Alcoholic admits village church arson

| December 8, 2009

AN ALCOHOLIC set fire to a church after she fell asleep reading hymn sheets while drinking a bottle of wine.

Caroline Whittle, 36, went into St John's Church in Copthorne with the wine, lit some candles, but then blacked out as a fire started.

The blaze caused damage to the carpets, a book and a table after Whittle put her coat down too near a candle.

Whittle appeared at Crawley Magistrates' Court on Friday and pleaded guilty to a charge of arson with the intent to be reckless.

The court was told she had been staying with her sister in Bridgelands, Copthorne, after being told she could not stay at her family home in Worthing with her partner and her children because of her alcohol addiction.

Prosecuting, Martina Sherlock said: "She normally lives in Worthing but a social services protection plan is in place that prevents her from staying at the address until the alcohol problem is resolved.

"She was staying with her sister and her brother in law.

"On the afternoon of Wednesday December 2, the defendant received a call from her partner in Worthing who said the social services wanted to speak with her about her drinking.

"She became annoyed and put the phone down."

The court heard how Whittle then bought a bottle of wine and walked around Copthorne drinking it.

When it started to rain at around 4.30pm, she went into the church for shelter and lit some candles.

Mrs Sherlock said: "At around 8pm, a neighbour to the church heard a knock at the door. It was Ms Whittle saying 'I'm in trouble, I'm in trouble'."

The court heard how Whittle was taken to meet the vicar.

The group then saw a lot of smoke, with some of the books burnt and a table badly charred.

It is believed Whittle had put her coat down near the candles, started reading hymn sheets while finishing the wine and then fell asleep.

Mitigating, Keith Goacher said: "This is clearly a serious offence. It is fair to say she has a very vague recollection of what happened.

"There was no deliberate intention in starting this fire.

"She accepts she was the person responsible and she accepts she was reckless.

"She has a fairly long history of alcohol abuse, but she has been trying to address it."

Whittle will be sentenced on January 8.

Two fire crews were called to deal with the blaze, which happened at around 8.30pm last Wednesday.

Speaking the morning after the fire, the vicar, Reverend Alastair Cutting, said: "There was a small fire but it created a lot of smoke.

"There's quite a large area of carpet at the rear of the church that has been burnt and a small table has been charred."

Revd Cutting said the full extent of the damage was unclear but he hoped it could be cleaned up quickly.

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Category: Church Security

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