Tears and fears of a distraught family fighting to cope with the loss of their 'little princess'

Payne verdict: The family
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The Independent Online

The photograph of Sarah Payne with her closed-mouth grin is now instantly recognisable to the public. It is how her family, still undergoing counselling, will endeavour to remember her, blocking out all images of the horror the eight-year-old endured.

After being killed by Whiting her body was set upon by foxes. The police, no doubt barely able to look themselves, advised her parents, Michael and Sara, not to view it. Their "little princess" had to be formally identified by dental records and DNA samples.

Blonde and small for her age, Sarah was a typical young girl. She went to dance classes after school, and enjoyed dressing up and playing with make-up. The pop group Steps was a particular favourite of hers. On several occasions she went with her mother to have her ears pierced, but never mustered up enough courage to go through with it. She said her prayers at bedtime and went to church. Sara described her as a "soft, gentle little girl" without a "horrible bone in her body" who would burst into tears the moment she was told off.

But, like most youngsters, there was also a more boisterous side to the ''bubbly and bouncy" girl. At times she was so loud her parents had to tell her to pipe down because the neighbours could hear. At Sarah's funeral, June Whittle, her last infant school teacher, talked of a child who was "always smiling, happy and chirpy, a determined, feisty girl with a strong spirit, vibrant and full of love and generosity".

At the time of Sarah's disappearance the family was living in a small, modern house in Hersham, Surrey. Sara worked as a barmaid and Michael was a paint-sprayer. Both 31, they had been married almost 10 years. Sara had always wanted a large family, and as well as Sarah, there was Lee, 13; Luke, 11; and Charlotte, six. They were close and the children often played together.

When Sarah vanished, the family was unable to contemplate anything more serious than an abduction. Such was their belief that their daughter was still alive, Sara and Michael, guided by Sussex police, at once embarked on one of Britain's most high-profile missing person's campaigns.

Sara was by far the more vocal parent, often shaking as she spoke to the press on an almost daily basis. After her daughter had been missing for two nights, she told reporters: "You can't imagine what she means to us. She is our life. We're a strong family and we don't survive well apart." Michael trembled uncontrollably at her side, so distraught that he was unable to speak.

Six days after her daughter's disappearance, Sara broke down in public for the first time. Tears welled as she gestured to flowers sent by a well-wisher, and held up messages of support from children as she spoke through the cameras to, she hoped, her daughter. "Look, Sarah. Look at all these people looking for you. Sarah, you will be home soon, I promise you," she said, before collapsing into the arms of her husband.

Referring to Sara's ability to speak to the press at such a traumatic time, Detective Sergeant Sean Scott, a family-liaison officer who has worked with the Paynes since Sarah disappeared, said: "I think it was a very, very brave thing to do. How she got through it, I do not know. It's got to be one of the most difficult things ever to go out there and actually appeal for somebody to tell you where your daughter is, and to actually ask, in case your daughter is listening – and that's heart-breaking. Not everyone could do that ... As a consequence of those press interviews, we had a huge mass of information."

As the days went on, Sara and Michael's hopes of finding her alive did not diminish. "It is just a matter of time," said Michael, who kept one of Sarah's bracelets in his pocket for comfort, and had imaginary conversations with her.

As for their other children, Sara said Lee – a "typical teenager" – was trying to be strong and unemotional, Luke was often tearful, and Charlotte was walking around bewildered, asking where Sarah was.

On the sixteenth day of the inquiry, DS Scott, and Detective Superintendent Alan Ladley, who headed the investigation, broke the news to the family that the body of a young girl had been found. The police had sought advice from experts, who recommended that the parents should be informed first, and that Sara and Michael should then tell the children.

Unfortunately, news leaked out before they could be told. "It had broken on the news, so whilst we were delivering the news to mum and dad and grandparents, the children were in fact in the other room seeing it on the TV," said DS Scott. "It was unfortunate and tragic. The press had got wind of this body being found, we had obviously been told, and it was a race to get to the parents before it went on the news."

Lee, who was the last sibling to see Sarah alive as he tried to catch up with her, was very distressed. "He was very angry, very upset that he had to hear it that way," Michael said.

Sarah was buried in a white coffin barely four feet long, which also contained her favourite teddy bear. About 300 mourners attended the funeral.

The family continued with its appeals for information, and, the following August, supported the decision by the News of the World to "name and shame" convicted paedophiles. The couple has continued to campaign for the introduction of a British equivalent of America's "Megan's Law", which requires communities to be notified of released sex offenders.

While the grieving parents maintained their dignity at the trial, it was clearly an ordeal. When the gruesome details of the condition of Sarah's body were revealed, the couple fled the courtroom. As the trial progressed, they appeared increasingly broken. Michael, in particular, was a picture of utter devastation. He has suffered a recurring nightmare in which he finds Sarah safe and while taking her home, stops to let her use a toilet. She never comes out and, in search of her, he finds blood on the floor and the walls. Sara's nightmare is simply being awake – when she dreams of her daughter, she is safe and playing in the garden.

The children suffering too. Charlotte has nightmares about being in the van with Sarah and has had to take time off school. Luke became "a bit rebellious and destructive" and got into trouble for breaking a fence with other boys. Lee is more nervous and will not go out with friends unless they collect him. Neither boy talks much about Sarah, while Charlotte insists she never wants babies, fearing they will be taken away from her, like her sister.