting suspiciously around churches and made a note of his car number plate.

"We ran a check and traced him to Warwickshire. At that stage we didn't have any evidence to prosecute him but we liaised with other forces and let it be known in the event of his arrest we wanted to speak to him."

Even though Coulthard had fallen under the suspicion of every force in the country, it wasn't until he was caught red-handed breaking into a church in west Wales that he was arrested.

Det Con Stagg went on: "We went to Swansea prison to speak to him on November 8. He confessed to 37 offences carried out in the space of a week. He was keen to admit to what he had done.

"He had an address in Norfolk and one near Diss. The amount he stole wasn't great but it would have been enough to keep him.

"He drove around and stopped at churches and tried the door, if they were ones that he could make some money on then he would return. We didn't have any repeat offences but I have no doubt that he would have returned to Suffolk had he not been caught."

Although the sums taken in Suffolk were negligible – most of Coulthard's damage was the result of thoughtless criminal damage inflicted as he tried to prise safes from historic church walls.

When police finally traced 40-year-old Coulthard to a Welsh hotel room, they discovered a coded map criss-crossing the country.

The map precisely rated the churches, "rich pickings", good takings", "open door" or "offertory boxes".

It has now emerged that Coulthard's criminal reign in Suffolk in February 2002, caused church officials to go on red alert.

Nick Clarke, communications director for the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said: "Police were aware that this man was operating in the area. "There were details of a car and even his description. We emailed churches to make them aware of what was going and warn them to be on their guard. We also told them to bank collection money regularly."

But despite the warnings, 37 churches around the county fell victim to Coulthard, who armed himself with lock picks and surgical scissors in a camera case to disguise himself as a tourist.

He used the scissors to draw money out of collection boxes – and he used to glue the collection boxes down so they could not be checked if they were empty.

In Swansea Crown Court, where Coulthard was sentenced to four years , defender James Jenkins said: "Around 80% of his crimes have never been reported."

The amount of money stolen by Coulthard in Suffolk rarely amounted to more than £10, the extent of his criminal damage – as he broke into wall safes – was much higher.

At All Saints church in Frostenden damage to the church was estimated at £500.

Its vicar, Reverend Leonard Payne, said: "I'm very happy that the matters have been resolved. We try our best to keep the doors open but we are subject to quite regular break-ins.

"It used to be the case that churches were sacrosanct from thieves, it's a great sadness for everyone when they become the subject of burglaries."

Father Chris Atkinson is responsible for three churches, two in Eye and one in Bedingfield which fell prey to Coulthard, said:

"The feeling among my parishioners was one of outrage and guilt. They felt guilty that they may have been responsible for not taking better care.

"I can't imagine that this man stole just for the money it sounds like he may have had a grudge against God or the church. But churches are God's houses, I will not lock them because in that case the criminals have won."

When he was caught Coulthard was carrying £2,450 in cash when he was eventually caught and drove a car bought for £1,900 with the proceeds of crime.

At the height of his spree Coulthard was burgling 50 churches a month.

He took cash from offertory and charity boxes or church safes, planning his ecclesiastical break-ins like a military campaign.

Avoiding larger towns that were covered by CCTV cameras, Coulthard would arrive at a town and book into a hotel, buy an ordnance survey map before visiting each church in the area.

He would grade each place of worship for the strength of the lock, whether it was overlooked by houses and how much money it was likely to have.

Coulthard, originally from Warwickshire, was arrested last September after a vicar in Aberyswyth spotted him trying to break into a church. The chaplain wrote down Coulthard's car registration and gave it to police.

PC Owain Richards of Dyfed-Powys police, one of the lead officers in the case, said: "After the arrest we contacted all the forces in the country and asked them to draw up a list of offences they wanted to speak to Coulthard about. Officers came down from Suffolk and liaised with him."

Swansea Crown Court heard Coulthard had been a burglar since the age of 13 and had his first court appearance in the 1970s.

He spent his formative years in and out of detention centres and borstals.

His barrister James Jenkins said: "He is utterly institutionalised but he is not a stupid man and has a low opinion of himself because of what he has done.

"During a three-year period when he was in a relationship he was crime free.

"The only thing that will help him is the love of a good woman but of course the state cannot provide that."

PARHAM church verger Nicholas Minifie knew when he first spotted the red Mazda parked unusually that something was wrong.

He said: "Cars usually park near the church where there are a few cottages but this Mazda was at the top gate.

"I bumped into Coulthard, as I now know him, as he was leaving the church. He had a camcorder around his neck and was trying to give the impression of a tourist. But there was something suspicious about him.

"I confronted him and he told me he was just looking around. I think he must have already gone around the churchyard.

"I had my doubts about him at the time. I watched as he drove away and I made a note of his registration number.

"The next day I saw press reports that there had been some break ins and I reported the registration number to police."

Mr Minifie's quick thinking gave the Suffolk police an important lead.

Detective Constable Petrina Webb said: "We ran the number and identified Couthard. After that he appeared to leave the county but his MO was always to return but before he could do so we got the call from Welsh police that he had been arrested. It was in part thanks to eye witness reports."

Mr Minifie, a verger for four years, said: "I suppose you could say that I helped foil a burglary on Parham church."

Among more than 500 churches Coulthard admitted to breaking into, the following were asked to be taken into consideration:

1. St Mary's, West Stow, nothing taken but £100 worth of criminal damage.

2. Kedington Church, nothing taken but £100 worth of criminal damage.

3. St Peter's, Falkenham, nothing taken, but £150 of criminal damage.

4. St Peter's, Hepworth, £1 stolen, £100 worth of criminal damage.

5. St Petronilla, Whepstead, nothing stolen, but £100 in criminal damage.

6. St Andrew's, Brockley, nothing stolen £50 criminal damage.

7. St Andrew's, Barningham, £3.50 stolen and £3.50 worth of criminal damage.

8. St Andrew's, Wickham Skeith, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

9. St Margaret's, Wattisfield, nothing stolen but £50 worth of criminal damage.

10. All Saints, Stradbroke, nothing stolen but £450 worth of criminal damage.

11. St Mary's and St Peter's, Barham, nothing stolen but £50 worth of criminal damage.

12. St Mary the Pity, Burgate, nothing stolen but £75 worth of criminal damage.

13. St Mary's, Bramford, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

14. St Andrew's Winston, £1.50 stolen and £45 worth of criminal damage.

15. St Peter and St Paul's, Eye, £30 stolen.

16. St Andrew's, Redlingfield, £20 stolen and £5 worth of criminal damage.

17. St Mary Magdalene, Debenham, £27 stolen.

18. St Mary's, Bedingfield, £1,000 stolen from the collection box.

19. St Michael's, Hunston, nothing stolen, £1 worth of criminal damage.

20. Holy Trinity, Stowupland, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

21. St Mary the Virgin, Redgrave, nothing stolen but £200 worth of criminal damage.

22. All Saints, Great Ashfield, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

23. St Nicholas, Brome, nothing stolen but £30 worth of criminal damage.

24. St Edmund's, Kessingland, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

25. St John the Baptist, Barnby, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

26. All Saints, Frostenden, nothing stolen but £500 worth of criminal damage.

27. St Ethelbert, Falkenham, £5 stolen.

28. Waldringfield Church, £5 stolen.

29. St Mary Magdalene, Sternfield, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

30. St Peter's, Carlton, £5 stolen.

31. Aldeburgh Parish Church, Aldeburgh, nothing stolen but £50 worth of criminal damage.

32. St Peter's, Buxhall, nothing stolen but £100 worth of criminal damage.

33. Grundisburgh Church, nothing stolen but £50 worth of criminal damage.

34. All Saints, Wickham Market, £10 stolen.

35. St Andrew's, Bredfield, £3 stolen.

36. St Gregory, Rendlesham, nothing taken but £10 worth of criminal damage.

37. St Michael and All Angels, Boulge, £5 stolen.

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