"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love."
It was the 1st July 2000. A Saturday. Sara and Michael Payne had taken their four children, Lee, Luke, Sara and Charlotte to visit their grandparents, Lesley and Terry, in Littlehampton, West Sussex in the United Kingdom. They had been to the beach that day and that evening the children all played together in the cornfield beside their grandparent’s home.
Lee, Luke, Sara and Charlotte
It was a beautiful sunny evening and the children all ran through the fields and played hide and seek. Sarah was just 8 years old and could only last a few minutes playing hide and seek as if she wasn't found quickly she would jump out and ask why nobody had found her yet. The four children loved to run around in the field as there was so much space and freedom.
Sarah fell when she was running so decided to go back to her grandparent's house and ran on ahead. Lee who was 13 years old at the time, ran after her.
Sarah got through a gap in the cornfield which led to a road. As Lee made it through the gap, just 30 seconds after Sarah, he saw a white van driving off at speed. The man driving the van smiled and waved at Lee. Lee remembered he was somewhat scruffy looking with yellow teeth. The van drove off at such speed that there was a screech. It all happened so quickly and the van was gone from sight. Lee couldn't see Sarah anywhere along the road.
Lee, Luke and Charlotte ran back to their grandparent's house. Their grandmother,Les, was inside the house and they told her they couldn't find Sarah. She went outside with the children and saw Sara , Michael and Terry returning to the house and she asked them if they had Sarah. They didn't. The family searched for Sarah along the road, in the fields and on the beach. They searched for over an hour. By this time, it was around 8pm. They had thought that Sarah may be just lost somewhere. They knew she wouldn't have just run off as she always liked to stay close to them all. Shortly after, Sara called the police and reported Sarah missing. They had searched everywhere near the grandparent's house and the cornfield and there was no sign at all of Sarah so they now needed police assistance.
Police arrived and searched the area around the house, the fields and ditches. They looked anywhere they thought that an 8 year old girl may go if she got lost and couldn't find her way home or if she had fallen and was hurt somewhere. The more they searched, they were afraid that they were dealing with something more sinister like an abduction as there was just no sign of her anywhere near the home.
That fear grew when police spoke to the children at the house and Lee told them that he saw two vehicles near the cornfield. One was a car and one was a white van. He told the police about a man in the van waving at him and that the van sped off. Police looked for people in the area who drove a white van. They had a strong suspicion that one man in particular may have been involved.
The search for Sarah took 17 days. During that 17 day search, Sarah's parents, Sara and Michael, made a brave appeal looking for any information in relation to Sarah's whereabouts. Everyone was looking out for the little eight year old blonde girl with big brown eyes who was last seen wearing a blue dress and black shoes. Police received over 10000 calls in relation to her disappearance.
On the 17th of July 2000, Luke Coleman, a farm laborer, made a devastating discovery. As he was clearing ragwort from a field beside the A29 near Pulburough in West Sussex, he thought he saw the body of a deer. He was shocked to discover that it was the naked body of a young child. It was confirmed that the body was Sarah Payne.
The body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that it was difficult to determine exactly what had happened to Sarah. The pathologist in the case noted that several limbs were detached and her feet had been disfigured by animals. While there was no evidence of sexual assault, the pathologist noted that it could not be excluded as it may have disappeared due to the decomposition. The pathologist believed the overall pattern, including the fact that Sarah's body was found naked, indicated it was a sexually motivated homicide and Sarah had met a violent death. It could not be determined with absolute certainty that the cause of death was asphyxia due to the decomposition but the most likely cause of death was asphyxia caused by strangulation or suffocation or both.
Now that Sarah's body had been found, police knew they had to get the man responsible off the streets. To do that though, they needed evidence and there was little available at the time. They believed the white van that Lee saw the day Sarah went missing belonged to 41 year old Roy Whiting. Roy was an unemployed motor mechanic. There had been several sightings of a white van in the area where Sarah was last seen and also in the area where her body was found. Roy’s van told a story of its own. The doors and exterior of the van had been removed and replaced and the back of the van was cleaned inside with a power spray. A number of items were found in the van including baby oil, a knife, plastic ties and a shirt stained with semen. The most revealing item found though was a receipt. The receipt was from a garage and the time on the receipt was 10pm and it was for fuel bought on the day Sarah was last seen. That garage was just a few miles from where Sarah had been buried. Roy had told the police, before the receipt was found, that he was out that evening at a park and a fun fair but he went straight home afterwards and was home well before 10pm. Roy claimed that the sightings of the van and items found were just coincidences and he claimed he had nothing to do with an abduction or the murder of Sarah.
Police did not believe him and they had reason not to trust Roy. In 1995, Roy abducted and sexually assaulted an 8 year old girl in Crawley in West Sussex. He admitted abduction and indecent assault and was sentenced to four years in prison. So police were very much aware of who Roy was and knew he was a paedophile.
Police still did not have enough to charge him with. That changed when they received a tip off from a woman who saw a child's shoe near to where Sarah's body had been found. The shoe was tested.
During this time, Roy moved in with his father but people in the area were all discussing how he was a suspect in the case. It all became too much for him and he started to panic which led to him making mistakes. He stole a car and crashed it into another car. He was charged with dangerous driving. While he was in prison, police searched his van and found a blonde hair. There was little forensic doubt that it belonged to Sarah. Fibres were found in the shoe linking Roy to the shoe and the shoe to Sarah. He was charged with the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne on the 6th of February 2001.
At Roy's Trial in November 2001, he pleaded not guilty but the evidence presented by the Prosecution to the Court was compelling. When Sarah's body was found, most of her hair had come away from the roots. It contained 200 fibres of material, two of which matched a red sweatshirt that was found in Roy's van, eleven matched socks found in the van and one matched the passenger seat front cover. 47 hairs were found on the sweatshirt and one matched the DNA profile of Sarah.
On the 12th of December 2001, Roy was found guilty of the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 50 years.
The Judge in the case said:
"You are every parent's and every grandparent's nightmare come true. You are and will remain an absolute menace to any little girl.
"It's one of the rare cases where I shall recommend to the appropriate authorities that you be kept in prison for the rest of your life so that no further child is added to the list of your victims and the lives of a third family are not ruined."
Michael, Sara, Luke, Lee and Charlotte
His sentence was later reduced by the High Court to 40 years.
The devastation Roy inflicted on the Payne family was enormous. In a matter of seconds, he snatched their beautiful daughter and sister Sarah from the side of the street and brutally murdered her just to satisfy his own sick desires. As a result, the Payne family were never the same again. In 2003, after 18 years together, Sara and Michael split up. Michael battled with alcoholism and sadly died in 2014. He was just 45 years old.
Sara and Michael
Sara Payne campaigned to introduce Sarah's Law and achieved it.
Sarah’s Law allows parents, carers and guardians to ask the police to tell them if someone has a criminal record for child sexual offences.The scheme is for any member of the public who wants to find out if an individual in contact with a child has a record of child sexual offences.
Sara, despite going through such unspeakable tragedy, fought on to help her three other children and to ensure that parents have more rights when it comes to the safety of their own children.