The floors of Peter Lawrence’s small, bright Yorkshire home are tramped with mud. Despite their best efforts the twelve reporters, cameramen and photographers cramped into his front room have brought the cold and wet of the outside in with them. Some of them venture little jokes about the weather and traffic but for the most part an awkward silence pervades the makeshift press conference as the cameras are set up. On the mantlepiece is a photograph of a pretty young woman, smiling in the soft focus. Her image is replicated on the Missing Person poster hanging from the table at which Lawrence and his press minder sit. When the conference does finally start, Lawrence begins as he always does: “Thank you all for coming. I wish we didn’t have to.”
It is now seven weeks since Lawrence’s daughter Claudia, a chef at the University’s Roger Kirk Centre, went missing. Last captured on CCTV walking through Goodricke College as she left work on March 18, the normally “prolific” chatter of her texts stopped abruptly at 8.30 that evening after she was dropped home by a colleague. Nothing has been seen or heard of her since. Detectives are not even sure whether Claudia went missing that night or the following morning on her way to work. The case has been officially reclassified as a murder investigation and yet despite thousands of police hours searching, widely publicised appeals for information and a £10,000 reward offered by Crimestoppers, there has been little progress since Lawrence first raised the alarm.
It is the so far unyielding silence of the search that Lawrence finds most difficult: “The worst thing all the way through this, and it doesn’t change from whether it’s one week or six weeks, is just not knowing. When there’s no information out there, not knowing is the hardest bit. It just makes you feel dreadful. There’s a little bit of me missing somewhere.”
In an effort to keep the search for Claudia in the headlines, Lawrence, who is gently-spoken and described by friends as naturally “very private”, has been forced to literally throw open the doors to the media and live what he describes as the most difficult period of his life in the public eye. Each week he has invited the press into his home and spoken with quiet dignity about the “living nightmare” of his daughter’s disappearance. He seems to shrink a little in the face of the cameras and questions and I notice he often clasps his hands comfortingly just under his mouth and stares into mid-distance when he answers.
Lawrence seems a little bemused by his media incarnations. “On the outside, I think, from the odd bits I’ve seen [in newspapers], I appear to be fine. On the inside,” he pauses, a half-formed word giving way to a heavy sigh. “You just feel dreadful all the time. You’re just churning.”
Yet despite Claudia’s continued disappearance and the absence of significant new leads Lawrence says he has no choice but to continue to believe she is still alive. “Six weeks can be compared to some very long period when people have gone missing but you’ve got to have hope, you’ve got to have faith and believe.”
He continues to doggedly refer to Claudia in the present tense. “She is relatively small but she always seems to be smiling. Quite bubbly. She’s good with people she knows but she’s very shy with people she doesn’t know. Coming out from the kitchen and bringing food out and things, no doubt chatter occurs between her and students.” She enjoys her work and is well liked although three of her colleagues in the Roger Kirk Centre also include “quiet” in their descriptions of her.
The coverage has made Lawrence, a 62-year-old solicitor, a nationally recognised face and he now avoids town for fear of being approached by well-meaning sympathisers. “It’s so difficult when people are emotional about it. That makes me emotional.” He smiles and looks almost apologetic. “It makes me cry. People are supportive but they have also been restrained. There’s no point in going on television and sobbing your heart out. It doesn’t do any good to the appeal or to me or to anyone else. Even if I feel like it.”
Yet as difficult as he finds his sudden relationship with the media, he insists it is a price worth paying. “You’ve got to keep that outward experience because you’ve got to keep the press interested. We’ve got to keep that going because someday, somebody is going to respond and say ‘Oh yeah, we did see something’ or ‘we did see Claudia’. Somebody has to respond.”
He is also not alone in handling the reality of being at the centre of a news story. Martin Dales, his friend of 25 years and a former journalist turned media consultant, dropped everything to act as Lawrence’s press minder after Claudia disappeared. Dales, who has known Claudia since she was a child, handles the constant stream of interview requests, choreographs the press conferences at Lawrence’s home, and helped set up the new website, Findclaudia.co.uk. When I first make contact with him he is in Italy, on a holiday arranged long before March 18, but is still working feverishly by Blackberry and laptop to keep the press informed and interested in the case.
The last few weeks have not been encouraging. On April 17, national attention was riveted back to York after a body was discovered in the River Ouse. Lawrence was on a train at the time and it was several hours, which he describes as “almost unbearable”, before the police confirmed the body was not Claudia’s. A repeated appeal for information about a sighting of a male smoker and a woman on Melrosegate bridge at 5.30 am on March 19 has, at the time of writing, yielded no new clues. Lawrence says the lack of new developments is “absolutely incredible” while Dales describes the “huge sense of frustration out there, whether it’s the police, the media, us, the family, because there’s just been nothing.”
The Melrosegate sighting has been particularly difficult. Unlike many of the other reports it is at the right time and in the right place. His desperation is palpable as he appeals to the man speaking to “Claudia… No, sorry…” He stops and corrects himself. “Whoever it was talking to him.”
Lawrence, supported by Dales, has been virtually alone in providing the continual emotional oxygen on which coverage of missing persons cases depend. Claudia’s older sister, Ali, has avoided the press in order to protect her young children while her mother, Joan, from whom Lawrence has been divorced for several years has made only a single brief public statement since her disappearance. Despite both taking support from the same priest in Old Malton, Lawrence says he is only “very occasionally” in contact with Joan. Dales describes Claudia’s parents’ media approaches as “separate entities” and says the recent appeal by her mother was “the first thing she’s said in about six weeks, aside from something about taxis after she was door-stepped by a journalist. Each to their own.”
The day I meet Lawrence in Dales’ daughter’s flat is almost exactly the two year anniversary of the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in Portugal. In the preceding weeks a growing number of newspaper stories had linked the two cases. Without warning Lawrence or Dales, the Archbishop of York mentioned both Claudia and Madeline in his Easter Day sermon, praying: “Lord, please keep Claudia and Madeline safe; take away their fear and anxiety; guard and protect them.” Dales laughingly says they leave the Archbishop, who is notorious for seeking media attention, “to his own devices” but Lawrence stiffens noticeably when I ask if he sees any similarities between the two. “Absolutely none,” he says firmly. As Dales starts to speak again he cuts him off. “Maybe as far as you’re concerned, but as far as I’m concerned absolutely none. There’s a lot of difference between a young child being obviously abducted because she couldn’t have disappeared by herself and a grown up disappearing.”
Yet while rejecting parallels with the McCann case, Lawrence has grown increasingly accepting that his daughter has been abducted. As Claudia’s disappearance dragged into its fiftieth agonising day he released a statement directly addressed to those holding her. “It is now 50 days that Claudia has been away from us. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets for myself, the family and her friends. The strain is intolerable and the sorrow unbearable. I want to make yet another appeal to whoever is responsible for taking her away from her life in York to come forward so that she can be reunited with all of us who love her dearly. You know who you are. Search your conscience. We want Claudia back.”
How much longer Peter Lawrence will be forced to grieve publicly in order to keep his daughter’s disappearance in the headlines remains unclear. While interest in the case remains high, and the police continue to devote significant resources to the search, there is a painful lack of new evidence or significant breakthroughs. Yet for Lawrence, despite the twin uncertainties of his daughter’s whereabouts and the question of how and when his own ordeal will end, the course of action is clear. He will continue to bravely face the media and ensure that Claudia is not forgotten, no matter how long it takes. “You’ve got to. Because that’s the only way the public are going to respond. They haven’t responded up to now but someday, someone will say ‘yes, we ought to say something.’”
Anybody with information should contact North Yorkshire Police on 0845 60 60 247 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111