A father’s anguish

As the search for missing University chef Claudia Lawrence enters its second year, talks to man whose faith in her return never wavers

Claudia Lawrence, pictured here with her father, has been missing since March 18 2009

Claudia Lawrence, pictured here with her father, has been missing since March 18 2009

On the afternoon of 18 March 2009, 35-year-old Claudia Lawrence began set off from the University to her home in Heworth. A year later, the Roger Kirk chef has yet to be seen again.

After months of intense media coverage, local awareness and the one of the largest investigations in the history of North Yorkshire Police, the trail is cold. Claudia has disappeared without a trace.

One man who has no intention of giving up is Claudia’s father, Peter Lawrence. We meet in his house near Malton, in a sleepy hamlet where the horrors of a missing daughter seem a million miles away.

“I didn’t think we would be here a year on, I never thought we would, but we are, so we have to keep the campaign going,” he says in his soft, metered voice.

“We just need a result,” he adds. His has been a year of hurt, a year of hope and dismay, a year of personal sacrifice, a year of confusion and most importantly, a year of constant belief.

Throughout the past 12 months, hopes have been raised as the police have released seemingly fresh information, and conducted intense investigations. All have, without exception, been dashed as officers follow them to nowhere. In April, after five weeks of searching, Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway, leading the investigation, announced the commencement of a murder investigation, but have admitted they have no evidence for her death.

Peter has watched and waited as homes have been searched, hundreds of friends, colleagues and acquaintances have been interviewed and officers have travelled as far as Cyprus and Ireland in search of some missing details in Claudia’s life.

The investigation caught the media’s attention, throwing the 62-year-old former solicitor into the limelight of the national press – a role he has carried solely on his shoulders throughout – and leading to a spate of scurrilous tabloid media stories regarding her love life, causing great distress.

Yet his faith, nor continued efforts, never waver: “There is a general perception that there is a bit of information somewhere, that at the moment is missing. We just need it.”

Peter begins by telling me that he’s feeling jaded. It has been a “fraught week” with media interviews: a week before we meet, a fresh lead had been released by the police after Peter’s appearance on the BBC programme Crimewatch. Like all the others, it would ultimately come to nothing.

“It’s important that there were so many responses to the programme. It’s heartening that people keep responding to the publicity. It shows that it really does work,” Peter says. There is no hint of fatigue in his voice.

He understands how important a constant media presence is for his campaign, whatever the personal sacrifices.

“The whole idea of the campaign is to keep the media interested, and they have been exceptionally good. There is a fair amount of time taken up by media each month, but it’s not an intrusion. We want them.”

It is startlingly evident how much Peter has resigned himself to accepting the double-edged sword of the media. Throughout, he has striven to maintain their interest, at whatever cost. Indeed, this very interview is a result of a need to keep Claudia in the headlines.

“There isn’t really anything in the sense of people knocking on the door, thankfully, ever since the first two or three weeks. They don’t come knocking at my door, they knock at his instead,” he adds, pointing to his friend and campaign spokesman Martin Dales.

Dales is evidently at the heart of Peter’s enterprise. He deals with the press, schedules interviews and maintains the campaign website, www.findclaudia.co.uk.

Dales tells me that there were 40 calls to the BBC during the recent programme, the most calls for any episode, with viewing numbers above 4.2 million. On Thursday 18th, exactly a year after his daughter disappeared, Peter will again be on television, appearing on the BBC’s Missing Live programme.

It is almost crass to speak of viewing figures and audience response in the face of this sad story of a missing daughter, but Peter knows well that these are the statistics that might make the difference.

Peter Lawrence

“It’s draining afterwards when we do concentrated media things, but it’s part of the task I set myself to do. I must keep on doing it. It’s obviously wearing, but it gets results,” he says with defiance.

“It’s part of keeping it out in the public eye. It’s always good to get a national footprint,” he adds.

The sheer amount of coverage Peter has managed even surprises him: “It has amazed me the amount of support I get from people. People come up to me in the street, not just in York but sometimes in London, and they just very gently say ‘We’re thinking of you’, or praying for me, or however it comes to them, and that’s good, because it means we are getting out there.”

“People in Heworth, without exception, have been incredibly supportive. They’ve had intrusion, particularly in the first few months, with police knocking on their door, conducting searches and everything else. But everybody has either said they knew Claudia and we’re hoping, or they didn’t know her but they are still hoping.”

It was Heworth, and the University, the last two places where Claudia was seen, that the initial stages of the investigation focused.

Having finished her daily shift in the kitchens of the Roger Kirk Centre, Claudia was seen leaving Goodricke College (now James) on CCTV at 14:30. She was then seen near her house later that afternoon after making the short walk along Melrosegate. The alarm was raised after she failed to arrive at the University for her 06:00 shift the following day.

The sheer incredulity of the case has baffled investigators. Her passport and bank cards were in their proper place in her home. She had spoken at length with both her father and her mother on the evening of the 18th, making Mother’s Day plans.

Claudia sent her last text message, to a friend, just before 20:30. Indeed, the police haven’t even been able to trace her mobile phone, or her distinct blue Karrimor rucksack in which she carried her chef’s whites.

There is a general perception that there is a bit of information somewhere that at the moment is missing. We just need it

“[The Police] started off at a disadvantage in that you normally have a crime scene to work from. In this case there was a natural gap of 36 hours before anyone realised anything was the matter, and no crime scene. They are almost working with one hand behind their back,” Peter explains.

“If there was a crime scene we would have some idea of what harm Claudia had come to. The fact that she hasn’t been found obviously means that there is still hope.”

Police focused on tracing certain cars that CCTV had captured on her route to work, and investigating a number of people that had taken the same path that day. A reconstruction of her last known movements involving an argument that police suspected may have involved her and a male stranger was broadcast. All failed to garner any helpful public information.

Officers searched the University lake during the Easter break, Peter himself visited to distribute posters, and a controversial search of campus bedrooms, some without residents’ knowledge was carried out.

“The University a year ago had to put up with a lot of intrusion like the people of Heworth did, but I’m sure everybody realises why it was necessary,” Peter tells me.

“Claudia was part of the University and she is missing, the same way that she is missing from us, the family,” he continues, extending his thanks to students for their assistance.

Peter’s role has been one of constant patience and trust, especially in light of some media claims that the North Yorkshire Police investigation unit had failed to follow up certain leads and act quickly and efficiently.

In September, Suzy Cooper a close friend of Claudia told BBC Radio York that she felt the police had been slow to investigate the island of Cyprus, sparking a series of claims regarding the police effort. Claudia regularly visited the island, and received a text message from there on the evening of her disappearance.

“To be honest I’m surprised [the police] have not gone a bit sooner, obviously because she had visited there quite a lot, met people and knew people over there,” Miss Cooper stated. At the time, Galloway defended the delay, stating that officers were sent to Cyprus when it was “necessary.”

The official Find Claudia poster

“Enquiries have been conducted with people who knew or were in contact with Claudia since the earliest stages of the investigation, but the primary focus of the investigation has always been in York.

A month later, Galloway told reporters that the eight months of investigation had cost the force £558,000, including £90,000 in the first 12 days, and had included more than 100 officers and staff.

The announcement of a review into the scale of the investigation was made, and currently only 30 staff are directly working on the case. A spokesman explained that the budget and manpower cutbacks were to “ensure that [the investigation] is being run efficiently and effectively within the context of the other policing demands across North Yorkshire.”

Yet Peter is quick to defend the police, who he speaks with once every two weeks: “The police are intent on this, and have said they will keep the investigation going until there is a result. The Chief Constable has been very supportive each time [a review] has arisen,” he says.

Indeed, Peter tells me of his frustration with people who were linked with Claudia but have failed to voluntarily assist the police. “It’s amazing that the police are still going to call on people and they are saying ‘Oh, I was wondering when you were going to come see us’. Why don’t they think of going to the police first?”

Tale of a tragedy

March 2009
Following Claudia’s last sighting in the final days of the Spring Term, CCTV footage of her on campus is circulated. YUSU promise to ensure posters go up all over campus, and begin to contact students through Facebook and the student media. Police spend £90,000 in the first 12 days of the search.

April 2009
Investigations centre on the University. After police searches of the lake, officers turn to student accomodation. Many rooms are searched without residents’ consent, leading to outcry from YUSU and the GSA. Martin Dales would go on to apologise to students for a “necessary” part of the investigation.

June 2009
A reconstruction of Claudia’s suspected last movements is screened on the BBC’s Crimewatch. The footage, in conjunction with new CCTV showing an unknown man walking around the back of Claudia’s house, sparks a large number of public responses. The leads would eventually be discounted.

September 2009
Six months after the disappearance, Det. Supt. Ray Galloway, heading the case, announces fresh investigations in Cyprus. Claudia visited the island many times, and her last received text was from a friend there. Police are criticised for their delay in extending the investigation, which fails to find any new information.

I remind Peter that his desire to see a constant media interest in his missing daughter has had its negative repercussions. In June, less than three months after her disappearance, the Daily Mail printed a series of stories insinuating that Claudia had a “number of secret lovers” and that “she deliberately targets married men and then dumps them.”

“One newspaper broke ranks from the others who were supporting us in the campaign and it very briefly decided to go down a scurrilous route,” Peter recollects. I ask him to what extent the stories shocked him as a father:

“As far as Claudia’s life is concerned, she is 35, she is a single girl, she is entitled to have as many relationships as she wanted. I think everybody realises she probably hadn’t had 40, which was the one suggestion in that paper.”

“She had several relationships, and in fact it turns out I had met most of the people that she had relationships with. My relationship with Claudia was such that we quite often met for a drink and if she was going out with somebody, the likelihood was that he was there as well, so most of the people I had met. There’s no doubt one or two that I hadn’t, but that would be normal,” Peter continues.

The police did little to dampen the rumours. “As the investigation has developed, it’s apparent that some of Claudia’s relationships had an element of complexity and mystery to them,’ Galloway told reporters. “I am certain that some of those relationships were not known to her family or friends.”

The claim would later be retracted by the newspaper, but not after other follow-on stories appeared in other publications. Dales, who described the initial story as “an invention”, adds that other tabloids, such as The Sun in particular, have been “very supportive”.

It is obvious from his philosophical perspective on the role that the media has played in his campaign that he has a love-hate relationship with the press.

The constant interviews, TV appearances and press conferences are, for Peter, a necessary evil. He is not ready to grieve, and instead exists to believe.

Before leaving I cannot avoid asking him how much he worries that perhaps in 12 more months the media will have forgotten about Claudia and her inexplicable disappearance. His reply is dismissive, if not defiant:

“I don’t think there is any reason why people will suddenly lose interest just because we’re getting past an anniversary,” he says.

“Everybody is very supportive of this, everywhere we go. So I think it will continue.” Peter pauses, as if to stress his conviction. “It will continue.”

It is unnecessary to ask Peter Lawrence whether he ever wavers in his belief that one day his daughter will be found. For him, everyday begins with hope.

Anyone with any information regarding Claudia Lawrence or the continued investigation is encouraged to contact North Yorkshire Police on 0845 60 60 247 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

2 comments

  1. 18 Mar ’10 at 5:55 am

    Ben McCluskey

    Great article, Henry. Probably the best I’ve read by you.

    Reply Report

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