Lecturer guilty of 12-year hate mail campaign in village

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A former university lecturer was warned he faced a jail sentence after being found guilty on Thursday of waging a 12-year poison pen campaign against his neighbours in a Yorkshire village.

James Forster, 68, was convicted of bombarding residents with obscene letters, leaflets and posters in a crusade that culminated in sending a pornographic magazine to a 13-year-old girl. The retired Open University academic and former parish clerk was described as a "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" character by acting as a community figure while conducting an obsessive secret life.

During his campaign, he branded his neighbours' daughter a prostitute, he alleged an unemployed man was a rapist, and he kept a detailed diary of his neighbours' movements.

Residents of Manfield, a cluster of 90 homes a few miles south of Darlington in North Yorkshire, frequently found posters and leaflets spreading his malicious gossip dotted around the village.

A jury at Teesside Crown Court took four hours to find Forster guilty of three charges of sending indecent mail, three of threatening to damage property, and one of incitement to commit a burglary.

He was cleared of allegations of intimidation and vandalism that involved pouring paint-stripper on a car, throwing paint bombs and gluing a pensioner's door locks.

Dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, red tie and blue pullover, the mine engineering lecturer remained impassive as the verdicts were delivered at the end of an eight-day trial.

Judge David Bryant, who released Forster on bail while waiting for psychiatric reports before sentencing, told him: "This was a very unusual case, the like of which we might not see again.

"I must make it clear to you that the fact I am granting bail is not any indication as to the sentence you are likely to receive. All sentences, including imprisonment, remain an option in this case."

The conviction was the end of a nightmare for the villagers, after 12 years in which Forster waged a vicious campaign to undermine anyone he thought had crossed him.

His first victim was his elderly neighbour, Molly Christian, who received three obscene letters starting in June 1997, one of which contained a threat to put a bomb down her chimney. Forster was cleared of accompanying the letters with attacks on her cottage, Meadowcroft, which included scratching her windows and pouring glue into her locks.

But the letters were enough to persuade Ms Christian, now 88, to put her cottage up for sale. Forster attempted to buy the house but pulled out of the deal after three months.

He told the court that he had not proceeded with the sale because he had himself fallen victim to the Manfield letter writer with threats against him and his wife, Elizabeth, who is seriously ill.

The house was bought by Roy and Val Kellett. They moved in with their daughter, Joanne, then 21, who rapidly became the target of scores of sexually abusive missives.

Ms Kellet was accused of being a prostitute and was sent a "special Christmas greeting" card showing a half-naked woman with a whip.

Mrs Kellet, 61, whose daughter is an accountant, said after the conviction: "My basic reaction is delight. I hope it's the end of a nightmare. I just wanted to see him go off in handcuffs. He's supposed to be a church person – that was one of the strongest things in his defence – but I couldn't believe he could use such language and think in such terms."

Among Forster's other victims was Ricky Smith, 39, who was called a rapist and a convict in posters that were left around the village.

The police, who had been aware of the letters and acts of vandalism since the late 1980s, arrested Forster in May 1999 when he harassed Rona Wane, a parish council clerk. After sending a letter that warned her "we'll be watching you", Mrs Wane's daughter, Catherine, 13, received a pornographic magazine with a message saying: "A gift from Manfield" – a reference to the fact that the family lived outside the village.

The message was written on paper that matched a pad found at Forster's home. Detectives also found a "gossip list", of people to whom letters were sent, along with a pair of latex gloves and stencils.

The list also carried nicknames for other victims, including the village's neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, Eric Collin, once a friend of Forster, who was dubbed "Quisling" after the wartime traitor.

Forster, who claimed that one of his night-time forays was to "observe the moons of Jupiter", left the court yesterday without commenting.