St Helen's Parish Church
When three masked men were caught on the roof of an ancient parish church stripped of expensive lead tiles by thieves, villagers thought their prayers had at last been answered.
Police arrived in time to catch the trio - wearing balaclavas and masks - red-handed at the scene. But to the astonishment of local residents they escaped with a caution because officers accepted they may just have been admiring the view.
Lead had been removed and was rolled up nearby ready to be taken away.
After 10 months of thefts which has seen £100,000 of lead taken from St Helen's Parish Church in Treeton, South Yorkshire, residents had become so desperate to stop the crooks they had even set up their own undercover operation to catch them.
However, to their despair police let the suspects off because of 'insufficient evidence.' They had nothing incriminating in their possession when searched and no fingerprints could be taken from the stolen lead roofing.
One of the congregation Carole Robinson, who is married to a churchwarden, said:'It was beyond belief. The police said they could claim they had only gone up to look at the view. It left people furious.
'We have been plagued with lead thefts and when we finally catch men on the roof they let them off with a caution.'
The church has been targeted ten times in as many months as thieves cash in on the rocketing price of lead, stripping 85 per cent of the roof.
The roof is now covered with plastic sheeting and church officials need to raise £100,000 to repair it plus another £100,000 to repair and repoint the tower of the church which is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Builders have erected scaffolding to replace the roof with stainless steel sheets, but thieves have used it to get easier access and steal lead they couldn't reach before.
The incident happened after church services had finished last Sunday evening and police were called when several residents spotted them on the roof.
Mrs Robinson said:'The police arrived and the men came down and in effect gave themselves up . It seemed they had been caught red-handed. Lead had been removed and rolled up ready to be carried off.
'But the police said lead was not the kind of material you could get fingerprints from and they did not have enough evidence to take them to court because they could not link the men to the lead.
'I just felt totally vulnerable . It seems we are totally helpless and the law seems to be on the side of the criminals.'
Suggestions from police that they were just 'youths' caught on scaffolding were also slammed. She said:'They were men aged between 20 and 30 and they had balaclavas and gloves. I think it's quite wrong for the police dismiss this as youths playing on the scaffolding.'
Chief Inspector Jason Harwin of South Yorkshire Police said :'Four officers were deployed to the scene including a police dog handler. When the officers arrived they spoke with three youths who were on the scaffolding.
'Officers searched all three youths and thoroughly examined the surrounding area but found no evidence that any offences had been committed, nor that the youths possessed any articles with which to commit any offences.
'As a result of this officers had no power to arrest these youths and they were warned to stay away from the property.
'Various local operations have been conducted in order to catch offenders in the process of stealing lead from the church but so far these have been to no gain. We can assure residents that work is continuing in co-operation with members of the church to tackle the issue.'
Thefts of lead from church roofs have become a national problem recently. A specialist insurance company which provides cover for 95 per cent of Anglican churches in the UK received 2000 claims relating to £6 million of lead thefts in 2007. In 2005 there were 80 claims for £300,000
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