The man accused of stealing an icon depicting the Raising of Lazarus from Chester Cathedral was forced to flee his native Latvia because of 'major problems' with the Russian mafia, Chester Crown Court heard today (December 1).
Vasilijs Apilats, 61, revealed he left his homeland for the UK in 1990 and now has indefinite leave to remain.
The talented artist and experienced restorer left Latvia, where he was involved in the cosmetics and antiques dealing businesses, because of issues he had with the Russian mafia and so he could sell antiques here, he told members of the jury as he took the stand on the second day of his trial.
Apilats is alleged to have been behind the theft of the 19th century painting – which is valued at about £2,000 – from the cathedral's Chapel of St Anselm in August 2014.
His DNA was found on the easel on which it had been screwed for display, and a search of his house on Edleston Road in Crewe the following month unearthed the icon, which was found in a bin bag.
While Apilats accepts that he took the painting, he contends that was because he purchased it in good faith from two men he believed were members of staff at Chester Cathedral.
During a police interview after his arrest, he said that he was approached by a young man who asked him if he liked the items on display as he was looking around.
The man directed him to the Chapel of St Anselm's and asked him if he was interested in buying the icon for £250, claims Apliats.
He explained that he only offered £135 for it because it had woodworm damage.
The man supposedly fetched his manager, another man, who agreed the sale for £135 and handed him a pre-prepared receipt which Apilats recalls had £200 written on it.
The defendant says he was then directed to leave via a metal fence.
He told police officers he wanted to return the icon to the cathedral in the subsequent weeks as he believed it had been restored to a greater degree than he had initially thought, but was scared he would not be believed because the writing on the receipt had worn off.
Apilats claims that the young man who originally approached him was wearing a long-sleeved purple shirt which sported a logo on the pocket, which he took to be the uniform worn by members of staff at the cathedral.
But the cathedral's head constable Christopher Jones told the court that his description does not match the official uniform worn by members of staff.
No sales policy
He also confirmed that no policy existed whereby staff can enter into sales arrangements with visitors.
In place of the icon, a cheap Christmas tree decoration of an angel was left, of which Apilats denies having any involvement.
The court heard that a 'large quantity' of religious artifacts in Apilats' home were seized by police during their investigation into the theft, but that everything other than the icon has been returned to him and that no other prosecutions have arisen in relation to them.
Asked by his barrister Peter Moss why he purchased the icon, Apilats replied his intention had been to restore it.He explained he has so many religious artifacts in his possession because he is a religious person who identifies as an orthodox Christian.
The trial continues.