STEPHEN Johnson is today a free man after being cleared of murder on a holiday island.
A trial jury in Tenerife unanimously found the Wearside grandad not guilty of the fatal stabbing of a Moroccan man in the resort of Playa de Las Américas.
Stephen, who runs Stepys Coaches and used to sponsor the Durham and District Sunday Football League, has always maintained he was innocent after acting as a good Samaritan to try and stop a fight.
Now, after a nightmare three-and-a-half years on bail, the dad-of-three has finally been able to clear his name.
Leaving the courthouse in the Tenerife capital of Santa Cruz last night, Stephen, from Elvet Green, Hetton, told the Echo: “Words cannot describe how I feel. I am so mentally shattered by all this I cannot even feel jubilation just yet.
“I had to sit there for 20 minutes while they read the verdict only in Spanish.
“I had no idea what had been decided until my lawyer shook my hand and said I had been given a fine.”
Stephen, dad to Michelle, Lorraine and Gary, added: “Going to prison for 12 years would have finished me for life.
“I am 56 now, I know wouldn’t have come out of that prison.
“Today we start a new life.”
His wife Joan, who broke down in tears at the verdict, said: “I have got my husband back today.
“He will now come home and get his family back, get to know his granddaughter and pick up the pieces of his shattered life and business.”
However, that day may still be several weeks away due to legal formalities that need to be completed in Tenerife.
Stephen, who said he has “no regrets” for going to the aid of fellow Brit Bryan O’Connell, 31, who was being attacked, was convicted of brawling and faces a fine.
Mr O’Connell was also cleared of the murder charge.
He also paid tribute to the “massive support” received from his family and from the many friends who had helped him through his ordeal, some of them raising the money to post his bail in the days after his arrest in January 2008.
The Johnsons, who celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversay next week, now plan to take a holiday to help them get over “the nightmare” of the past three-and-a-half years.
“In addition to the financial cost to my business at home, this has taken a massive personal toll on all of us,” said Stephen.
“I have been prevented from being with my family all this time.
“My wife and I have been living separate lives needlessly.”
He launched a stinging rebuke at the justice system in Tenerife.
“This system over here is an absolute disgrace to the Spanish state, there is no doubt about it.
“They need to come into line with the rest of the world.
“You can spend four years in pre-trial detention, which is a disgrace, and someone somewhere, whether it be the European Union or whoever, needs to come and take a hold of the system here and put it right.”