“Dastardly” crime foiled by churchwarden

The theft of lead from church roofs is a recurring theme on L&RUK, and we have explored the development of the associated legislation and the considerations of the consistory courts on its like-for-like replacement or the substitution by alternative material; for these is a separate Index page. Earlier this year, the Lincolnshire Police reported on a successful outcome of its Operation Dastardly in which a  churchwarden led officers to suspects on the theft of church lead:

“As part of our series on the three men sentenced for church lead thefts across the country, we look at how the bravery of a church warden led to the arrests of the defendants…The group [was] seen leaving the area by the then church warden who bravely followed the vehicle in his car up to the A1 at Grantham, providing Lincolnshire Police’s Force Control Room with updates along the way, helping officers track them. Officers located the suspects’ car, and the defendants were found packed into the front seat of the car with the rear full of lead sheets. They were arrested and the lead was tested”.

This operation, named Operation Dastardly, was led by Lincolnshire Police, and offences were identified to which the group could be linked, in: Northamptonshire (11 offences); Thames Valley (8 offences); Norfolk (6 offences) Lincolnshire (5 offences); Leicestershire (5 offences); Cambridgeshire (5 offences); Suffolk (3 offences); Bedfordshire (2 offences) Wiltshire (1 offence) and Hampshire (1 offence).

These took place between 22 April, 2016, and 11 November, 2016, and resulted in an estimated £1.25M-worth of damage. In the most recently report case at Sleaford, the judge awarded £350 of public money to be issued to the church warden for his bravery – probably of more immediate used than the medals given to the fictional Muttley. However, at L&RUK we would refrain from advocating the churchwarden’s course of action, albeit with potentially lesser risks than using their powers of arrest, infra.

Churchwardens’ Powers

A number of commentators alluded to the Churchwarden’s powers of arrest under s2 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, although as we noted earlier in Who may enter a parish church? it is generally recommended that this power is used sparingly, and by preference “the police should always be called”. In the reported case, the church warden did not employ his powers of arrest, but followed the getaway car and kept the police Control Room informed of their location.

A conviction under the 1860 Act is subject to a maximum custodial sentence of a term “not exceeding two months”; however, under the (unstated) provisions which were used in this case, two of the group of three were awarded sentences of 6 years 1 month; 4 years 10 month; and the other a 24-month community order and 30 days of rehabilitation activity at a later hearing.

European Arrest Warrant

Two of those arrested fled the country after their release on bail, but were arrested in November 2019 on European Arrest Warrants and were extradited. [The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) is a simplified system for extradition between EU Member States., which as a member of the EU, the UK has since 2004]. This was prior to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union on 31 January 2020 and the subsequent 11 month transition period during which the provisions for the EAW were still in place.

The Crown Prosecution Service has provided legal guidance Extradition – To the UK, updated 20 February 2023, for which Part 3 of the Extradition Act 2003 (t provides the domestic legal basis to make extradition requests to EU Member States (including Gibraltar) under the arrangements of Title VII of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

“Smart Water” markings

After the vehicle had been stopped by the police, tests on the lead sheeting revealed SmartWater security markings, and these linked it to another theft that night at a close by St Botolphs, Newton. However, in this case, their presence had clearly not been a deterrent, and was only of use following the arrest and in relation to the insurance cover.

Ecclesiastical Insurance indicate that the application and registration of SmartWater (or an approved alternative means of forensic marking), together with the display of prominent signage is a condition of its policies and “should this condition not be met, the church will not be covered for theft or attempted theft of metal, or the subsequent damage”.

Under the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 as amended,  “the application of forensic marking on roof lead or other material covering a roof or to rainwater goods or flashings” may be undertaken without a faculty and without the need for consultation , [List A, A1(10)]; likewise, adding the inclusion of the appropriate signage to an existing noticeboard.

Use of Information Technology

Another aspect of the case was the use of IT by both the police and the thieves: Google Earth was use to locate roofs to target such as that at St Denys Sleaford; and the mobile phone records of one of those convicted contained “an archive of material relating to research on churches including Google Street View images. From these, seventeen different churches were identified, many of which had suffered thefts. Evidence from this mobile phone also included data extracted from a satellite navigation image and searches on hundreds of churches across the UK”.

In addition to IT data, incriminating DNA evidence was found on a discarded cigarette butt found in the grounds one of the churches. 

Updated: 13 May 2023 at 09:12.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Dastardly” crime foiled by churchwarden" in Law & Religion UK, 12 May 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/05/12/dastardly-crime-foiled-by-churchwarden/


One thought on ““Dastardly” crime foiled by churchwarden

  1. Hope that [un-named] CW used hands-free phone to inform “Lincolnshire Police’s Force Control Room with updates along the way” !

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