A Rugby man who stole a valuable antique inkwell from a display at Warwick Castle has claimed it must have fallen down a rabbit hole as he was making his escape.
But a judge was unimpressed by David Neal’s Alice in Wonderland explanation for what happened to the £2,000 treasure he had stolen from the castle’s Cedar Drawing Room.
Neal had denied taking the ornate 19th century encrier, or inkwell, during a burglary, but was found guilty by magistrates who committed him to the crown court for sentencing.
And at Coventry Crown Court, Neal (60) of Lytham Road, Rugby, was jailed for eight months and ordered to pay £2,000 compensation to the castle within 12 months.
Prosecutor Ian Windridge said that historic artefacts are on display in rooms at Warwick Castle, which are roped off to keep the public away from the exhibits.
But on July 16 Neal was captured by a CCTV camera as he unclipped the rope in the Cedar Drawing Room, went over to the display and took an ornate 19th century encrier which had bronze lions at each end and an inkwell in the centre.
He tucked it under his gilet and left the display area, replacing the rope as he did so.
Another camera then captured him transferring it to his rucksack, before a third showed him scaling a security fence to get out of the castle grounds.
When the recordings were later examined, an officer recognised Neal, who Mr Windridge said had a number of previous convictions for dishonesty, although none for burglary.
Neal, whose convictions included walk-in thefts from churches, had also been charged with the attempted theft of a collection box at All Saints church in Ladbroke.
But that was dropped after a CPS lawyer realised a CCTV recording from the church did not show him damaging the box, explained Mr Windridge.
David Everett, defending, said Neal had health problems, and the probation officer who prepared a report on him had found his behaviour to be erratic.
“He is a man who is believed to steal from churches. The police indicated his reasoning is that he was made to go to Sunday school as a child, and that his father had brainwashed him.”
Mr Everett said Neal was married with three children, and had worked in railway maintenance for 27 years until hearing difficulties led to him being be moved from that to a driving job where he spent a further nine years until 2004.
He now works on building sites, and with his wife also working, he would be able to pay compensation if he kept his liberty, suggested Mr Everett.
Asked by Judge Philip Gregory what Neal had done with the inkwell, Mr Everett responded: “He said he went out of the back of the building down towards the river, and there were many rabbit holes, and that when he got to his car he didn’t have it, and it may be it was dropped in that area.”
Judge Gregory commented: “This is not very truthful. All this indicates he knew he was guilty, and yet he denied it in the magistrates’ court.”
Jailing Neal, the judge told him: “For many years you have effectively been a sneak thief, stealing from shops and cars.
“You’re here at this court for a burglary which was akin to a sneak theft at Warwick Castle, and you have caused significant loss.
“A bronze 19th century inkwell, a valuable item, was stolen. You stole it and hid it under your gilet and later transferred it to a backpack you were wearing, and the item has never been seen again.
“Institutions like Warwick Castle or National Trust homes rely on the honesty of the public who are admitted to them, to be able to display items like this without them being stolen, so everyone can enjoy the rich cultural heritage these places display. You breached that trust to acquire this item.
“You say you don’t know where it has gone, other than it being near a rabbit hole. The alternative is that you have disposed of it by selling it – and no-one will ever know because you refuse to be honest and forthcoming about this offence.”