A man who climbed onto the roof of York Minster and vandalised a spire at the historic building has been given the chance to avoid jail.
Joshua Webster, 31, scaled the 200ft edifice in a drunken and drugged stupor and began kicking the newly renovated masonry around the pinnacle of the Minster’s south-west buttress, causing over £19,000 of damage, York Crown Court heard.
The drama unfolded at about 10.30pm on 23 November last year when Webster jumped onto a fence on the edge of the Minster precinct and then climbed onto scaffolding which had been erected for renovation work being carried out by stonemasons on the ancient cathedral.
He then climbed to the top of the spire, where he remained for nearly four hours as police and the fire service tried to coax him down, said prosecutor Alex Menary.
Webster had been loitering around the perimeter of the Minster compound when he was spotted by a Minster police constable.
“(The named officer) spoke to him to deter him from entering the compound (but) the defendant told him he wanted to get into the Minster to keep warm,” said Mr Menary.
“He believed (Webster) to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. (Webster) asked if the fence was electrified and the officer said it was not, (but) told him the area was monitored by CCTV.
“The defendant then broke into a run and jumped onto a rubbish bin, (then) jumped onto the perimeter fence and began to climb onto the scaffolding.”
The Minster constable called out police who arrived with specially trained negotiators.
Officers climbed to the top of the spire and used night goggles to keep watch on Webster, who was kicking and pushing the top of the spire, causing stonework to fall.
Some of the clips on the scaffolding came loose, posing imminent danger as masonry continued to cascade down the side of the tower.
The danger level was deemed so high that a fire crew from Harrogate was scrambled from urgent duties with an extended ladder. They arrived at the scene in the early hours of the morning and escorted Webster down to safety.
Mr Menary said that negotiations with Webster lasted just short of four hours, during which time he allegedly live-streamed the incident on social media.
Webster, of Langdale Avenue, York, was arrested and taken in for questioning. He told police he had no intention of vandalising the Minster when he began his death-defying climb and that he wasn’t responsible for the damage which he claimed was “already there”.
The Minster’s head of stonemasons said the estimated damage, mainly to the pinnacle, was £19,108.
She said the repairs would take up to 38 hours of work but that it would have to be delayed by five years due to the masons’ workload.
‘Lot of demons’
Webster, a father-of-two, ultimately admitted criminal damage and appeared for sentence yesterday (Friday, 14 October).
The court heard he had previous convictions for a string of serious offences including an armed robbery which resulted in a three-year prison sentence in 2019. In that incident, he held up a corner shop with an imitation firearm and stole money from the shopkeeper.
He was still on prison licence for those offences when he climbed York Minster.
His rap sheet also included assault occasioning actual bodily harm, being drunk and disorderly, drugs and knife possession and a previous criminal-damage offence. In December last year, he received a 24-week prison sentence for battery and threatening behaviour.
Defence barrister Eddison Flint said Webster had been diagnosed with an unstable personality disorder which led to the incident at the Minster.
Webster, who is unemployed, had had mental-health problems since his teens. He now accepted he had caused significant damage to a major “cultural asset”, although he didn’t remember doing so.
“He has an awful lot of demons that he’s trying to manage on a daily basis,” added Mr Flint.
“The realisation that he’s damaged such a valuable piece of York’s history is something that causes him great shame. He wants the people of York to know how sorry he is.”
He said that Webster’s climbing up the tower was a “cry for help” because he had not received the psychological help he needed until now following a traumatic childhood which included self-harm and his father’s suicide.
Webster, who lives with his mother, had tried to kill himself after being released from his last prison sentence a few weeks before the incident at the Minster. After the suicide attempt, he was hospitalised and then recalled to jail “for his own safety”.
On the night in question, he was on a cocktail of alcohol and anti-psychotic medication, which left him in a “state of complete and utter turmoil”.
Judge Sean Morris told Webster: “Police and firefighters risked their lives because of you. You may have mental problems but you know right from wrong.”
However, he said it was clear that Webster had been “irreparably” damaged by his torrid childhood and patently needed help.
He said that for that reason he would defer sentence for six months to see if Webster could stay out of trouble and get his life in order.
He said that Webster must meet not reoffend, must remain alcohol and drug-free, keep appointments with his mental-health intervention team and go to York Minster to offer a sincere apology “for your disgraceful behaviour” to the acting dean, the Reverend Canon Michael Smith, to avoid jail.
Webster must also “volunteer your services to the Minster in any way that you can be of use”.
The judge said that if he met all those conditions before sentence in April next year, he would give him a suspended prison sentence.
Webster will be sentenced on 14 April.