The Payne family's trip to the seaside was made on the spur of the moment and ended in unthinkable tragedy.

On Saturday July 1, 2000, a hot summer's day, Sara and Michael Payne rounded up their four children and dog Fifa and bundled them into the car.

Michael, a spray-painter working nights, had decided the family should visit his father Terry and stepmother Lesley.

Their home in Peak Lane, between Littlehampton and Worthing, was a haven where the children had more freedom than at their house in Hersham, Surrey.

The family arrived in the late afternoon and after dinner went for a walk together on the beach at East Preston.

At about 7pm the children went to play in a cornfield at the back of the house.

It is a secluded spot with a rope swing where the four had played many times before.

Their parents and grandfather went to visit a friend before stopping at an off-licence on the way home for wine and cigarettes.

The four siblings had climbed trees and pretended to be dinosaurs for about half an hour when Sarah tripped and hurt herself.

There had been a squabble and she ran off seeking her grandma back at the house.

Her brother Lee followed, trying to patch things up.

But as he stepped through the gate into tree-lined Kingston Lane, two minutes after her, his sister had gone.

Moments before he had seen a white van drive past, its roof visible above the hedge surrounding the field.

At the junction of Peak Lane he saw the van again. The driver waved and smiled before driving off.

When Lee reached his grandparents he discovered Sarah was not there and the family started a search.

It was unlike their little girl to go missing and less than an hour later police were told of her disappearance.

The family had made a frantic search of nearby lanes and fields, hoping carefree Sarah had simply got waylaid. But there was no trace of the girl who had been playing in the corn.

The 999 call came in at 9pm.

Breathless, Sara pleaded with the operator: "I've lost my eight-year-old daughter. She's been missing about an hour and three quarters.

"She was playing with her brothers and little sister and she sort of walked away from them. They've gone to find her but ... the trouble is, she's on holiday here."

Sergeant Geoff Lister was the first officer to arrive, taking control of the situation as other officers were called in.

Within an hour, the force helicopter was up, an incident room had been set up in the conservatory and sniffer dogs brought in.

Detective Superintendent Alan Ladley said: "From the outset, officers had very serious concerns that there could be a more sinister explanation for Sarah's disappearance.

"It is because of their judgement that almost immediately we had the wheels in motion for a major criminal investigation."

Even the police were taken by surprise at the extent of media coverage the disappearance attracted and the scale of public sympathy.

Mr Ladley said: "There was a massive search running in tandem with a major criminal investigation. It attracted an enormous amount of publicity and in the first few days we had 17,000 messages from the public.

"At that time we did not know what had happened to Sarah. It was conducted as a missing persons inquiry and we were hopeful she would be found alive but as each day passed the likelihood was becoming less."

As the ground search began in earnest, a second investigation got underway.

Officers began trawling through a list of 30 known sex offenders in the local area.

Builder Roy Whiting, of St Augustine Road, Littlehampton, was the number one suspect.

Four years earlier he had kidnapped another eight-year-old from Crawley and driven her off in almost identical circumstances.

That time, however, he sexually assaulted her and returned her to the streets near her home.

On July 2, officers were dispatched to the seafront bedsit where Whiting had lived since his release from prison two-and-a-half-years earlier.

A white Fiat Ducato van was parked outside, matching the description Lee had given and arousing their suspicion.

But Whiting was giving nothing away. He invited them in, said he had been at home on the evening before and they left.

The officers weren't happy with his story and, instead of leaving, stayed to watch the house. A few minutes later Whiting appeared and walked towards the van.

Believing he might be trying to destroy evidence, the officers pounced and Whiting was taken to Bognor police station.

When interviewed, Whiting chose to remain silent despite officer Jeff Riley's plea: "If I'm wasting my time, if you didn't do it, please tell me."

The search of the van turned up one initial clue, a receipt for diesel from a garage at Buck Barn crossroads at the junction of the A24 and A272, 20 miles from the scene of Sarah's disappearance, timed at 10pm the previous evening.

It contradicted Whiting's alibi but was not enough evidence to hold him and he was released on police bail.

At that time, police had no idea of the receipt's significance. It would ultimately put him less than two miles away from the spot where Sarah was finally found.

Sara channelled her efforts into the public campaign, appearing at Press conferences with Michael.

Assistant Chief Constable Nigel Yeo said: "While we were accepting the probability that Sarah was dead we were still hopeful."

That hope died on July 17. A farmhand at Brinsbury Agricultural College, Pulborough, found the naked body of a girl in a shallow grave.

The news was greeted with stunned silence at the HQ of the search operation.

The field was sealed off and police began a murder investigation.

Detective Sergeant Sean Scott, of the force's family liaison team assigned to take care of the family, broke the news to Sara, Michael, Terry and Lesley.

He said: "It was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. We all wanted to find Sarah alive. We were all clinging on until that day but by then I think even her parents were beginning to realise hope was fading.

"It was a race to get up to their house before the news broke. When we arrived Michael wasn't at home.

"I went into a room with Sara and the other adults who were there. I started to give the news and Sara just put her hand up.

She said 'Wait 'til Michael's here'. We waited for five minutes, the longest five minutes of my life. The tragic thing was that the children already knew as they were watching TV and the newsflash came on."

A pathologist who carried out the first examination found no evidence that Sarah had been assaulted, although her body had been exposed to the elements for weeks. The cause of death was believed to be suffocation.

Flowers, teddy bears and cards were placed at the roadside near where her body was found in an outpouring of national grief.

Forensic scientists began a painstaking search of the spot where Sarah was found and took Whiting's van apart in the hunt for clues.

The wooden panelling which had been in the van when he bought it on June 25 was missing and was never discovered. The two rear doors were also missing.

A vital clue was reported a day after Sarah's body was found. A woman walker had spotted a shoe lying on the roadside of the B2139, by the A272 near Coolham.

She had not connected the item with Sarah's disappearance but when the body was found she called the police. It was the only piece of Sarah's clothing ever found.

On July 31, Whiting was rearrested on suspicion of murder. He again made no comment, arrogantly shrugging off the allegations.

It was five months after the body had been found that tests revealed material from Whiting's van on the shoe.

He was arrested and charged with kidnap and murder on February 6.

Mr Ladley said: "Someone abducting an innocent eight-year-old girl, snatching her away from her family and killing her for no apparent reason, has to be one of the most heinous crimes."

December 13, 2001