Hidden among ferns in a Sussex field, a girl's body is found

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The Independent Online

The language chosen by Assistant Chief Constable Nigel Yeo was guarded in the extreme.

The language chosen by Assistant Chief Constable Nigel Yeo was guarded in the extreme.

A man had found the body of a small female. The body was not completely covered but not completely uncovered. The death of the small female was being treated as suspicious. The mood among his officers was grim. The family of eight-year-old Sarah Payne had been informed.

Last night, officers had still not formally identified the body discovered yesterday morning in undergrowth close to an agricultural college at Pulborough, West Sussex, 10 miles from where Sarah disappeared on 1 July. A Home Office pathologist was at the site and officers were scouring the unsown field close to where the body was found.

"I've said throughout that I can't afford to jump to conclusions," Mr Yeo insisted at a press conference at Brinsbury College yesterday evening.

He was doing his job in the manner one would expect, but no one doubted that the body that had been found by a man out walking was that of the girl who disappeared 17 days ago. Even Mr Yeo admitted he was unaware of any other missing girls from the area who might fit the profile of the victim.

Sarah went missing on Saturday 1 July after she and her brothers, Lee and Luke, and her sister, Charlotte, had been playing in a wheatfield close to their grandparents' house where they were staying at Kingston Gorse, near East Preston, West Sussex.

It was Lee, 13, who was the last to see her as she left the field to return home, walking through the wheat, which almost obscured her from view, and then turning into the lane leading to their grandparents' house. By the time Lee followed a few minutes later, there was no trace of her.

Immediately, a huge search was launched for the little girl, involving shocked local residents from the quiet community and a determined police team of 300 officers.

The publicity the hunt for Sarah attracted was unprecedented. Every day newspapers and broadcasters carried appeals from both the police and the schoolgirl's parents, Michael and Sara. "Don't give up," said Mr and Mrs Payne, as they appeared at what became almost daily press conferences. "We'll get you home." And to whoever may have abducted the girl they called their "little princess", they pleaded to let her go unharmed.

Who knows how Detective Superintendent Alan Ladley, who led the search, and the family liaison officer Detective Sergeant Sean Scott broke the news to Mr and Mrs Payne that they had received a call at about 11am from a young man walking in fields near Brinsbury College and who had made a terrible discovery?

"The conversations between them and the officers must remain private but we are seeking professional help to support them at this time," Mr Yeo said. "Even if there is no connection with the discovery, the sheer circumstances represent another trauma for the family who have had their fair share of traumas."

No one would argue with that. Yesterday afternoon Mr and Mrs Payne were still at the home of Sarah's grandparents, just a few hundred yards from where the children had been playing that Saturday after spending a day at the seaside.

Meanwhile, 10 miles to the north and no more than 10 yards from the busy A29 road, detectives were switching their operation from a search for a missing person to an inquiry into a suspicious death.

The body of the girl, concealed from the main road by 6ft-high ferns, remained where, apparently, it had lain for some time. (A reported possible sighting of Sarah at Knutsford service station in Cheshire just nine hours after she went missing, now appears almost certainly erroneous.)

"It's a very, very slow process, especially when you bring in the experts," Mr Yeo said. "You don't uncover the body ... until later on. There is some concealment. Whether it was concealed when the body was left there or subsequently is something we can't answer."

The police know that now is not the time for them to make mistakes. Since their inquiry began they have arrested two men and released them on bail. They have also carried out tests on a white Transit-type van removed from the home of one of the men arrested in connection with the investigation. Police have also done DNA tests, using samples taken from Sarah's hairbrush.

The body found yesterday is expected to become the subject of tests. This will be the focus of the police's inquiry into what they were last night calling a suspicious death.

Mr Yeo said last night that there was still a missing persons inquiry into the disappearance of Sarah Payne.