Retired detective Peter Kennett prays Roy Whiting remains behind bars and never sees the light of day again.

The ex-superintendent, who co-led the Sarah Payne inquiry, said: "Whiting is a disgusting, psychopathic monster, an evil, evil man who should never be let loose on society ever again.

"He would kill again. He would kill another young girl, and we must not allow that to happen."

Mr Kennett, 50 and the father of three girls, retired from Sussex Police to the West Country in May to be reunited with his wife after a separation.

He has been away from the job for six months but the Sarah Payne case has never left him.

He lies awake at night thinking about the girl and going over the investigation in his mind, dissecting details and asking himself whether he did the best job possible.

He said: "I can't help myself. I lay there thinking about the job constantly and, during the trial, I kept going over the events, hoping it would go well."

A man with a naturally joyful and humorous outlook on life, Mr Kennett verges on the morose when he speaks of Sarah.

A policeman is expected to divorce the job from his private life but, with a daughter roughly the same age as Sarah, he found it impossible.

He once asked The Argus for a copy of one of the hundreds of photographs taken during the inquiry.

It showed Mr Kennett's hands clasping a photograph of the little girl. He said: "Even now, every time I see a picture of Sarah I get a lump in my throat.

"I can't help it. I became personally involved."

His emotions were hidden from the Operation Maple team throughout the inquiry. He masked them with occasional interludes of levity.

One detective recalled how Mr Kennett gathered officers together one morning for a briefing.

"He asked us all to stand up and put our hands together above our heads.

"I thought it was some kind of oriental exercise he was making us do to get us motivated.

"Then he asked us to look up, skywards, and to repeat after him: 'Please God, give us some evidence'.

"We all fell apart laughing. Minutes later we were serious again and getting on with the job.

"Kennett's like that. He has a way of relaxing a tense situation but at the same time remaining completely focused."

In an exclusive interview with The Argus, Mr Kennett made no reference to the lighter moments.

Sarah's murder was the highest-profile job he worked on in his 32 years' service, and the worst: "It was so sad, the saddest case I can recall."

Detective Superintendent Alan Ladley, as senior investigating officer, took the first call on the Saturday that Sarah disappeared, but Mr Kennett took his share of responsibility when Mr Ladley went on leave.

Assistant Chief Constable Nigel Yeo was in overall charge of the operation, which was split into three sections - the search, the investigation, and handling the media.

Mr Kennett had his doubts about Sarah's fate from the moment she disappeared.

He said: "I hoped and prayed she would be found alive but, in my heart, I thought she was dead.

"If a child is not found within 24 hours after disappearing then, statistically, the odds are stacked against them.

"I'm sure in my mind Sarah was dead within a short space of time, perhaps minutes, after she was snatched."

Mr Kennett received the news that Sarah's body had been found with a telephone call to his home. Both he and Mr Ladley shed tears.

The finger of suspicion was pointed at Whiting just hours after Sarah vanished. In part, this was due to a child kidnap case that happened in 1999.

When two ten-year-old girls went missing as they walked to school in East Sussex, police concentrated checks on child sex offenders living in the immediate vicinity.

In fact, the offender was captured at his home in a neighbouring town three days later when police called on an unrelated matter.

The girls were found alive and their abuser, Alan Hopkinson, was jailed for life.

The case resulted in an overhaul of police investigations and the Sussex force now check the homes of sex offenders in a much wider area.

In Sarah's case, the checks went nationwide.

Police called on the homes of hundreds of people on the sex offenders' register, but it was Whiting who quickly became the prime suspect.

Mr Kennett said: "Officers who called on him were not happy with his demeanour. He was nervous and agitated. He had a white van, a Fiat Ducato, which he said he bought a week earlier.

"He said he had been at home in bed at 10pm that Saturday night but a receipt in his van showed he had been at Buck Barn Garage."

Whiting was arrested three times in all and each time made no comment.

Mr Kennett said: "It was odd that an innocent man accused of kidnapping and murdering an eight-year-old girl did not strenuously deny his involvement and did not protest his innocence.

"That said, it was vitally important for us to keep an open mind and to spread our net wide.

"Initially, there was very little concrete evidence implicating Whiting and it wasn't until December that year when we received our first positive forensic results linking him to Sarah.

"It had been a long wait but it proved the best Christmas present imaginable. I can remember thinking, 'There is a God'."

The forensic science results got better and in January Mr Kennett received another call to his home telling him of yet more links, the most important being DNA proof that a hair on Whiting's sweatshirt was Sarah's.

"I was on my own in the house. I kept repeating, 'Oh, my God," because it meant the job was now totally provable."

Later that day Mr Kennett went to the Royal Norfolk Hotel in Arundel where the investigation team was enjoying a post-Christmas party.

"The news about the forensic breakthrough was supposed to have been kept quiet but word quickly spread round the room.

"There were 'yippees' going off all over the place and it turned into a very happy occasion."

Later that month Mr Kennett sent a message round the force to say Whiting was about to be charged.

He said: "I thought I would be doing handstands with joy but instead I thought of Sarah and her family.

"Her parents, Sara and Michael, have been remarkable and brilliant throughout and I am full of admiration for them, although I'm not sure how they have managed to cope.

"Sara proved to be naturally gifted in handling the media but I think running a campaign and fighting for justice gave her a focus, something to occupy her mind."

Mr Kennett never saw Sarah's body, only photographs of her mutilated remains at the spot she was found and, later, those taken at a mortuary during the post-mortem examination.

Those images will never leave him.

He said: "You can't help but compare them to pictures of Sarah when she was alive, that pretty, happy and smiling face.

"You can't equate the two and it becomes very emotional and hard.

"I get a lump in my throat every time I think of her. I don't think Sarah will ever leave me."

December 12, 2001