A novelty curtain stolen from a store's mother-and-baby room provided one of the strongest links to Sarah Payne's alleged killer, a court heard.

The trail began when a pair of the drapes, featuring a clown motif, were taken from a storage cupboard at Boots in East Grinstead by new mother Paula Stewart in 1992, a jury at Lewes Crown Court was told.

Her friend Trudi Nesbitt hung the curtains in her son's bedroom for a few years before storing them in her garage.

At the time, Mrs Nesbitt was living with removal man Dean Fuller who, the court was told, used a sackful of unwanted sheets, blankets and curtains to put around furniture he was moving.

The patterned curtain was among items he left in a white Fiat Ducato van when he sold it to alleged killer Roy Whiting on June 25 last year.

Detectives who seized the mechanic and jobbing builder's van on July 2 last year, the day after Sarah disappeared from a lane in Kingston Gorse, near Littlehampton, found the curtain in the cab, the court heard.

On the eighth day of Whiting's trial, the jury was told the history of several items and how the prosecution says they link Whiting, 42, formerly of St Augustine Road, Littlehampton, to eight-year-old Sarah's death.

The jury has already been told a multi-coloured fibre matching the curtain pattern was snagged in the strap of one of Sarah's black shoes, spotted near the spot where her naked body was found off a farm track near Pulborough on July 17.

The curtain was one of a jigsaw of pieces of forensic evidence which the prosecution says provides "compelling evidence" that Whiting buried Sarah there after kidnapping and murdering her. He denies both charges.

Unable to trace the curtain's origin, police made an appeal on BBC's Crimewatch on January 25, 2001. Mrs Nesbitt remembered the pattern and got in touch.

Detectives visited her home the next day and she explained its history.

In a statement read to the court by junior prosecuting counsel Crispin Aylett, Mrs Nesbitt said: "I saw a photo of the clown motif which looked exactly like the curtain I had given to Dean Fuller."

Mr Aylett read a brief statement from Ms Stewart who confirmed she had taken the curtain and given it to her friend.

He told the court: "She was shown photos of the curtain by detectives and recognised it as being similar in all respects to the pair of curtains she had taken from Boots all those years ago."

Police then contacted Boots' head office in Nottingham.

Dawn Holmes, site protection manager for the Boots chain, told the court the curtains had been used to decorate changing rooms in many of the country's 1,400 branches. She said they had been ordered from Manchester firm Sir Jacob Behrens and Sons.

Clive Shuttleworth, sales manager for that firm, told the court only 1,500m of the fabric had been made at a factory in Turkey, almost exclusively for Boots.

Defence barrister Sally O'Neill QC, cross-examining, said: "There's nothing to stop someone buying this material outside the UK and importing it. It's difficult to say how much of the material actually existed, isn't it?"

Mr Shuttleworth replied: "I suppose so, yes."

The case continues.

27 November 2001