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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Media vital in search for Sarah

Is there a person in the country who didn't know that eight-year-old Sarah Payne was missing and possibly in dreadful danger?

Is there a person in the country who has not contemplated the worst possible case scenario and is now clinging to a vain hope that their fears will not be realised, even though the body of a young child has been found?

Sara and Michael Payne embrace
Distraught but driven: Sara Payne, with husband Michael

The search for Sarah has dominated the news since she was reported missing on 1 July, while visiting her grandparents in West Sussex.

In an investigation where leads were always thin on the ground, police pulled out all the stops to secure publicity, with the hope they might jog someone's memory.

The distraught parents, Sara and Michael, braved the glare of television lights and flashbulbs for a series of news conferences. Their last appearance was on Littlehampton beach on Saturday where the whole family last spent time together.

A pre-recorded interview, due to be broadcast on Thursday on ITV's Tonight, With Trevor McDonald, must now hang in the balance.

Officers working on the inquiry have spent endless hours sifting through the results of more than 20,000 telephone calls made during the course of the 16-day investigation.

While hopes of finding Sarah alive faded with each day, both the police and the Paynes kept up their determination to explore every avenue of investigation.
Sarah Payne
Sarah, in a video made a week before she disappeared

Fearing the media might "go off" the story at any time, the police organised a variety of headline-grabbing events. In return, the public showed great willingness to help.

"There really could not have been a greater public response in British criminal history than this," says David Sapsted, who has reported the story for The Daily Telegraph.

It's not only Sarah's parents who helped keep the campaign alive. Her two brothers, Luke, 11, and Lee, 13, and her sister Charlotte, six, visited the police incident room and presented them with a thank-you card for their work.

Sarah's grandfather went in front of the cameras and the little girl's favourite pop group Steps also joined the appeal.

But it was 31-year-old Sara Payne who emerged as the key figure in the appeal, says Mr Sapsted.

Mother's determination

"A lot of it is that the mother was been very focused and helped drive the campaign forward."

Luke and Carlotte Payne
Luke and Carlotte Payne visit the police
Although both parents were engulfed in anguish, Mrs Payne showed a steely determination to get the message across.

Even when the message was to Sarah's possible abductor - Mrs Payne said she knew the kidnapper "loved her too" - she remained composed.

Support will continue

A spokesperson for Littlehampton police in West Sussex said: "The Payne family has had a team of family liaison officers around them since this inquiry began.

"That level of support will obviously continue and if indeed this does turn out to be the body of Sarah Payne that help would become more professional and external agencies would inevitably be brought in.

"Sara and Michael have built up a close bond with their liaison officers during the past two weeks."

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