A DRUNKEN passenger who threatened a bus driver with a knife has been spared jail.

During the journey through Bolton, Gary Freeman stormed down the bus aisle, pulled the weapon out and brandished it in front of the driver and a terrified schoolboy, who was sitting nearby.

At Bolton Crown Court 62-year-old Freeman was handed a suspended sentence after the judge, Tom Gilbart, heard how it was the first time in more than 20 years that he has been in trouble and he would lose his job and relationship if he went to jail immediately.

Gerald Baxter, prosecuting, told how Paul Prescott was driving the 525 bus on February 20, which is a circular route from Bolton bus station through Smithills, Astley Bridge and Tonge Moor.

When he left the station at 5.20pm 10 to 15 people boarded the bus, including Freeman.

“He noticed the him because he was muttering and swearing,” said Mr Baxter.

“Mr Prescott told the defendant to sit down and the defendant went to the back of the bus and stayed there.”

When the bus was on its way back to the interchange, Mr Prescott noticed the man was still on board.

He shouted to him: “Are you going all the way round mate?”

But, in response, he heard a commotion from the back of the vehicle and Freeman stormed down the aisle until he was beside the driver’s seat.

“I was shocked when I saw this male produce a knife with a serrated edge,” Mr Prescott later told police.

Freeman held up the knife and gestured towards Mr Prescott and threatened, "If I see you again I'm going to get you”.

The knifeman appeared drunk and continued to make inaudible threats before striking the driver’s screen, which separates him from the passengers.

“There was a child who I know well and regularly rides the bus sat just behind me,” said the driver.

“I didn’t feel particularly unsafe myself given the protection I had from the glass but I was certainly frightened for the boy.

“He was very exposed and the male’s behaviour was highly erratic. It was unclear what he was going to do with the knife.”

Fortunately, Freeman got off the bus at Deansgate but the boy was left shaken by the ordeal.

Mr Prescott contacted police and when he saw Freeman again at the bus station a few minutes later, he was arrested. A lock knife with a four-inch blade was found on him.

In a victim statement read out in court Mr Prescott said he had been afraid for his passengers.

“It is impossible to say what could have happened if the male became even more agitated or if there was somebody else on the bus who confronted him,” he said.

“For a 12-year-old child to have to witness that and be subject to that kind of risk on a bus, where he would normally feel safe, is appalling.”

Freeman, of Bury Old Road, Heywood, pleaded guilty to threatening a person with a blade in a public place.

The court heard he has previous convictions for violence, but has not offended for more than 20 years.

Harriet Tighe, defending, stressed that the incident was out of character for Freeman, who had been drinking but denies he has a problem with alcohol.

She added that there is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation but, if jailed, he will lose his job as a fork lift truck driver and a long-term relationship with his partner.

“She has made it clear to him that were he to receive an immediate custodial sentence, they would not reconcile on his release,” said Miss Tighe

Freeman was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for two years, during which he will have to undertake 150 hours of unpaid work plus 35 days of rehabilitation activities.

Judge Gilbart told him: “Knives are deeply unpleasant and threatening things.

“To threaten a person dealing with the public in this way, in the presence of a juvenile, is quite appalling.”