A DRIFTER has been jailed for swindling guest houses all over the South West and stealing charity boxes from churches and pubs.
Serial conman David Hughes, 56, targeted vicars and even got drunk on three bottles of communion wine at one church where he took refuge.
He lived for five years by staying at B&Bs and leaving without paying, or asking clergymen to find parishioners who were willing to put him up.
He repaid their kindness by stealing from them and spending the money on his gambling addiction, Exeter Crown Court was told.
He was caught after police used the local media to appeal for information about him and he was spotted within eight days by a member of the public.
He was arrested wearing a body warmer stolen from a church worker in Swansea and carrying a coat-hanger with sticky tape on its tip which he used to fish banknotes out of collecting boxes.
Hughes, of no fixed address, admitted five offences of making off without payment, three thefts, burglary and going equipped for theft.
He also admitted the theft of 30 charity boxes and six other offences of bilking and was jailed for 30 months by Judge John Neligan.
His crimes included thefts from churches as far apart as Barnstaple, Crediton and Penzance and swindling guest houses in Yelverton, South Molton, Okehampton, Camelford and Tintagel.
The judge told him: "You travelled around the South West swindling people. You took accommodation without paying for it and took money from charity boxes and wine from churches.
"All this must have started very shortly after you were released from serving a sentence of 60 days in Ayr for similar frauds.
"You are an articulate man and must realise that for the catalogue of crimes you have committed there is no alternative to immediate custody."
Alex Allsop, prosecuting, said the offences spanned more than five years to his arrest on October 24.
He said: "He was arrested in Queen Street, Colyton because the press ran an article about him making off without payment and stealing charity boxes.
"Among the offences he has admitted is the theft of a charity box at St Ida's church in Ide where he gained access to the vestry and drank three bottles of communion wine before sleeping overnight in the church.
"He stole charity boxes from churches throughout the area including Newquay, Torquay, Par, Penzance, Crediton, and Barnstaple."
His victims included Barnabus House, in Yelverton; East Troyne, South Molton; Warmington House, Camelford; Bosayne, Tintagel; and a guest house in Station Road, Okehampton. He also stole a charity tin from the Castle Hotel in Okehampton.
The total amounts owing came to well over £2,000 but it is impossible to say how much was in the stolen charity boxes.
Joss Ticehurst, defending, said Hughes had a good job as an aeronautical engineer until losing his job and his home in the late 1980s because of his gambling addiction.
He said Hughes, who was originally from Liverpool, had also been severely affected by the Hillsborough disaster.
Mr Ticehurst said his client always intended to pay when he booked into accommodation but then lost his money gambling and had no option but to flee.
He said: "For 23 years he has lived an isolated and nomadic existence and he tells me he has no friends and family and nowhere to go.
"When he comes on hard times, when it is cold and he has nowhere to go, he takes shelter whether he has the money to pay for it or not. When he gambles and wins, he always pays."