Police believe laid-off electrician plundered cathedral’s archives motivated by revenge

Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras confesses to stealing the valuable12th-century codex

Every morning, Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras would enter the magnificent cathedral at Santiago de Compostela at around 7am before anybody else arrived. Because he had worked there as an electrician for the past 25 years, he had keys to some of the most secret rooms that are off-limits to the general public.

Police believed that for a long period of time, Fernández Castiñeiras had been making off with historic books, ancient manuscripts and other valuables stored away in the church archives. When a priceless 12th-century religious manuscript disappeared a year ago from a safe without any trace — with the keys dangling from the lock — authorities immediately suspected the theft was an inside job.

A squad specializing in art crimes and another focusing on special investigations took on the case. Initially some 30 people were considered suspects, including former workers, such as janitors and security guards, but they were eventually ruled out one after the other.

But by January of this year, the inquiry was homing in on one man: Fernández Castiñeiras.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said on Friday that the police had long suspected the 61-year-old electrician but didn’t want to arrest him immediately because they were interested in finding the Codex Calixtinus, the priceless ancient field guide to the Way of St. James written sometime in the mid-1100s, which made international headlines when it was stolen last July.

According to the El Correo Gallego newspaper, Fernández Castiñeiras was upset when in 2004 he was let go after church officials decided that it was time to modernize the cathedral’s lighting and needed a professional company to do the job. At the same time, the officials had been suspicious of Fernández Castiñeiras.

He filed a lawsuit against the church — which is still ongoing — demanding 40,000 euros in compensation. He has been on sick leave for the past seven years after suffering a seizure, receiving a pension of 400 euros a month.

Daily prayer

Even though he in lived O Milladoiro, about three kilometers from Santiago, police said that he would visit and “pray” at the cathedral every day. Security cameras captured images of Fernández Castiñeiras leaving the cathedral on July 4, 2011 — the day of the robbery — carrying a package under his arm. But it wasn’t enough to accuse him of any crime, said Serafín Castro, chief of the special crimes squad.

Fernández Castiñeiras would usually have coffee and meet up with old friends before returning home. Suspicions were raised further when Fernández Castiñeiras tried to purchase a 300,000-euro house. He had already purchased a luxurious apartment in A Lanzada in 2008.

“In one of the conversations we had with him, we told him ‘Manolo, I hope the people who have the codex don’t decide to burn it.’ And he told us, ‘no, it isn’t burnt.’ That is when he gave himself away,” said Castro on Thursday.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the police got him to confess, but Castro denies that there were “negotiations” between him and Fernández Castiñeiras.

On Wednesday, police uncovered the codex in a garage in O Milladoiro, as well as a haul of rare and interesting finds including notes written by the cathedral’s dean and manuscripts allegedly taken from the archives. But the most interesting discovery was 1.2 million euros and $30,000, all in cash.

Authorities believe that he had been plundering the church’s archives out of revenge for being laid off. Police arrested him, his wife Remedios Nieto Mayo, and their son, Jesús Fernández and his girlfriend María Jesús Q., who was later released but ordered to return to give a statement.

On Friday after testifying for three hours, Fernández Castiñeiras was denied bail and sent to jail.

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