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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 16:00 GMT
Sara Payne: Calm crusader
Sara Payne
Sara Payne was thrust into the spotlight under the most tragic of circumstances - the murder of her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah. Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit tells how Sara has met the challenge and won widespread respect.

She has grown in stature before our eyes during the long agony since her "little princess" disappeared on 1 July, 2000. A woman of modest education and circumstances who has assumed the mantle of skilled communicator.

Throughout, Sara Payne, a part-time bar worker and former playgroup careworker, has seen her role as one born of necessity. At first, she and her husband, Michael, clung to the hope that their eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, was still alive.

Sara Payne at a news conference
Facing the media for the first time
Sarah vanished from the cornfields behind her grandparents' home near Ferring, West Sussex, where she had been playing with little sister, Charlotte, and her two older brothers, Lee and Luke.

Two days after the disappearance Sara and Michael braved the full glare of the media to make their first appeal for Sarah's safe return.

Instead of returning to their home at Hersham in Surrey, the Paynes decided to stay with Michael's father and stepmother, making almost daily public appearances at Littlehampton police station.

Sara, at least in front of the cameras, was never hysterical, never ranting, but resolute and controlled. But when, three weeks after Sarah's disappearance, police delivered the dreaded news that a body had been found and they believed it was Sarah's, her mother could not accept the news.

'Sarah's law'

"It couldn't be true", she said. "I had hoped for so long she was alive".

Sarah Payne
Sarah Payne
Though their daughter was dead, Sara and Michael Payne, a paint-sprayer at a bus factory in Guildford, determined to do everything possible to save other parents from similar tragedy.

Convinced that a paedophile had been responsible for Sarah's death, they began a campaign for Sarah's Law, a scheme in which, if police agreed, parents could be told the identity of child sex offenders living in the community.

Aided by the News of the World, the proposed scheme gained widespread popularity, if not official acceptance. The Paynes met Tony Blair and handed the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, a 700,000-strong petition calling for the introduction of Sarah's Law.

Restless future

On 19 November, more than 16 months after she and her husband buried their daughter, 32-year-old Sara Payne faced another ordeal at Lewes Crown Court when she gave evidence at the trial of Roy Whiting, the man accused of murdering Sarah. Although her voice sometimes faltered, her dignity never did.

Sarah's funeral
Saying goodbye to Sara
When Whiting was jailed for life, Sara and Michael Payne declared: "Sarah can rest in peace now". But they won't.

Not only has Sara been a campaign director, but also, as mothers tend to be, the hub of her children's universe. With Michael, she has had to reassure their two boys, 14-year-old Lee, and Luke, 13, that they share none of the blame for Sarah's death.

At the same time, the Paynes' seven-year-old daughter, Charlotte, has had to be gently eased into accepting that Sarah will not return.

It is perhaps the refusal of Sara Payne to let the family's lives be destroyed by bitterness that is most impressive. She says she "won't waste an ounce of emotion" on Whiting.

Difficult Christmas

Nor would she join the condemnation of a judge who, it emerged at the end of Whiting's trial, had imposed what some considered to be a lenient four-year sentence for Whiting's earlier abduction of a young girl.

Michael and Sarah Payne
Michael and Sara Payne arrive at court in Lewes
Sara and Michael Payne, acting on expert advice, have allowed their children to share the grieving over Sarah. On Christmas morning, the family will take Sarah's stocking, crammed with presents, to the churchyard where she is buried.

At home, the fairy she made will have pride of place on top of the Christmas tree.

There appears to be no developing resentment in the Payne household at the continuing focus on Sarah. "We're a strong family, and we don't survive well apart", says Sara.

Even so, with tragedy playing its part in ending the marriages of the parents of James Bulger and Stephen Lawrence, Sara Payne is aware that she might yet need to call upon all her reserves to ensure that Sarah's death does not make her family permanent victims.

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