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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 14:49 GMT
Snatched on a summer's evening
Police search field
Searching the fields where Sarah was last seen
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

Within days, the girl in the photograph was familiar to the entire country.

She was a child you might see in the playground of any primary school.

An innocent face with bright eyes and a half smile. It was the kind of picture that becomes a treasured family possession.

I can't describe it...
it was just pure horror

Sara Payne
Sarah's mother

But this was now the image of a missing girl, illustrating news reports on television and in the newspapers.

Sarah Payne had become the victim of a crime that haunts every parent, and in the days that followed, the country shared the family's anxiety.


It began on a summer's evening when the Payne family went to visit Sarah's grandparents at Kingston Gorse on the South Coast.

After walking on the beach, Sarah went with her sister and two brothers to play in a cornfield.

1. Sarah disappears 150 yards from her grandparents' house in Ferring, 1 July 2000.
2. Campers hear a girl scream on the same night. Identity of girl never established.
3. Sarah's body discovered near Pulsborough, 17 July 2000.
4. Shoe discovered near Coolham two days later.
5. Roy Whiting lodged in Littlehampton.

They chased each other in a game of hide and seek, until Sarah got a knock on the head and decided to walk back to her grandparents' home.

She disappeared through a gap in the hedge.

Her brothers Lee and Luke followed, only seconds behind. But by the time they reached the lane, Sarah had disappeared.

Lee saw a white van coming down the road towards him, its wheels spinning. The driver seemed in a hurry to get away.

As he drove past, he grinned and waved at Lee, who later described him as scruffy, with yellowish teeth.

The village of Coolham
Police recovered one shoe from near this village
Unknown to the boys, the man behind the wheel had just abducted Sarah. It was the last time that anyone other than the killer saw her alive.

Her mother, Sara Payne, finds it almost impossible to describe the moment when it became clear to the rest of the family that Sarah had gone.

"It was just pure horror," she says after a pause, trying to find the right words.

"I will never forget the panic of the boys as they were searching for her, just screaming and running backwards and forwards over the fields."

Sleepless nights

During the huge search for Sarah, her parents made themselves available for news conferences and photocalls day after day, helping to keep the case in the public eye.

Detective Constable Dave Dowell, the liaison officer assigned to the family, worried about the strain on them.

Police seal and cover the site where Sarah Payne's body was discovered
Discovery: Farm hand found Sarah's body
"I could see they were strong, but they were under an awful lot of pressure," he recalls.

"There were sleepless nights, perhaps up until three o'clock, and then up at six and in front of the cameras."

Then, after 16 days, the police found the body of a girl partially buried at the side of a road near the Sussex town of Pulborough.

"We knew it was Sarah," her mother says.

"It was just like somebody had put their hand inside you and ripped your whole insides out."

Her husband Michael recalls: "Me, I just went numb."

Sweating man

As the search turned into a murder hunt, suspicion quickly fell on Roy Whiting, a local man and a known paedophile.

He had already served a four-year prison sentence for abducting a nine-year-old girl. And he had a white van.

Detective Inspector Martyn Underhill
Det Insp Martyn Underhill: Admiration for family
When questioned by police about Sarah's disappearance, he said he did not know where she was, and claimed he had been at a funfair in Hove.

The court was told that when detectives asked him about items he was seen removing from his white van, he began shaking and sweating.

Convinced that they had their man, officers then embarked on a painstaking search of the vehicle and Whiting's flat, looking for the crucial evidence that would eventually link him to Sarah.

It proved to be a lengthy task, taking more than a year to bring the case to court. The jury's verdict will bring satisfaction to every police officer who worked on the case.

Detective Inspector Martyn Underhill pays tribute to the strength of the family during the long investigation.

"They were thrown into the limelight in a way that no-one would wish to happen to anyone," he says.

"I have nothing but admiration for them. How do you cope with something like that? It's every person's nightmare."

The BBC's Robert Hall
"The tragic story of Whiting's young victim moved all who heard it"
Full coverage of the trial

The verdict

Catching a murderer

Protecting children


Links to more England stories are at the foot of the page.

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