Two weeks of mob hysteria come to a vicious climax

Broken glass, debris and the burnt-out shell of a car symbolised the arrival of vigilante rule to the streets of Britain yesterday.

Broken glass, debris and the burnt-out shell of a car symbolised the arrival of vigilante rule to the streets of Britain yesterday.

A fortnight of anger, frustration, and sensational headlines reached a climax when a crowd of 150 people attacked the home of a convicted paedophile. Victor Burnett, 53, a former taxi driver convicted in 1989 for his part in a paedophile ring which abused more than 140 children, had been "named and shamed" by the News of the World.

He narrowly escaped becoming the first casualty of a population, whipped into near hysteria, which has been prevented from causing any serious injury, or even death, more by luck than judgment.

For many of the protesters on the Paulsgrove housing estate in north Portsmouth, the violence was an acceptable deterrent to would-be sex abusers. "They should be burnt alive," said Mary House, 48.

Angela Withers said: "If we mothers had got hold of him last night he would not have walked again", while Jackie Rampton, 32 - who had brandished a "Get Them Out" placard - said: "A life for a life. When he abused those children he [in effect] took away their lives. He should have his life taken."

Nearby, a small blond girl took up the chant "burn him, stab him, kill him" without any remonstration from the adults.Claire Shaw, 23, who has two children, said: "We don't want to be arrested but we have to protect our children. My children come before a criminal record."

Bill Edwards, 37, agreed with the women. "It's going to happen here again. We just don't want them in Paulsgrove." Pointing out that there were three schools within yards of Burnett's home, he said: "Why put him here. It's like pleasure island for him with all these kids."

While condemning the violence, Elizabeth Pescops, the headmistress of St Paul's Roman Catholic Primary School, agreed. "I'm against them placing someone like that in an area so close to so many schools. There are 3,000 children within a very close area of where he was living."

But it is not just the guilty who have had to live in fear of the lynch mob mentality. In Scotland, London, and Manchester in the past fortnight, men who were unlucky enough to share the same surname or appearance as those featured among the convicted paedophiles printed in the News of the World have also become victims of the mob.

Houses have been vandalised, innocent people terrified and abused, and at least two families have had to move out under police protection.

The latest innocent victim of vigilante action was Victor Terry, 78, when a series of poison-pen letters were delivered to addresses throughout London and the home counties.

The cheap white envelopes carrying the words "To Whom it May Concern" looked harmless when it dropped through Mr Terry's letterbox. But within seconds it had turned his life upside down. It was one of more than a dozen sent to his neighbours in a cul-de-sac in Croydon, south London, branding him a paedophile.

The single piece of paper inside informed residents that Mr Terry, a retired ambulanceman, had been found guilty of molesting two young boys. It also gave comprehensive details of his address and telephone number.

Mr Terry was one of three men in London and Surrey to have been "unmasked" by a previously unknown vigilante organisation calling itself Antimatter by means of mail drop to their friends and neighbours.

In each case, a set of block capitals about a third of the way down the page made clear the group's intention: "PAEDOPHILE IS IN YOUR AREA." The missives paid homage to the News of the World before setting out the "facts" as uncovered by Antimatter. The letter continued: "Thanks to the News of the World we can now target this man as a known paedophile.

"You can help by passing this information to your friends and to other parents who may have children who play nearby or go to local schools."

The Antimatter mission statement at the top of the letter made it clear that the group, whose name is more redolent of a sci-fi novel than a slick vigilante gang, believed it was acting for the public good. "We provide a service to the community by investigating and identify [sic] anti-social behaviour, this information is then passed on to the police and family [sic]."

However, the group reacting to the wave of sentiment unleashed by the Sunday tabloid consistently missed out one important detail - none of its victims have ever been convicted, or even accused, of abusing children.

Residents in Mr Terry's neighbourhood have been sent letters by the Metropolitan Police stating that he has been mistaken for another man of the same name identified by the tabloid newspaper.

Police letters have also been sent to neighbours of RAC patrol man Michael Horgan, 55, of Lewisham, south-east London, and married father Gerald Baker, of Guildford, Surrey. All three received personalised letters from Antimatter saying they had been identified as paedophiles by the News of the World.

Since receiving the chilling letters, the innocent men have all been given police protection. Mr Terry has also had a panic button installed linking him directly to his local police station.

Detective were trying to fathom the degree of organisation behind the letter campaign as it spread beyond London. Superintendent Paul Minton of Croydon Police said: "This is the sort of thing that could be by a single individual with a word processor or the work of a larger group co-ordinating their activities.

"What we do know, however, is that the men they have targeted so far are innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused. They are categorically not the people named in the News of the World."

Officers said they were concentrating their efforts on the theory that Antimatter failed to identify its targets accurately through incompetence as its members trawl through phone books and electoral rolls trying to match names made available by the tabloid newspaper.

But one police source confirmed they were also investigating the possibility that the three men had been targeted deliberately by individuals eager to halt the newspaper campaign. "One of the things we are looking at is the idea that if you were someone who did not want to be named, you would create an outcry by instigating vigilante attacks against innocent people," the source said.

It is understood that the Antimatter letters sent to London addresses carried post marks from within the London area. Forensic tests are being carried out for finger prints to trace the senders.

But as evening descended on Portsmouth, men and women on the ugly red-brick council estate talked openly of repeating the previous night's violence. Convinced - incorrectly the police said - that as many as six other paedophiles lived locally, they vowed not to stop until they had all "been hounded out". The reaction in Portsmouth suggests that all the appeals for calm by the police, politicians, probation service, and charities dealing with offenders, have fallen on death ears.

Even the argument that the publication of the names was making it more likely that sex offenders would reoffend because they had started to go underground and were losing contact with the authorities seems to have been ignored.

Despite the News of the World backing down on its threat to publish details of 100,000 paedophiles in Britain it has already opened Pandora's box. The 82 men and women whose names and photographs have been published in the last two editions are now walking targets for every vigilante and mob. Equally at risk are the people who resemble those "named and shamed".