Belfast Telegraph

Man who stole Belfast churchgoer's handbag avoids jail

Christopher Stewart appeared before Belfast Magistrates' Court on Monday (stock photo)
Christopher Stewart appeared before Belfast Magistrates' Court on Monday (stock photo)

By Alan Erwin

A man who stole a church worshipper's handbag and ransacked a kebab shop has avoided prison.

Christopher Stewart was previously warned he could be jailed for 10 months for the burglary and theft his own lawyer described as "nasty".

But a judge at Belfast Magistrates' Court on Monday decided to suspend the term after being told the 35-year-old has not re-offended during a deferral period.

Stewart carried out the theft at Sandy Row Methodist Church in the city along with a female accomplice.

They targeted the victim as she attended a Sunday service on October 7 last year.

The woman had left her handbag beside her chair while she went for lunch being provided.

But when she returned the bag, containing her purse, cash, cards and reading glasses, was gone.

A witness reported seeing Stewart, of Hawthorn Walk in Dromore, Co Down, and his co-defendant leave the church with the stolen belongings.

They were located and arrested by police in nearby Great Victoria Street.

Prosecutors said the handbag was then handed over, but some of its contents were missing.

Following his arrest Stewart kicked out at a civilian detention officer, leading to a further charge of assaulting a police designated person.

The court also heard how blood stains and CCTV footage linked him to a raid on a kebab shop in Dromore last September.

The premises on Bridge Street had been broken into, ransacked and an alarm ripped off the wall, causing £760 in damage.

Nearly £100 cash was stolen, along with knives and the contents of a charity box - estimated to be another £140.

At a hearing in January Stewart's history of drug problems was set out, including an overdose he suffered in late 2018.

Sentencing was deferred at that stage for a chance to engage in an addiction programme.

District Judge Fiona Bagnall had cited his previous record for burglaries and warned that he was facing ten months behind bars if he re-offended in the intervening period.

But in court today defence counsel Richard McConkey said: "He got the message. There's been nothing subsequent to the deferral."

Stressing his client's early guilty pleas, Mr McConkey also acknowledged: "The theft from the church was nasty."

Mrs Bagnall imposed a ten-month sentence for the offences, but suspended the term for three years.

However, she ordered Stewart to pay more than £1,000 compensation in total to cover the kebab shop break-in and assault.

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