DARLINGTON man John Cawston says he wishes he was killed in a crash which has destroyed his life. NEIL HUNTER reports on the court case of the two drivers involved.

VAN drivers Liam Berry and Stephen Lewis were told by a judge that they were equally responsible for the crash which has wrecked the life of a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

John Cawston, 64, was crossing the road to his home in Darlington after a Sunday night out when a Citroen Berlingo with Lewis behind the wheel ploughed into him on High Northgate at 11pm.

What led to the high-speed and highly-dangerous chase involving the two men and their white vans was disputed when they appeared at Teesside Crown Court to be sentenced yesterday (Monday, July 29).

Lewis, 51, said he was in fear for his life after being threatened by Berry and a friend at a lay-by notorious for people looking for sex with strangers off the A68 on the outskirts of Darlington.

He says he was lured to another lay-by nearby when Berry flashed his lights - a well-known signal - and fled in terror when the 21-year-old's friend approached him brandishing half a pool cue.

Berry claims he had no idea what the lay-by was often used for, had just been driving about with his pal and girlfriend and was propositioned by the balding maintenance man soon after pulling up.

He told police he was "boiling with anger" because his partner had got upset when the stranger approached their Ford Transit but denied driving off to lure Lewis to another lay-by for a beating.

Berry's teenage friend - who was cautioned for a public order offence for brandishing the pool cue - later told police he knew it was a gay haunt, and said: "I don't like that sort of thing."

Duncan McReddie, for Lewis, of Blackbush Walk, Thornaby, near Stockton, said: "He honestly believed he was going to be the victim of what is sometimes revoltingly called gay-bashing.

"This is difficult for Mr Lewis. He is deeply ashamed to have his conduct exposed in this way . . . he extends his expressions of regret, remorse and sympathy to Mr Cawston.

"He is an intelligent and sympathetic man, and he knows it is likely whatever words he uses to express that will seem inadequate. There is genuine horror and remorse."

Liam O'Brien, for Berry, of West View, Evenwood, near Bishop Auckland, said he feared the man in the other van might be a violent thug who wanted to cause him and his friends harm.

He described the situation as "a tragic misunderstanding" and said: "In the heat of the moment, he made a terrible, reprehensible decision to intimidate Mr Lewis to teach him a lesson.

"He has been haunted by the image of the collision . . . he is not a bad person. He is a good person who made a series of terrible decisions that have had tragic consequences."

Both men were jailed for 12 months and banned from the roads for three years after they admitted a charge of dangerous driving on October 28 last year at earlier court hearings.

Judge Peter Bowers told them: "You are both equally responsible and culpable for the accident. You, Berry, for starting this pursuit and you, Lewis, for the collision.

"If you had killed him, you would both have been looking at four to five years. As it is, his plaintive cry is 'I wish you had' because his life is effectively ruined."