The Disappearance and Murder of Sarah Payne
The 8-year-old’s murder changed England’s laws.
Sarah Payne via bbc.co.uk
Playing hide and seek with her brothers and sister in a cornfield, Sarah crawled through a gap in the tall harvest and onto the road adjacent to the field. She was heading back to her grandparents’ home because she’d received a knock on the head, but while walking down the road, she was abducted by a man in a white van.
What came next was England’s worst child murder at the time.
Eight-year-old Sarah grew up in Hersham, Surrey, with her two brothers, 13 and 11 and her sister, who was six. She was staying with her grandparents in Kingston Gorse, West Sussex, that summer in 2000. Their home was close to the beach and had acres of land for the four children to run around in.
Sarah disappeared on the 1st of July, and within a few hours, a country-wide manhunt had begun to find the missing girl. Her older brother, Lee, told police that he had seen a white van speed off as he got to the edge of the field to follow Sarah. He said the unkempt man behind the wheel waved at him, but the boy had no idea that his little sister was in the back of the vehicle.
“He was quite scruffy, looking like he hadn’t shaved for ages. He had little white stubbles on his face and little bits of grey in his hair. He was greasy and stuff.”
Investigators began mapping the area for known sex offenders, and they arrested Roy Whiting at his home in Littlehampton, five miles away from the grandparents’ home.
41-year-old Whiting was convicted five years earlier for an eight-year-old girl's abduction and sexual assault, 30 miles away from Kington Gorse in Crawley. He received a four-year sentence due to admitting to the crime and was released after two years and five months. He was one of the first people in England to be put on the sex offenders’ register. From here, he moved from Crawley down to Littlehampton.
Roy Whiting via Entertainment Daily
Whiting was questioned for an hour at his seafront apartment before the police left, but later that evening, he was stopped by undercover officers and arrested as he was acting suspiciously. He was questioned over the next two days, but investigators had no evidence that linked him to Sarah’s abduction, and he was released on bail and returned home.
Volunteers and dogs searched the surrounding area for days, and Sarah’s parents spoke at daily press conferences, trying to get back their little girl from whoever had taken her.
Sarah’s parents Sara and Michael via dailymirror.co.uk
After 16 days of searching, the police found Sarah. She was partially buried at a roadside near Pulborough, 18 miles from where she was kidnapped. She was naked and had been strangled and suffocated. The post-mortem showed that Sarah had suffered a violent death, and most of her hair had been pulled out in the process.
The next day, a motorist found one of Sarah’s shoes. Deborah Bray drove past the black shoe for days after the 8-year-old’s disappearance and stopped to pick it up one day. The black sandal with a Velcro strap was found in Coolham, around ten miles away from where Sarah’s body was discovered. Sarah’s mother, Sara, positively identified it as belonging to her daughter.
Investigators were still looking into Roy Whiting and were trying to find holes in the alibi he had told them. He said he’d attended a funfair in Hove, around 20 miles east, at the time of Sarah’s disappearance. However, investigators found a receipt for fuel from a garage close to Coolham, where Sarah’s shoe was found. The timestamp contradicted his supposed whereabouts, and he was now their prime suspect.
On the 23rd of July, Whiting stole a car in Crawley. A police pursuit began around the town and ended with Whiting crashing the Vauxhall Nova into an empty car. He was arrested and sentenced to 22 months in prison for theft and dangerous driving. Meanwhile, forensic investigators began their work on the shoe and Sarah’s body. Due to the fast decomposition of the body, the coroner couldn’t specify what injuries Sarah had incurred. Still, the loose ball of hair from her head would quickly identify her abductor and killer.
The white van via dailystar.co.uk
Because Whiting was now in prison, police had access to his white Fiat Ducato van, and what they found was disturbing, given the man’s history. Inside the van, police found sweets, toys and rope, hidden behind a curtain. There were also knives, baby oil and cable ties. He had made the vehicle into a portable prison. Forensics began immediately, and they found evidence quickly.
Sarah’s loose hair was found to contain over 200 material fibres, and some of these came from a sweater found in Whiting’s van. Further fibres on Sarah’s lost shoe were found to match the passenger seat cover in the van, and Sarah’s hair was also found on the sweater.
The sweater via dailystar.co.uk
On the 14th of November 2001, Whiting appeared at Lewes Crown Court on charges of abduction and murder, where he pled not guilty.
Sarah’s brother, Lee, was one of the witnesses called during the trial, where he told the jury about his interactions with Whiting on the day his sister was taken. The jury saw photographs showing the contents of his van, and they heard from witnesses who saw Whiting parked at the side of the road, where Sarah was found 16 days later.
After four weeks in court, the jury convicted Roy Whiting of the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne. He was sentenced to life in prison and was transferred to HM Prison Wakefield, where he lives to this day.
After the sentencing, Whiting’s previous crime was revealed to the media and the jury. Disclosing that he was a repeat sex offender outraged the public and Sarah’s family, believing the eight-year-old’s murder could have been easily prevented with monitoring.
The News of the World quickly went to print with a controversial front page that immediately had the public’s backing. They named 50 sex offenders, and they planned to unveil the identities of thousands more to their readers over time.
The News of the World front page via bbc.co.uk
Vigilante groups formed, and the mob forced families from their homes and people across the country were hounded by crowds. One woman was even targeted because she was a paediatrician, mistakenly thought to be a paedophile.
Sarah’s parents began a campaign alongside the News of the World for a change in the law to give the public the right to know about sex offenders living in their area.
Sarah’s Law was put in place across England and Wales in 2011, and the effect was immediate. In its first year, the police received over 1,600 enquiries into their local area, protecting 200 children in the process.
Two years later, the BBC reported that 700 paedophiles had been identified through almost 5,000 enquiries.
Roy Whiting is still in prison and is eligible for release in 2041 when he is 82 years old. He has been attacked three times while in Wakefield prison. In 2002, he was attacked with a razor and was left with a six-inch scar on his cheek. In 2011, he was stabbed in the eye, but his injuries weren’t serious. In 2018, he was stabbed by two inmates, but again his injuries weren’t life-threatening.
Sarah’s mother, Sara, wrote a book in 2004 detailing her daughter’s death and the aftermath, which saw the country step up and take action. The family eventually received £11,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which Sara described as a “sick joke”.
In 2011, it was revealed that the News of the World, who had helped the Paynes with Sarah’s Law, had been recording many celebrities’, politicians’ and victims of crimes’ calls. In the News International phone-hacking scandal, it came to light that a hacked phone was given to Sarah’s mother directly by News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, to record her calls and text messages.
In 2014, Sarah’s dad, Michael, was found dead at his home. His battle with alcohol started after the death of his daughter and eventually enveloped his life. He was 45 years old.
A bronze statue stands in the gardens of Sarah Payne’s primary school in her hometown of Hersham, Surrey. The school bought it to honour Sarah’s short life.
Sarah’s statue via getsurrey.co.uk