Villagers plagued by poison pen mail Poisoned pen mail

CHOCOLATE-BOX cottages lining narrow streets surrounded by green fields make Countes- thorpe in Leicestershire seem the quintessential English village, with a cricket team and traditional pubs. But the idyllic setting harbours the vicious perpetrator of a vile poison pen campaign.

Almost every fortnight for the past two years, a nasty letter or postcard has been sent to a group of six churchgoers. The hate mail is followed by a series of handwritten posters stuck to the notice board of St Andrew's Parish Church.

Detectives set up an exhaustive investigation, using DNA and handwriting experts, but failed to find the culprit. Now the police, backed by the village vicar, have gone public in an attempt to flush out the perpetrator.

The letter campaign started almost two years ago in the normally quiet commuter village (population 5,000) about eight miles outside Leicester. Police estimate at least 30 letters, 30 postcards and 30 posters have been mailed from the local post office and displayed on the church noticeboard.

The first regular flow of malicious mail was aimed at two couples, and a separate man and woman. All were from the congregation of St Andrew's. The Rev Tony Johnson, the vicar, also received letters and cards naming the six victims. Then, outside on his church's noticeboard, the anonymous hand-written posters started to appear.

The material, often religious in tone, accuses individuals of being a "Judas", being involved in extra-marital affairs, and in the words of the local police "casting aspersions on their moral fibre". The writer threatened to disrupt the wedding of a local couple who are to marry at the church in August.

Police have installed hidden cameras to video the church's noticeboard, and sent the post for scientific analysis. Detectives were able to retrieve a fingerprint from one letter but failed to find the writer.

The saliva used on the letters and postcards has been tested for DNA samples, but with no luck, and officers have also shown examples of the author's handwriting to villagers. The latest move is to write to every home in the village, asking residents to name someone they suspect is behind the campaign.

Mr Johnson said yesterday: "Whoever it is, is trying to smear people's reputation and spread allegations of an immoral nature. Obviously we were very distressed by what these letters were saying. We know these allegations are unfounded. We do not know what the motive is but it seems to be some sort of long-term grudge against our church. The letters are very offensive and angry. The villagers are very hurt and naturally shocked and surprised at this kind of thing."

One of the victims, a 40-year-old woman who, like the other victims, does not wish to be named, said: "It has caused me and my family a great deal of stress and heartache which could be avoided if this person came forward and spoke to the police or church."

Sergeant Andy Harrison of Leicestershire police said: "We are quite sure the offender is local. The letter sometimes speak of `I', sometimes `we' but I suspect it is one person.

"There's never been any suggestion of violence and I'm sure it will not escalate into violent action.

"We have asked questions about the allegations and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest anything improper has occurred."