The man accused of snatching and killing Sarah Payne said the evidence linking him to her disappearance was all "coincidence".

Roy Whiting, 42, spent five hours in the witness box at Lewes Crown Court yesterday answering questions about his activities in the days leading up to the eight-year-old schoolgirl's death.

Hunched forward, resting his head on his right hand, Whiting looked directly at the jury as he answered his questions, only hesitating as he was asked to remember specific times and dates of the events of July last year.

In the packed public gallery Sarah's mother Sara, 32, barely took her eyes off him throughout the hearing, only occasionally turning her head towards husband Michael, 33, who sat with his arm around her.

Under cross-examination from Timothy Langdale, Whiting said it was a coincidence he owned a white van matching the one Sarah's brother Lee, then 13, described speeding along the lane where she was last seen near their grandparents' home in Kingston Gorse, near Littlehampton.

He said it was a coincidence he owned a checked shirt and white T-shirt matching the clothes Lee told police the driver was wearing.

He said it was coincidence he had spent the previous hours driving alone to a boating lake, parks and a funfair - places, Mr Langdale suggested, where young children could be found.

He said it was a coincidence he had a detailed knowledge of the lanes around Kingston Gorse and the tracks off the A29, near Pulborough, where Sarah's body was found 16 days later.

He said the small scratches found on his chest and arms by a police doctor following his arrest on July 2 could have been caused when he was ripping the wooden lining from the back of the second-hand van he had bought two weeks earlier for £400.

He said he had used the bottle of Johnson's baby oil found in the cab of his van as hand lotion and a small knife, also in the van, to strip some wires.

He said he had never before seen the two black plastic ties, found looped together under the driver's seat by detectives searching his van, which Mr Langdale suggested resembled "hand restraints".

Asked whether he had anything to do with Sarah's kidnap and murder he replied: "Nothing, no. Nothing whatsoever."

Mr Langdale asked mechanic and builder Whiting repeatedly why he had refused to help the police when they questioned him on 12 separate occasions following his arrest, 24 hours after Sarah had gone missing.

At first he said he had felt detectives were harassing, badgering and hectoring him. Then he said he had made no comment on the advice of his solicitor.

Mr Langdale asked: "When two policemen came to your flat and told you an eight-year-old girl had gone missing in Kingston Gorse the previous evening, no doubt you were very anxious to do what you could to assist the police?

Whiting replied: "Yes."

Mr Langdale continued: "And no doubt you were fully aware of the anxiety and anguish that her parents must be going through?"

Whiting again replied: "Yes."

Mr Langdale pressed: "And you realised one of the ways in which you could assist the police was to make sure they could eliminate you from their inquiries?

Whiting replied: "Yes."

Mr Langdale asked: "Can we take it at the very least you wanted to make it as clear as possible to the police that you were in no way involved?"

Whiting said: "Yes."

The court earlier heard from detectives who visited Whiting's flat the night after Sarah went missing. They said he had been "evasive" in response to their questions about his movements the previous evening.

Mr Langdale asked: "Why was it not possible for you to tell the police precisely what you had been doing on that Saturday?"

Whiting replied: "They were harassing me, saying, 'It's only yesterday, why can't you remember?'. I couldn't remember where I had been. I had a lot on my mind, if I was going to move out of the area or change jobs, and I was driving along on autopilot, not taking any notice of where I was going.

"I was just driving and did not recall which road I had taken."

Mr Langdale said: "The reason is you were in a bit of a difficulty trying to tell the police where you had been the previous evening because you had in fact been involved in the kidnap of this very little girl they had come to talk to you about. True?"

Whiting countered: "Not true."

Mr Langdale said: "That was the problem wasn't it?"

Whiting replied: "No."

Yesterday morning, as he was questioned by Sally O'Neill, defending, the court heard Whiting's account of his movements on the day Sarah vanished. He said he had been to collect a part for the van he had bought two weeks earlier, then driven to Shoreham, visited two parks in Hove before stopping at a funfair. He told the court that, after watching the sunset, he had planned to visit his father in Crawley but had changed his mind half way, turned around and gone home.

Mr Langdale said: "You have given us a considerable amount of detail as to what you were doing on that evening, going to a number of locations because, you told us, you were bored and at a loose end. Is it just a coincidence that these locations seemed to be places where you might find young children?

"Why were you going to places like that? The suggestion is that the man who abducted Sarah, and I suggest it was you, was someone who was out on the prowl, looking for a child. Why were you going to a funfair?"

Whiting said: "I went to look at the rides and walk about."

Whiting was asked by Mr Langdale why, when he gave a description of the route he had taken from Hove back to his flat in St Augustine Road, Littlehampton, he had not told police about visiting a petrol station near Pulborough.

The jury has heard a receipt was found in his van for £20 of diesel bought from Buck Barn Garage at 9.53pm.

Mr Langdale asked Whiting why, when presented with the receipt during his police interview, he still did not recall he had been to the garage, which was 20 miles from where Sarah disappeared.

At that time, police had still not found Sarah's body.

He said to Whiting: "You must have thought, 'Goodness me, it proves where I was.' As an innocent man, you would not have had the slightest idea that Sarah's body was buried rather nearer to the Buck Barn Garage than to Littlehampton.

"Police were still trying to find that little girl. Proof that you were at the garage shortly before ten o'clock might have been the complete alibi.

"I suggest the real reason you weren't going to say anything about the garage receipt was because you were the only person who knew where Sarah's body was buried."

Whiting replied: "No."

Mr Langdale asked why Whiting had, for four days, "stonewalled" interviewing officers.

He replied: "It was the advice I got from my solicitor."

Mr Langdale then reminded Whiting how Sarah's brother Lee had seen a man with gaps in his teeth and greying hair wave and grin as he sped off close to where the schoolgirl had vanished.

Whiting said he did not think he had gaps in his teeth.

Earlier, Miss O'Neill showed Whiting photographs of items found by police in his van.

They included the red sweatshirt on which forensic experts later found a single strand of Sarah's blonde hair.

A bottle of baby oil had also been photographed and the picture was shown to Whiting.

He said: "It was mine. In the building trade, when you are using sand and cement, your skin dries up and splits. I went into a shop to get some cream but they had run out and I had to get baby oil.

"It was no good. It would not sink into my dry hands".

Before finishing her questioning of Whiting, Miss O'Neill asked if he knew anything about the black plastic ties.

Police later said they were too big to be used as wrist ties.

Whiting said he had bought them to use on the van's engine.

The jury has heard how a major aspect of the prosecution case is the way Whiting allegedly altered the appearance of his van on the day after Sarah was kidnapped.

The windowless rear doors were switched for doors with windows and a wooden partition and plywood lining around the inside of the van's body was removed.

It is the prosecution case that Whiting was attempting to remove the "tell-tale" signs of Sarah's presence.

He told the court yesterday he had not only ripped out the lining but also washed out the van with a pressure hose hours before his arrest.

He said he was "80 per cent sure" he had done most of the work the previous morning.

He said: "I ripped the wood out so I could start work on the van. I took out everything and I got rid of the lot."

Whiting said when he had removed the wood, the floor of the van had been covered in grease and oil.

He said: "It was filthy underneath, greasy and oily. I pressure-washed it to get the grease off."

Miss O'Neill said: "You have told this jury about washing out the floor of the van. You have told this jury about going to the breaker's yard and about the condition the van was in.

"You understand the prosecution case and you are aware you made no comment in the three batches of interviews conducted by police. You know, no doubt, that you did not have to give evidence in this case. Why have you?"

Whiting said: "I wanted the jury to hear what I have got to say and I wanted the judge to hear what I have got to say. I have got nothing to hide.

"I have told the truth."

Miss O'Neill said: "You are charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Payne. Have you in any shape or form been associated with that young girl?"

Whiting replied: "No".

Miss O'Neill said: "Or have you had anything to do with her death?"

Whiting replied: "None whatsoever."

Whiting denies kidnap and murder.

The trial continues.

5 December 2001