IT is four years since we reported on a "prolific" thief who targeted a string of churches and was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison.

Christopher Cooper, aged 48 from Trallong, Brecon, was sentenced at Hereford Crown Court after admitting a 37 thefts from churches throughout England and Wales including in Worcestershire, as we reported in May 2016.

The targeted churches included All Saints Church in Market Place, Evesham, Little Malvern Priory and St Michael's Church in Castle Frome, near Ledbury.

He also admitted to dealing in tainted cultural items and two counts of fraud at the hearing on Friday, May 6, 2016.

Temporary Inspector Andrew Bennett, from West Mercia Police, said: "Churches are by their very nature an open place of worship, and sadly in this instance, they were vulnerable to Cooper's offences.

"The people who manage and worship at the affected churches are also victims, and whole communities have been affected by his actions.

"Christopher Cooper is one of the most prolific church thieves that we have seen in this country for some time, and I'd like to thank all of the officers involved in the investigation for their hard work and determination in bringing this offender to justice."

The sentencing has made West Mercia Police one of the first forces in the country to secure a conviction of dealing in tainted cultural items.

The investigation began in 2013 after a man in Kent was arrested for purchasing a gorilla's head in the post.

As a result of a subsequent search, a number of church items were found that were believed to have been stolen from the Herefordshire area.

The buyer stated that he had purchased the items online from a man in Herefordshire.

The Metropolitan Police antiquities team advised West Mercia Police of the recovery, and investigative work was carried out to locate the offender and to try and restore some of the stolen items to victims.

As part of the investigation, an arrest warrant was carried out in January 2015 and Cooper was arrested.

A large number of stolen items including statues and paintings were recovered during the warrant, and a book was also found at the address which contained a list of churches and codes.

While the crimes were committed mainly in Herefordshire, offences also took place in North Wales, Warwick, Cirencester, Kent, Sussex, Essex and Swindon.

He also stole the Torbryan church panels in Devon and first edition King James Bibles from churches across Wales, replacing them with modern editions.

Cooper also created articles and passed them off as antiques and defaced ancient relics. These items included statues, stained glass, stone coffins, crosses, font plugs and ancient bibles.

To try and return some of the recovered items to their rightful owners, officers appeared on BBC's The One Show and the Crimewatch Roadshow in June last year, which assisted in returning all but three of the stolen items.

He was sentenced to three years in prison for each of seven charges of theft and three years for dealing in tainted antiquities to run concurrently.

Additionally, Cooper was sentenced to eight months imprisonment for two counts of fraud. He asked for thirty other offences to be taken into consideration.

He was also issued with a POCA (Proceeds of Crime Act) order, which means he will have to repay an amount of money if he is able to do so.

* Meanwhile, seven years ago this month we reported on the unrelated case of Sean Bennett, then 37, who was jailed for four years for attacking his neighbour with a metal bar in Elkstone Close, Blackpole, Worcester.

The attack happened in January, 2013. During the attack Bennett also picked up a knife and said: "I'm going to have to finish you off. I'm going to stab you."

The victim suffered fractures to his jaw, cheekbone and left eye socket. Bennett pleaded guilty to causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

He was prohibited from having any contact with his victim. Bennett was said by his barrister to have shown 'immediate regret'.