THE heartache and pain of bereavement often fades with time, but for the parents of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence, the uncertainty of her whereabouts has left them living in limbo.
Tomorrow is Claudia’s 40th birthday, and next month will mark the fifth anniversary of her disappearance. Her parents have spoken to Dan Bean about their experience since their daughter’s disappearance and how her absence has affected their day to day lives.
Joan Lawrence, Claudia’s mother, is mayor of Malton, and said the agony of her daughter’s disappearance is a constant regardless of how busy her life is.
She said: “Unless you’re in this situation you can’t imagine what it’s like.
“It’s harder, much harder. Time doesn’t heal because we’re in limbo and we don’t know so time doesn’t heal. People say maybe after a bereavement it does, but it’s still raw for a long, long time. We don’t know, and for us it’s very hard.”
Peter Lawrence, Claudia’s father, has led a high-profile campaign to keep Claudia’s name and image in the public eye since her disappearance, and said five years on, the pain has changed.
He said: “The hope of Claudia just reappearing obviously begins to fade, but it doesn’t disappear altogether. You begin to wonder where on earth she may be and in what circumstances she’s in if she is still around, so to that extent it does change.
“It’s difficult to say I’ve ever thought on a morning ‘I might see Claudia today’. You think ‘what’s happened? Is there every going to be a resolution to this?’ We know and the police know that there is someone out there who knows what happened to Claudia and how on earth they can put the family through this I just don’t know. We keep regularly calling upon their conscience but maybe they haven’t got one.”
Claudia was last seen on CCTV in Melrosegate while heading home from work at the University of York on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Claudia, then 35, spoke to her parents on the phone that night and seemed in high spirits, but she never arrived at work for her 6am shift the following morning.
From the beginning, The Press has covered Claudia’s disappearance, with Nicola Fifield the first reporter assigned to the investigation when North Yorkshire Police issued a missing persons appeal to help find Claudia on the Saturday.
Nicola, who now works for a press agency in London, said there was nothing to suggest Claudia’s disappearance was any different to the many searches police seek help with, until a second appeal was issued the following day.
She said: “There was nothing in the police’s press release to suggest Claudia’s disappearance wouldn’t soon be resolved too. But I remember being struck by the photo of Claudia. This smiling, pretty 35-year-old clearly wasn’t a teenage runaway.
“Then late afternoon on the Sunday, North Yorkshire Police released a second appeal and suddenly the case seemed to take on a more sinister tone. A high-ranking Detective Chief Inspector had been assigned to lead the investigation and a press conference was called for first thing the next morning."
Claudia would ordinarily have driven the two-mile route to work, from her home in Heworth to the university, but had been walking in the weeks prior to her disappearance as her car was being repaired.
Police carried out extensive searches of her route, including St Nicholas Fields in Tang Hall, with more than 30 officers involved in the case within days of Claudia’s disappearance.
Friends of Claudia, including Suzy Cooper and Jen King, said within days of her disappearance they believed she had been abducted on the way to work, and pages were set up on social media to help spread the word of her disappearance and appeal for any sightings or information which could help police in the search.
Looking back, Joan said although police had started their investigation as any other would be at the time, she felt more could have been done by the first team to take on the case.
She said: “I think loads of opportunities have been missed. I just hope it’s not too late for us.
“We’ve got to sort the first 48 hours out and go from there. Got to go back to move forward. I’m sure there’s something so simple we’ve missed and because it’s so simple, it’s easily missed. Someone knows something out there.”
By the end of March 2009, police said they believed Claudia may have come to harm, and the number of officers involved in the search topped 100.
Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway told The Press it was “highly unlikely” she had been abducted by a stranger, and the focus of the investigation was on people Claudia knew.
He told The Press on March 25, 2009: “There is no tangible evidence she has been harmed, but my professional judgement is that she has probably come to harm.”
On March 30, 2009, the BBC programme Crimewatch helped spread the appeal for information about Claudia’s whereabouts to the nation, prompting a number of calls from the public with sightings which, ultimately, came to nothing.
More than 220 properties were searched in the first month of Claudia’s disappearance, and more than 460 statements taken from friends, family, ex-boyfriends and members of the public, and details of the appeal kept spreading through national newspapers and television programmes.
An external review into the police investigation by the National Policing Improving Agency claimed in August 2009 that police were not looking closely enough at Claudia’s love life.
Inevitably, some national press shifted the focus of their stories to aspects of Claudia’s private life rather than the fact that the 35-year-old had gone missing and, potentially, come to harm.
Nicola Fifield said: “National newspapers ran numerous stories about the ‘mysterious’ and ‘complex’ private life of Claudia, which the detective in charge of the case alluded to in a BBC Crimewatch appeal. But The Press stayed loyal to Claudia’s parents, sister and best friends – who all vehemently denied that Claudia was the man-eating villain some papers were portraying her as.”
Joan said: “I know there have been some cranks and some awful media coverage and some lies said at the beginning, but I’m just so grateful to all those people who have kept it in the media and kept Claudia’s name out there.”
In the run up to Claudia’s birthday, Joan has reflected on her daughter’s early life and personality.
She had learned to play the flute, loved animals and music, and Joan said “she was very keen on Elvis, and hated Cliff Richard because I liked him”.
Joan said: “She hated having her photo taken. She always thought she was rubbish on photos and she wasn’t. She never thought she was attractive, but she is. You could never tell her.
"Men used to try and look at her and she never knew, she never batted an eyelid. But if she saw a little King Charles spaniel or a little dog or something, she would stop. I always said she would have made a great veterinary nurse.
“We had a mobile home at Burton Constable and we would go for outings and take them to a riding place which had a great big indoor arena. They (Claudia and Ali), were quite happy to go there with a bag of sandwiches and be left there until it was time to go home.
"She ended up buying a pony from there to replace Flash (her first pony), and when that was outgrown she bought a grey called Cobweb, that died not that long before she disappeared. She was devastated. All this talk about boyfriends, she would rather have a dog or a horse.”
Throughout the five years since Claudia’s disappearance, Peter Lawrence has continued to engage with the media, appearing on national and international television and radio shows and speaking to newspapers and magazines around the country to urge the public to look out for his daughter.
He has also highlighted the work of the charity Missing People – which he later joined as a family representative in 2011.
Looking back on the media interest in Claudia’s disappearance, he said: “It is still not easy to go and talk about it but it is something that has to be done because we need to keep Claudia’s name and face out there, and the media have been very good to us for five years.
“It’s a blessing that the interest is still there not a curse.”
As the months passed, police were made aware of a number of potential leads – a couple who were seen arguing on the roadside near the university, the body of a woman found in the Ouse – but all came to nothing of any use in the police investigation into Claudia’s disappearance.
By the end of April 2009, police said detectives were now treating Claudia’s disappearance as a murder investigation. However, Joan said she still lived with hope that her daughter will be found safe and well, and will one day enjoy spending time with her nine and five-year-old nephews.
She said: “There’s no evidence that there has been any foul play or that she’s been killed or murdered, there has never has been any evidence. As a mum, I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like emotionally. It’s very, very hard but we will get there.
“My grandchildren are missing out on an auntie. The oldest one remembers Claudia and used to get nightmares. She absolutely adored them, there were photos all over the house of them.”
In July last year, North Yorkshire Police announced its Major Crimes Unit would carry out a complete review of a number of unsolved cases, including Claudia’s disappearance. Both Peter and Joan welcomed the announcement, and said they hoped the review would find something to keep their hope alive.
In October, forensic officers started a new forensic search at Claudia’s home, using techniques which were not available to them in 2009, and remained at the site for several weeks.
Peter said the keys to Claudia’s home had only recently been returned to him, but the house feels different now.
He said: “It doesn’t look like the house Claudia lived in.
“That’s tough, because I have to go in to check on the house, that’s one of the requirements of the insurance, keeping us covered, and to see it in such a different state to when Claudia was living there, it’s difficult to go in and see it like that, but it has to be done.”
Joan said she trusted Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Mason and Detective Superintendent Dai Malyn to carry out the review and was grateful for their interest.
She said: “This team want to know a bit of background. It’s just so odd. It’s impossible to say the difference. This is the first time I’ve been listened to in five years.
“They were in her house for a long time doing forensics while the first team left it five or six weeks before that, which is appalling, absolutely appalling.
"They should have done it straight away. Things deteriorate, things alter but I know there are new significant methods out now, coming out every six months or so. What they are doing now is more modern.”
Tomorrow is Claudia’s 40th birthday. Peter said he will take part in “a celebration of her birthday in her absence”, while Joan said she will visit Claudia’s sister Ali and her family, now based in Derbyshire.
Joan still has the last birthday present she bought for Claudia – a short woollen jacket she gave her daughter prior to her 35th birthday.
She said: “It’s got her hairs on it. Her perfume has more or less faded but I’ve got it in a box here.
“The worst possible thing is there’s no hug - that’s more important than any material things. It’s just a nightmare. That’s the one thing I would like most of all this time of year, it’s the most important thing of all to give your children a hug and tell them you love them.
"Spend time with them. It’s more important than material things. That’s what I think anyhow. The time we spent together is very precious and I hope one day it will come back.”
Next month will be the fifth anniversary of Claudia’s disappearance, and the fifth year her family and friends have had to live without knowledge of what has happened to her.
Peter said his work with Missing People helped him cope with the pain of not knowing.
He said: “Wherever I go in the country I get people stopping me saying ‘you’re Claudia’s father, we’re thinking of you’ or ‘we’re praying for you”. It happens in the centre of London when you least expect it.
“You can take some solace in that - that people are still thinking about Claudia. And as long as they do, there is a chance that we may get an answer.”
Nicola Fifield said Claudia’s disappearance was “the most baffling and frustrating story” she had ever covered.
She said: “I left The Press in December 2010, but the case still preys on my mind. “ Joan said her faith and hope helped her believe Claudia could still be found safe and well.
She said: “We’re fully aware they could find something unpleasant. We’d rather have no news than bad news. We will never give up hope.”