A FIREARMS officer who admitted punching a nightclubber while dressed as Superman was yesterday found not guilty of a public order offence.

PC Neil James Bell - who is stationed at Darlington - had been in fancy dress while collecting for charity when the incident happened in Penrith, Cumbria.

The 17-stone body-building champion, of Churchill Road, Barnard Castle, County Durham, insisted that he acted in self-defence after a group of men mistakenly thought he was assaulting his girlfriend, Angela Newton.

Penrith Magistrates' Court heard how PC Bell, 36, was with a group, all in fancy dress, collecting money for a cot-death charity on December 20 last year.

The court heard that Miss Newton's daughter had been assaulted inside the Blues nightclub. Then the mother, dressed as a nurse, was thrown out for fighting.

PC Bell tried to restrain her when Miss Newton became angry at doorstaff and attempted to force her way back inside.

He became concerned for his safety after some men crowded round.

"I think they got hold of the wrong end of the stick totally," he said. "They thought I was assaulting her, but in actual fact it was more Angela assaulting me."

He admitted pushing one man and punching another who he thought was about to hit him and who had mocked his costume.

PC Bell said: "I can't remember exactly what he said but it was something like, 'you proper think you're Superman. Come on then'.

"I struck him before I thought he was going to hit me."

He was initially charged with common assault and a public order offence, but after three prosecution witnesses - including Peter Smith, the man PC Bell was alleged to have punched - failed to appear, the assault charge was dropped.

Although he admitted having had a lot to drink, PC Bell said he was not extremely drunk. He added: "We'd had a few drinks before we went out as Dutch courage as we were going out in fancy dress in blue and red Lycra."

Lee Bonner, prosecuting, showed the court poor-quality CCTV footage of the incident and also pointed to discrepancies in PC Bell's original testimony to police.

Clearing PC Bell of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, District Judge Gerald Chalk said the prosecution had not satisfied him beyond all reasonable doubt that PC Bell had not been trying to calm down the situation.

After the hearing, PC Bell said he was relieved at the result. "I'm very pleased, I'm just looking forward to getting back to some normality. These past few months have been very stressful."

PC Bell, a police officer for 16 years, has been suspended throughout the case.

A spokesman for Durham Constabulary said yesterday: "A report will be submitted to the deputy chief constable for his consideration.

"He will decide on the basis of that report what further action, if any, is to be taken."