Roy Whiting will spend his life behind bars for killing 8-year-old Sarah Payne. But could her cruel, senseless death have been avoided?
One by one, they took their turn. Closed their eyes and counted. It was Saturday, 1 July 2000. Sarah, her two older brothers and younger sister were playing hide and seek. The cornfield near their grandparents’ house in Kingston Gore, West Sussex, was perfect.
But after playing for a while, no one could find, Sarah. The searched, called. No reply. The four kids ran to their grandparents, who called the police. And little Sarah was reported missing.
That night, the police and emergency services searched for the lost girl. Nothing. And the following day, Michael and Sara Payne, Sarah’s parents, made an emotional TV appeal for their girl’s safe return. Still nothing.
Within days, there were countless sightings, more than 3,500 calls made to police, even an appeal by Sarah’s favourite pop band, Steps. It was like Sarah had vanished into thin air.
Then, after 16 days, Sarah’s naked body was found abandoned by the side of the A29 near Pulborough, not far from her home. The search for a missing girl was now a search for a murderer. And the police had leads.
A white Fiat Ducato van had been seen in the area that Saturday afternoon. The police interviewed local owners. One was Roy Whiting.
During the forensic examination of his van, a blonde hair was found on the red sweatshirt discarded in it. DNA tests showed the chances of the strand not belonging to Sarah were a billion to one. The police had their man. And in February 2001, Roy Whiting was arrested and charged with her murder.
Ten months on, and Whiting was found guilty of abducting and murdering Sarah Payne. During the trial, the police’s pathologist gave evidence, said Sarah’s murder seemed to be sexually motivated. But her body had been so badly decomposed there was no way sexual assault could be proved.
Whiting was sentenced to life at Lewes Crown Court, with a minimum of 50 years. Nine years later, in 2010, that sentence was reduced to life with a minimum of 40 years on appeal. But then details began to emerge about Whiting’s previous convictions. That when he abducted and murdered Sarah, he was already on the Sex Offenders’ Register.
Four years before, in 1995, he’d admitted abducting and sexually assaulting another 8-year-old girl in nearby Crawley. He’d received a four-year sentence. The judge had been lenient because Whiting had admitted his crime at the first possible opportunity. In the end, he served half that time, and was made to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register.
Frustratingly, a psychiatrist who’d examined Whiting at the time told the court he was likely to re-offend. Free again, Whiting settled in West Sussex where, that sunny Saturday afternoon in July 2001, he’d struck again.
Now, the Payne family was left with the grief and heartache of their loss… and the agony of knowing things might have been different. If they’d known a convicted paedophile lived in the area, would they have watched their kids closer that summer’s day?
Sarah Payne’s legal legacy
The Paynes started campaigning for a change in the law. They wanted families to have the right to know if potentially dangerous paedophiles and child abusers lived nearby.
‘Let’s make sure this stops happening time and time again,’ Sara told Press.
Not everyone agreed. The police were worried the proposed change might drive paedophiles further underground. There were also concerns individuals would be at risk from vigilante groups, hate campaigns and attacks. But a similar scheme – Megan’s Law – was passed in the USA in 1996.
Finally, in 2011, Sarah’s Law was given the green light in the UK, in honour of young Sarah Payne who so needlessly lost her life.
It allowed parents, carers or grandparents to ask police if someone has contact with a child has any convictions for sex crimes against children.
The Payne family had lost their daughter. But they’d won an important legal battle. And in their victory, their daughter will be remembered forever.