BOMB hoaxer Stephen Strange brought Swindon town centre to a standstill last December when he told police that shoppers in Debenhams were minutes from destruction.

Strange, 49, called 999 at 7.13pm on December 3, 2013, and told the operator he had left an explosive device inside the town centre store, where a private function was being held by Shrivenham’s Defence Academy.

A hearing at Swindon Magistrates’ Court last month revealed 350 personnel from the academy were promptly evacuated and the function cancelled, at a cost of £8,000 to £10,000.

The culprit pleaded not guilty when he was read the charge at that hearing, but changed his mind at a preliminary hearing yesterday and entered a guilty plea. He will now face sentencing at Swindon Crown Court on May 16.

During the initial session, the court heard Strange had been denied access to the private function, a shopping opportunity for academy staff and family from the campus community.

PC Paul Bezzant, of Swindon Town Centre Neighbourhood Policing Team, who made the initial arrest, said: “As I understand it, Mr Strange was challenged by security staff at the store after he had been seen to be acting suspiciously.

“The bomb threat was then made to that store and because of the nature of the threat, they had to evacuate the store.

“The impact of that threat is significant to the shoppers, the store itself and the wider community of course. It takes time to make the area safe and close roads off.

“We had the original number the call had come from and we knew Mr Strange was a suspect, given his run in with the security staff at the event.

“He was seen in the town centre on another date and he had a phone on him which he was trying to shield from us, but we traced the number we had and found it to be Mr Strange’s.”

At the magistrates’ court hearing it was revealed Strange had attempted to tell police his phone had been stolen on the night of the incident and then returned to him through the letterbox at his Faringdon Road home.

A spokeswoman for the Defence Academy said: “It was an event organised by the security committee here and Debenhams.

“For a couple of hours, staff and families are allowed to shop in the store by themselves, with the doors closed to the public.

“It (the hoax) did cause a lot of chaos, especially with the environment the staff work in. Debenhams were fantastic though – they extended their offer to us for several other days.

“The financial cost involved was not a cost to the academy. I would imagine it was a cost to Debenhams and the custom they lost when people were evacuated.”