BRITNEY: THE BODYGUARD SPEAKS - - ; (1) A TOWER OF STRENGTH: Tony Barretto with Britney Spears and Her Assistant Alli Sims, Left (2)LOST LOVE: Britney with Federline before They Split (3) MELTDOWN: Shaving Her Head and, below, Almost Dropping Son Preston (4) EMOTIONAL: Britney Breaks Down Inn Tears after a Visit to Her Lawyer's Office on Friday in Los Angeles

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Byline: Peter Sheridan

STANDING 6ft 7in tall and weighing more than 32 stone, Tony Barretto isa born bodyguard.

His strength, his power and his intimidating physique have never beenquestioned - and neither has his loyalty.

He would, as he put it, 'have taken a bullet' for Britney Spears and herchildren.

In three months working for her, Barretto grew genuinely fond of the troubledsinger, often caring for the two boys when Britney was unwell, otherwiseengaged, or plain 'out of it'.

There was screaming, there was shouting, there was selfishness on an epicscale, but such things are all in a day's work for a professional minder Sowhat could prompt this softlyspoken 27-year-old to become the 'secret witness'whose testimony under oath so gravely damaged Britney's child-custody battlelast week? His revelations, kept under seal by the judge, went unchallenged incourt, seriously hurting Britney's chances of keeping the children.

But while some may suppose him to be motivated by revenge against an employerwho dispensed with his services earlier this year, Tony Barretto has adifferent story to tell.

And it is all the more explosive for its heartfelt sincerity.

Today, for the first time, Barretto speaks about the fear, the heartache and,at times, the sheer horrors of working alongside Britney.

He fears not just for her future, but for all those close to her. Barretto, aformer private investigator and celebrity bodyguard, from Ventura, California,claims he saw Britney abuse narcotics and alcohol and that she neglected herchildren to the point of putting them at serious physical risk.

Indeed the frequent screaming bouts and episodes of depression left him fearingthe singer might kill herself or even harm her children Preston, aged two, andJayden, one.

It is a portrait of a troubled life that raises disturbing questions, not justabout her chaotic private life, but about her suitability as a role model tomillions of teenagers. Scarcely a day goes by without fawning coverage of herantics in the world media.

Spears has been a wreck ever since filing for divorce from husband KevinFederline last November.

Her self-destructive behaviour and wild partying led her to shave off her hairin February - an episode that has never been fully explained - and to seek helpin a 'rehab clinic' the following month.

And that was when Barretto became involved, hired, as one of her fourbodyguards on March 26, days after she left rehab. He quickly found thatprotecting the singer was the least of his duties.

'I was surprised to find how much the job involved looking after her kids,' hesays. 'She was always passing the kids along to us. If they were happy, she washappy. If they weren't happy, she was passing them on to the nanny or thesecurity staff. We were the only family around her. She'd call a doctor to S 'We were puppeteers managing this poor young trying save her from herself 'comeout if they cried too much.

'She'd say: "Can you grab the baby, honey?" She always called me "baby" or"honey". I don't think she ever learned my name.

'She'd tell me, "We're going for a tan. Can you take the baby?" And then she'dwalk off. She wouldn't really ask me; she'd just leave.' If Britney wasimperiously selfindulgent, Barretto also found more disturbing traits.

'There was a time when I thought she was going to hurt the kids,' he confirmsrubbing the dark eyes behind the spectacles. 'She sent the nanny home. She senther best friend and personal assistant, Alli Sims, home. Britney hates to bealone, so this was worrying.

'One of the bodyguards who had been with her longest said she was beginning toshut down as she had just before she shaved her head. He said she'd beentalking about suicide then, and this was the same. Britney was sobbing. Shescreamed.' Sensing danger, his colleague said: 'I'm worried about the kids. …