TWO men accused of a vigilante attack on a convicted child rapist spoke of their joy tonight after being cleared by a jury - and walking into the arms of their families.

Michael Loughran and Karl Carter sobbed as they hugged and kissed their partners and children, and embraced friends and relatives outside Teesside Crown Court.

The best friends from Middlesbrough had spent five months behind bars on remand awaiting their trial for an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

They were alleged to have battered a teenage sex attacker with baseball bats just days after he was released at the half-way stage of his three-and-a-half-year sentence.

Fighting back tears and thanking well-wishers for their support, the family men said: "We've been through a nightmare, but we feel justice has been done in the end."

It was alleged the pair put up a reward of £1,000 on Facebook for information leading to the paedophile's whereabouts as tensions grew in their close-knit neighbourhood.

Local families were angry that the 18-year-old was initially going to be re-housed in the community where he had raped a young boy while the child's parents had not been told.

Father-of-six Mr Carter, 27, and Mr Loughran, 30, who has three children, had denied wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and having an offensive weapon.

After a five-day trial, a jury of nine men and three women took just 40 minutes to find the pair not guilty - to the sound of cheers and applause from the public gallery.

Afterwards, Mr Loughran's partner, Joanne Cubitt, 29, said: "Michael has never ever been in trouble with the police - not even for speeding. This has been so tough."

Mr Carter's partner, Carrie Smith, 32, added: "This has been the worst five months of my life, without a doubt. I'm just numb after the verdict. It's just overwhelming.

"Until I wake up in the morning and he is there next to me, I don't think I'll believe it. I just can't wait to get home to see the kids and be a family again."

The men admitted tracking down the 18-year-old to a secret address in Darlington, but claimed they just wanted to scare him by smashing the windows of his flat.

Mr Carter, of Jubilee Road, Eston, said he never got out of the van they travelled in, and Mr Loughran, of Ryhill Walk, Ormesby, said he was attacked by his accuser.

He told the jury it was the teenager who was armed with a baseball bat and that he was attacked, but he disarmed him and struck him on the back in self-defence.

After emerging from the court cells, he said: "I'm the happiest man on earth, really I'm overwhelmed. The last few months have been agonising for the family.

"It will be nice to get back home for Christmas. The support I have had has been unbelievable. It was horrible to be accused of this, but it was nice to get the verdict."

More than a dozen supporters turned up on the first day of the trial - most wearing specially-made t-shirts bearing photos of the friends and demanding their return home.

Mr Carter said: "I'm overwhelmed. I'm just going home to see my kids. Justice has been done. Five months away from my kids has been heartbreaking, it really has.

"I can't thank everyone enough. Friends and family have supported us all the way. It is an unbelievable feeling. I'm lost for words, can't describe how I feel."

Both men and their partners thanked their lawyers, Robert Mochrie and Yvonne Taylor, who they said tried to keep up their spirits on the darkest of days.

After his closing speech, Mr Mochrie, who represented Mr Loughran, was applauded by people in the public gallery - some of whom were in tears - in rarely-seen scenes.

He had pleaded with the jury to free his client for Christmas, and said: "You are not dealing with a hardened criminal or a man who is well-versed in court procedures or the prison environment. Far from it."

Mr Loughran and Mr Carter said their initial remand in Durham Prison - 30 miles away from their families - was the toughest time they have ever had to endure.

"I've never been in trouble before," said Mr Loughran. "To be honest, it was like having a dream and waking up to a nightmare. Finally I've come out of the nightmare.

"When I got remanded and was on that prison bus, and they told me I was going to Durham, away from my family, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life."

Earlier, Miss Taylor had told the jury that the defendants did not want the rapist to return to Middlesbrough, and wanted to chase him away from the North-East.

Mr Loughran had posted on Facebook that he would not rest until he found the abuser, while Mr Carter told police he would take the rap for "whatever needed to be done".

In his closing speech, prosecutor Paul Cleasby said: "It is a difficult case because it would be very easy to allow society to be governed by lynch-mob.

"But if we start letting that happen, then the rule of law and order is at risk, and chaos soon follows, and there is a risk of further injustice.

"The prosecution say those Facebook posts are clear signposts of the intentions of Michael Loughran and Karl Carter. The mission was clear. It was to seek revenge and retribution."