Sarah's murder would have been planned ahead for months, say police

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On the reception desk at Littlehampton police station, tucked from public view, is a stack of posters with the photograph of a girl, and, in bold red letters, the word "murder".

On the reception desk at Littlehampton police station, tucked from public view, is a stack of posters with the photograph of a girl, and, in bold red letters, the word "murder".

Indeed, all across this part of West Sussex you will find the same poster. So few people are unaware of what happened to eight-year-old Sarah Payne that there seems no need to put up more posters appealing for information.

Seven weeks ago Sarah disappeared from a quiet lane close to her grandparents' house at Kingston Gorse, near Littlehampton. Four-and-a-half weeks ago her partly clothed body was discovered 10 miles away, in undergrowth close to the busy A29 near Pullborough.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago families on Portsmouth's Paulsgrove estate started taking to the streets in a series of often violent demonstrations. They called for paedophiles to be ousted, and for the introduction of "Sarah's Law" to give parents information on known sex offenders in their areas. At the same time, a 41-year-old mechanic, questioned by detectives about Sarah's murder, was released without charge.

And despite the way in which the political agenda has been dominated by the issue of paedophiles and the News of the World's name-and-shame campaign, despite the way politicians have responded vocally in knee-jerk fashion for "something to be done", despite all of this, no one has been charged with murdering the little girl whose smiling face looks out from those posters.

In Operation Maple's second-floor incident room, Detective Superintendent Peter Kennett, the officer leading the inquiry, is happy with the progress of his team.

"There is a football analogy I used recently with the officers," he says. "It's like we are in the semi-final of the FA Cup. We have massive support, no one has been booked, we have the support of fellow professionals - everyone wants us to go on and win. At the beginning of the season - or when this inquiry started - you'd have been very happy to be in our current position."

There are still 60 officers, including very experienced detectives, involved full-time in the investigation. Officers are still pursuing new lines every day. On Wednesday, 40 "new actions" were listed as a result of a round-the-table session of senior officers.

For legal reasons, Det Supt Kennett chooses his words with care when asked about his investigation. "Every day at the briefings I ask the team, 'Can anyone prove who has done this murder,' and I get only negatives," he says. "It is essential I keep an open mind about this and that is what I am doing."

But it is obvious that while police are keeping an open mind about the killer, one suspect stands out above all others. Much of the inquiry team's time is spent working in this specific area.

The factor hampering officers is the lack of forensic evidence. Officers believe Sarah was murdered - probably by being asphyxiated - and dumped very soon after she was abducted from Kingston Gorse. Her body lay in the open for 17 days, with frequent rain. By the time forensic experts were able to examine her, a number of potentially vital clues had disappeared.

"If you get a DNA hit, all of a sudden it becomes a very simple inquiry," says Mr Kennett. "If you do not have that sort of evidence then it becomes a more traditional police inquiry. I am very confident about the way things are going."

One reason for such confidence is the belief, provided by criminal profilers from the Police National Crime Faculty at Bramshill, that the killer's meticulous planning stopped once Sarah had been murdered. So uncovering the vital piece of evidence may only be a matter of time.

One of Sarah's shoes has been recovered and police are desperate to recover the other, and the blue dress she was wearing.

"They [child killers] plan these things for months, they fantasise about it, masturbate about it, play it over in their head up until the point at which the child is dead," says Mr Kennett.

"Then they don't plan anything. They go into a panic. Then it's, 'Holy shit, I have got a dead child here ... What am I going to do with it? Where am I going to put it?'."

Back at Kingston Gorse, the little girl's parents, Michael and Sara, fill their time answering the 6,000 or so letters they have received and campaigning for a change in the law. They are still staying at the home of Sarah's grandparents, Terry and Lesley, where another massive photograph of Sarah stands in the porch. Returning to their old home would be too painful, they say, so they are arranging to move to another property in Surrey.

Mrs Payne, who made tireless appeals for information about her daughter when she was still missing, now tirelessly campaigns for legislation that would "empower parents to protect their children from risks caused by sex offenders". Despite what has happened she shows little bitterness.

"I have to be optimistic," she says, considering her three other children. "You can't bring them up with anger and bitterness." The family take what little comfort where they can. They say they are very grateful for the public support.

They defend the people of Paulsgrove ("They have put right what they did wrong") against critics who accused the protesters of mob rule, and they await an apparently promised meeting with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and possibly the Prime Minister.

And in that house, no more than a couple of hundred yards from the now-harvested field of wheat in which Sarah was last seen alive, they await the telephone call that will tell them someone has been charged with their little girl's murder.