The REM guitarist, Peter Buck, may have been joking when he told the readers of his regular column in Q magazine: "I'll see you in jail next month." Whatever he meant, judging by the smile on his face as he left Isleworth Crown Court yesterday, cleared of behaving like a "drunken lout" on a transatlantic flight, he was clearly a very happy and relieved rock star indeed.
The multimillionaire founding member of one of the most influential bands of his generation said simply that he was looking forward to getting back to his family and his music.
Minutes earlier, REM's lead singer, Michael Stipe, bass guitarist, Mike Mills, and Mr Buck's wife, Stephanie, had sat tensely holding hands as the jury filed back into the west London court after six hoursof deliberation.
As the foreman read out not-guilty verdicts on each of the four counts, Mrs Buck let out a gasp of relief while Mr Stipe put his head in his hands and sobbed. Mr Buck, 45, simply stared ahead – an expression he had maintained throughout the 11-day trial – before slowly lifting a shaking hand to his forehead. He offered a conciliatory handshake to Edward Lewis, the junior counsel for the prosecution, before hugging his solicitor, Neill Blundell.
With "air rage" attracting severe penalties from the courts, Mr Buck had faced a sentence of up to two years if found guilty. He emerged from the court with his arm around Mr Stipe, 22 years to the day since they had first played together as the Twisted Kites for a friend's 20th birthday party in their native Athens, Georgia.
"I am grateful to the court, to the jury, to my lawyers, and to my family friends and supporters who have stood with me throughout this experience," Mr Buck said in a statement read by Mr Blundell.
"I am obviously relieved to be finished here and I am looking forward to returning my attentions to my family, my band and our music."
Asked whether he would be flying home with British Airways, he smiled and said: "Yes."
The musician had handed out signed CDs to half a dozen fans who had sat through every day of the trial.
A representative of the two members of the airline's staff whom Mr Buck was accused of assaulting – the cabin services director, Mario Agius, and a stewardess, Holly Ward – expressed their disappointment at the verdict and said they would be pursuing civil claims.
Sir Ken Jackson, the general secretary of the union Amicus, said: "There should be no excuse and we should have no tolerance for passengers who abuse airline staff." He added: "This incident has left cabin crew traumatised. We will be pursuing a separate legal claim. Air rage is an increasing problem for our members. We need a zero tolerance approach to it." A spokesman for BA said: "We will continue to treat allegations of assault on our staff and drunkenness on aircraft extremely seriously."
Mr Buck, the prosecution claimed, had gone on a rampage in the first-class cabin of a Boeing 747 on a flight from Seattle after downing up to 15 glasses of wine. Having failed to bribe the crew, it said, he tried to steal more alcohol from the galley, reeling up and down the aisle and toppling into fellow passengers. He had, the crew insisted, assaulted two staff, covering them in yoghurt, overturned a breakfast trolley, smashing crockery, and tried to steal a knife. He had advanced towards Mr Agius with a yoghurt pot poised. As the pair struggled, it exploded over them as well as Miss Ward.
Captain Tom Payne told the court he had become so concerned that he considered diverting the flight. When the pilot handed the guitarist a yellow warning card – a measure introduced recently to combat air rage – Mr Buck simply ripped it up, the court heard. He was alleged to have said: "You are just the captain, I am REM."
From the moment he was taken off the plane at Heathrow, dishevelled, despondent and covered in dried yoghurt, Mr Buck expressed sorrow and embarrassment but insisted he could remember nothing of what happened.
He had, he told the court, being driven into a rare state of non-insane automatism, having taken a Zolpidem sleeping tablet with a few glasses of his favourite drink – red wine. Mr Buck had not been in control or responsible for his actions, his defence team insisted.
Mr Buck, a devoted father to his twin seven-year-old daughters and a man who rarely liked to leave his Seattle home, had been travelling to London on April 20 last year to headline the South Africa Freedom Day concert in Trafalgar Square with REM before beginning a world tour.
He said in evidence: "I recall ... there were bright lights overhead. I wasn't really awake. I had this fear I had had a heart attack and was in a weird hospital in Disneyland." The guitarist said that when reality dawned on him he had been horrified. "To me it was incomprehensible ... I have never been in trouble before ... I will go miles to avoid confrontation," he said.
Born in Los Angeles, he moved to San Francisco where he was influenced by the Beatles and Motown. He dropped out of college in Athens in the 1970s and worked in a record shop where he met Mr Stipe. Fame did not come easily to Mr Buck or the band, despite critical acclaim, until the album Document in 1987. They went on to become one of the world's biggest bands, consolidating their position with Automatic For The People in 1992. Medical problems have since forced the band to slim down to a trio and their albums have not matched the previous success.
During the trial a string of impressive character witnesses including Mr Stipe and U2's lead singer, Bono, testified that the incident was out of character for a man they knew as "famously peaceable", honest, hard working and gentle.
Richard Ferguson, the QC who has also defended the serial murderer Rose West and the Guinness chairman Ernest Saunders, told the jury: "We hope that when he awakens from this nightmare it will not be to face the heavy bludgeons of the law but to have restored to him his family, his freedom, and his peace of mind."
The jury of six men and six women obliged yesterday, finding Mr Buck not guilty of being drunk on an aircraft and not guilty of two counts of common assault and criminal damage.Reuse content