The hunt for the killer of teenager Millie Dowler has dramatically switched to a tiny church in the North-East 350 miles from where her body was found.

DNA evidence taken during the probe of a theft at St Paul's Church in Sunderland matched that taken from clothing in Millie's bedroom.

Detectives hunting the 13-year-old killer rushed to Sunderland at the weekend and took swabs from dozens of men linked to the church.

Milly - real name Amanda - disappeared while walking home after school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in March last year.

Her remains were discovered six months later in Yately Heath Woods in Hampshire.

Police have yet to make a breakthrough in the hunt for her killer.

The Wearside link to the case was discovered by chance after a national computer database made the DNA match.

Saliva samples taken from a cup at the scene of a theft at the church struck up a direct link to DNA found on clothing belonging to Amanda at her home following her disappearance.

The theft has since been solved, but police want to track down the person who used the cup that was found there.

There was no link between the thieves and the DNA match.

A spokesman for Surrey police said: "There was a theft at St Paul's Church back in October and as part of the investigation the place was forensically tested and police took DNA samples.

"They got a sample from a cup that someone had drank out of. It was fed into a national database and it matched up with a DNA sample found on an item of clothing belonging to Amanda which was found at her house after she had gone missing."

Reverend Dave Meakin revealed that the theft at the church in Ryhope, Sunderland, happened on October 31 last year.

He said: "On October 31 someone came into the church during the day and stole a number of Poppy Day collection boxes.

"It was a distraction burglary. Two men came into the church and one asked a cleaner for a drink of water.

"While she went to fill the cup the other person stole the collection box.

"When the cleaner realised what had happened she contacted police. The cup was taken away by police and tested for saliva to try and track down the thief.

"As far as I'm aware the thief was caught. But I was contacted by Surrey police earlier this month to tell me about the link to their invesitigation.

"I was told there was no link to the thief. But other saliva found on the cup matched DNA taken during the murder investigation.

"I was asked to compile a list of male parisheners who regularly use the church and police contacted them and they came forward to give swab samples in the church at the weekened."

Rev. Meakin, from was among those who gave DNA samples to detectives from the Amanda Dowler murder inquiry team.

He said: "It was a shock to realise that we were involved in this investigation.

"Clearly - and I can only speak for myself - I was keen, as where other parisheners, to assist police. I would like to see the person, wherever they are, to be caught for this evil crime."

A total of 46 Sunderland men gave DNA saliva samples to Surrey police officers when visited the city last weekend, which will now be fed into a database to check for a match.

Detectives are appealing for any other men who have links with St Paul's Church to come forward so they can be eliminated from inquiries.

Rev. Meakin revealed that a number of people use crockery in a room provided at the rear of the church for community activity.

But he said: "On the day of the theft, only a handful of people would have possibly used the cups.

"And it would be easy for police to establish excatly who was using the church facilities on that day.

"It is astonishing to think that by chance this cup has turned up a link to the investigation and it would be even more astonishing if it were to lead to anything."

The Surrey Police spokesman said : "We are interested in speaking to the person whose DNA that matched that found in Millie's bedroom.

"But we are not saying they are a suspect in the murder or abduction. We are saying that the sample came up and we clearly need to talk to them about how that has occurred."

The police spokesman said officers were still working hard to track down Amanda's killer.

He said: "We have found the body, but we still do not know what happened in between her disappearance and the body being found."