Burglar targeted hundreds of chapels January 4 2003

Robin Turner Robin.Turner@Wme.Co.Uk, The Western Mail – The National Newspaper Of Wales

HE WAS Britain’s most prolific church and chapel burglar, admitting to breaking into more than 500 places of worship, yet many did not even realise that they had been robbed.

Christopher Coulthard, 40, jailed for four years at Swansea Crown Court yesterday, armed himself with lock picks and surgical scissors in an empty camera case to disguise himself as a tourist and burgle churches and chapels at the rate of 50 a month.

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

He would arrive at a town or village, book into a hotel, buy an ordnance survey map and visit each church or chapel in the area.

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

Coulthard stayed away from churches in cities and big towns because of CCTV cameras.

He targeted churches in England and Wales, where he burgled premises in the Swansea, Brecon, Port Talbot, Carmarthen, Aberystwyth, Newport, Bridgend and Cardiff areas.

Over a nine-month period last year and during part of 1999 he burgled a total of 518 churches and chapels.

The buildings he broke into, often centuries old, were in places ranging from North Yorkshire to Devon and Cornwall and from Wales in the west to Norfolk in the east.

Jailing Coulthard for four years yesterday, Recorder Vivian Manning-Davies told him, “No place of worship was safe from you. Effectively you raided churches at all points of the compass.”

Coulthard, originally from Warwickshire, was finally arrested in Aberystwyth last September after a vicar, the Rev Julian Smith at the town’s Llanrhystud Church spotted him trying to break in. The chaplain wrote down Coulthard’s car registration number and gave it to police.

Officers arrested Coulthard at the Lletty Park Hotel in Aberystwyth and found his burglary tools which included surgical scissors for removing notes from offertory boxes, knitting needles for opening yale locks and a small jemmy.

Police also found coded maps of various areas. Coulthard used symbols on his map to indicate conditions such as “rich pickings”, “good takings”, “open door” or “of-fertory boxes”.

He would draw heavy lines across the locations of chapels or churches he considered too difficult or dangerous to break into.

Amounts taken from individual premises would range from one or two pounds up to £100. Rarely it could amount to more.

He was convicted at Carmarthen Magistrates Court of 16 church burglaries and yesterday asked for 502 similar offences to be taken into account.

After his arrest, his barrister James Jenkins said he decided to “make a clean breast of it”.

He travelled round the country with a variety of police forces telling officers exactly where and when he had broken into religious buildings.

He used his series of maps with their markings and gradings to re-mind himself of his catalogue of crimes.

So extensive were his admissions it was finally worked out that only 20% of his crimes had actually been reported by church officials.

Many had no idea their offertory boxes or charity boxes had been broken into.

Mr Jenkins said, “In religious terms it amounted to a good confession.”

The barrister added, “Coulthard never desecrated churches in the generally accepted nature of the word.

“He went out of his way to avoid contact with anyone at the churches and caused minimal damage.

“Around 80% of his crimes had never ever been reported, and if it were not for his help the police would have had great difficulty in bringing prosecutions in most cases. It is monstrously difficult to convict a single man planning carefully what he’s going to do.”

Coulthard used the proceeds of his crimes to buy a car for £1,900 in which he travelled from county to county to carry out burglaries, all at churches or chapels.

He would also pay for hotel expenses out of the cash he stole.

When arrested Coulthard had £2,450 in cash on him.

It has been estimated his crimes deprived churches and chapels of at least £7,800 but the exact amount will never be known.

CHRISTOPHER Coulthard, who has been a burglar since the age of 13, has given churches crime prevention advice since his arrest, Swansea Crown Court heard yesterday.

When Coulthard confessed to his crimes and travelled around Britain telling various police forces which churches he had broken into, he also gave advice on how repeat problems could be prevented.

PC Owain Richards of Dyfed-Powys Police, one of the lead officers in the case, said Coulthard pointed out to officers how churches and chapels could be made more secure.

The officer said, “He basically gave us tips, telling us the vulnerable points he looked for in churches and chapels.

“That advice has been passed on to the churches involved. I under-stand the same thing happened in the rest of Britain.”

The court heard yesterday that after Coulthard’s first court appearance in the 1970s, he was given a variety of sentences, including detention, borstal training and prison sentences.

His barrister James Jenkins said, “He’s utterly institutionalised, but he is not a stupid man and has a very 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 it seems is the love of a good woman, but of course the state cannot provide that.”

Jailing him yesterday, Recorder Vivian Manning Davies told Coulthard his offences were “disgusting and outrageous”.

Swansea Crown Court heard that the largest sum Coulthard, originally from Bedworth, Warwickshire, took from a Welsh church was £120, from the Monkton Priory Church in Pembrokeshire, and the smallest amount £2.20 from Llanwen Church near Lampeter, Carmarthenshire.