A FORMER police officer broke down in tears as he was cleared of rape .

Paul John Sandham was found not guilty by a jury at Preston Crown Court after just 44 minutes of deliberation yesterday.

The catholic churchgoer had been charged with a single charge of rape between February 1, 2007 and March 1, 2007.

Mr Sandham said the 'malicious and evil allegation' had turned his life into a living nightmare.

The dad-of-three said he had been completely shocked and devastated when he had first been accused.

He said: “I was dumbfounded.

"But then I learnt my friends and family had begun hearing the same lies and I was horrified.

"Having to tell my mum I had been arrested on suspicion of rape was the hardest thing I have ever had to do."

The 43-year-old, of Harwood Street, Darwen, said his family had stood by him throughout the ordeal.

He said: "At that moment when they said not guilty I just broke down into tears.

"Despite, knowing I was innocent and having the full support of my family the prospect of facing up to five years in prison had played on my mind.

"Throughout the trial I tried to remain positive but it did have its ups and downs.

"But, I do know that I would not of been able to get through this without my family and friend's support."

The former police officer, who spent two years on the beat in Blackburn, has also spoken of the shame he felt at having to attend Greenbank police station, in the town, where he had previously worked.

Mr Sandham, who also worked as a retained firefighter in Darwen for four years, said: "Having to be questioned at a place where you have previously worked and see people you used to work with is horrific. I have only ever been on the other side of the counter so having to answer questions about such a serious crime was unimaginable.

"Officers I had worked with kept coming into see if it was me. I have never felt so ashamed.

"But at that stage I still thought the police would see the allegations for what they were - vindictive lies.

"What this woman has done is evil. She set out to ruin my life. I refused to get into a relationship with her and this was the consequence."

Mr Sandham said the stress of the allegation and the pending court case led to the failure of his lettings business in Burnley and left him suffering from anxiety.

His wife Michelle said: "Throughout the trial I wanted to stand up and shout out I love this man and I know he is not capable of those things.

"When the verdict was read out the whole family broke down into tears.

"Paul should never have had to go through what he has. Anyone who knows him knows he is incapable of that."

Mr Sandham, who now works with children on the verge of being excluded from school, said he could now start looking forward to the future.

He said: "I still believe this false accusation was made because I refused to enter a relationship with the women.

“A jury was able to see through those lies in less than an hour."