Biker's DIY justice brings bum rap

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It's the middle of the night. You're stumbling home after a few drinks with your buddies. A mountain of a man with a bushy black beard and tattoos on his arms and chest catches you by surprise and tells you he knows your guilty secret. You'll have to pay for what you did, he says.

Then he offers you one of four choices:

He takes you to the police, who may send you to jail; he permanently scars your face; he beats you to a pulp; or he shoots you in the buttocks.

Those were the precise alternatives Patrick Woodward offered to a man of 26 whom he confronted on the steps of his home last month after discovering - or rather, thinking he had discovered - that the man had sexually assaulted his 14-year-old step-daughter. Mr Woodward, 37, is a biker from Union City in Michigan. He is partially disabled from the waist down and wears leg braces.

The man opted for the buttocks shooting. Whereupon Mr Woodward drove him over to his house, made him apologise to his step-daughter, took him to the basement, shot the man twice with a pistol and then drove him to the nearest hospital.

The hospital notified the police, who charged Mr Woodward with assault to cause grievous bodily harm, kidnapping, extortion and illegal possession of a firearm. Mr Woodward pleaded not guilty and began a crusade. He distributed pamphlets in his home town decrying the bankruptcy of the legal system, justifying his escapade and appealing for financial support.

Reuters reported yesterday that Mr Woodward, who is emerging as a cult hero in biking circles, had received letters of support and cheques from motorcycle clubs and individuals as far afield as El Paso, Texas.

Mr Woodward said he did what he did because he had lost his faith in the American judiciary. A year ago a man who had sex with his daughter was found guilty of statutory rape and sentenced to what Mr Woodward considered to be the shamefully lenient sentence of one year in jail.

"This guy," said Mr Woodward's lawyer, "doesn't have a streak of meanness in him."

"I don't think," retorted the prosecuting attorney, "that we can accept the anarchy of people seeking their own private justice.''

The man Mr Woodward shot may today be regretting that he did not take the first of the four choices on offer - going to the police. He has not been charged with any crime.