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Minister talked with murderer Stephen Farrow at Braunton church

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: November 08, 2012

By Philippa Jenkins

  • MINISTER: The Reverend David Coppard met with Stephen Farrow several times in Braunton while working at Christchurch.

  • KILLER: Stephen Farrow.

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A MINISTER has spoken out about his chilling encounters with a homeless killer who has been jailed for life for the murder of a vicar and a retired teacher.

The Reverend David Coppard, who used to be the Methodist minister at Christchurch in Braunton, met Stephen Farrow in December, weeks before Farrow committed two crimes that shocked the nation.

In February the news broke that Reverend John Suddards and Betty Yates had been murdered at their homes in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.

Days later Farrow was arrested and charged with the two murders.

He confessed to the manslaughter of Mr Suddards on the grounds of diminished responsibility, saying he had been abused by the church during his childhood and he was taking his revenge, but always denied killing Mrs Yates.

Mr Coppard, 46, said he felt nothing but absolute shock when he realised who had been arrested knowing only weeks before he had spoken to Farrow in Braunton.

The minister, who left North Devon for a post in Wiltshire in August, said: "I was absolutely horrified, nothing ever prepares you to hear about the murder of someone but to know you know somebody involved.

"I first saw the mug shot of him on television and called another minister in Braunton to see if they recognised him as Stephen and they said yes it was him.

"I then called the police hotline and told them what I knew of Stephen's time in North Devon."

Mr Coppard said the first time he met Farrow was in Christchurch in Braunton after a Light up a Life service in aid of North Devon Hospice.

He said: "He was sitting with the street pastors and at first I just thought he was one of them.

"He was very well dressed and always looked like he was going hiking. You wouldn't have thought he was homeless.

"People often come into the church and so it wasn't out of the ordinary.

"He was having tea and biscuits and I introduced myself."

Mr Coppard said his next meeting with Farrow was in the centre of Braunton when the murderer had called the minister to ask for help to buy a gas canister for his stove.

"He was living at Heanton in what he always described as a shed," Mr Coppard said.

"I met him at Slee's in Braunton to buy the canister, but they didn't have the right size so he had to buy a smaller one."

Then Farrow just left the shop without saying anything, just walked out.

Mr Coppard said: "He phoned me later and apologised for his behaviour but then he got irate and angry.

"After that I sent an e-mail to the rest of the clergy in Braunton just to warn them about Stephen.

"It was getting close to Christmas and people will often use the time to tell the church a hard luck story.

"Although I had seen him lose his temper I never in my wildest dreams thought he was capable of killing two people; if you met him in the street, he was just an ordinary person.

"But because of his potential for a temper tantrum I did offer my colleagues in Braunton his mobile number in case they wanted to screen it but only one chose to."

Mr Coppard said since the murders were committed he has not felt threatened.

He said: "I have been trained to work with people with mental difficulties and being a member of the clergy you are a member of the community and you have to make yourself available although you must be careful.

"I have carried a personal attack alarm before but it is all part and parcel of the vocation."

Mr Coppard gave a statement to the police and thought it was unlikely he would be called to give evidence at Farrow's trial, which concluded at Bristol Crown Court on Friday.

He said: "I was the only member of the clergy in Braunton to meet with Stephen alone but I didn't think it was enough to give evidence at the trial, it was a relief when I wasn't. I think now people can at least try to move on."

Farrow was known to have spent time at Lee Abbey at Lynton and the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple during his time in North Devon.

Before he was sentenced his mental health was assessed but he was deemed sane and as a result was convicted of the two murders and given a life sentence.

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