THE hunt for missing chef Claudia Lawrence took a dramatic new twist yesterday.

Police, who are now treating the case as suspected murder, say that a significant new witness has come forward with a potential sighting of 35-year-old Claudia on the morning she failed to turn up for her 6am shift at the University of York.

Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway said a young woman had been seen on Claudia’s route to work, standing with a man wearing a dark hooded top, at 5.35am on Thursday, March 19.

Det Supt Galloway said the man and the woman were seen on the left-hand side of Melrosegate bridge by a cyclist who was riding over the bridge in the direction of Heworth. Police carried out a fingertip search of the area on Thursday.

This location was significant, he said, because it was before the CCTV cameras at the Melrosegate shops that would normally have captured Claudia as she walked to the university.

“We don’t know whether it is Claudia,” he said. “All we know is that she has mousey brown hair, though we don’t know the length.

“She is also wearing a blue, waist-length jacket with buttons and pockets and we know Claudia had similar clothing to that. She is a young woman and it is a significant sighting at the right time in the right location.”

He said the woman was standing with her back to grey railings, near the electricity sub-station, and was facing a man who was about two or three feet away.

“There is no specific conversation, no trauma or agitation. They are stood looking at each other. He is wearing a black or dark-coloured hooded top, with the hood up, and dark combat trousers with pockets and buttons on either side.

“He has a cigarette in his left hand, which is apparently unusual, and he is seen to take a drag from the cigarette as the witness passes by.

“He is skinny, but we don’t know his age and if anybody knows who this person is, we would like them to come forward.”

Claudia, of Heworth Road, has not been in contact with friends or family since 8.23pm on Wednesday, March 18, when she sent a text to a friend arranging to meet for a drink later in the week.

Minutes earlier, she had chatted happily to both her parents on the phone. Previously, police thought she might have gone missing later that night, but Det Supt Galloway said yesterday he believed she had set out for work early on the Thursday.

He said he had upgraded the inquiry to a suspected murder case because more than five weeks had passed since she vanished with no evidence that she was still alive.

“Any murder investigation has to prove a death and at the moment we have no proof of Claudia’s death,” he said.

“But five weeks on we have no proof of her life and I’m investigating her disappearance as one of suspected murder.

“To support that appeal, Crimestoppers have agreed to support the investigation with a £10,000 reward for information that leads to the conviction of those responsible.”

Det Supt Galloway said neither he nor Claudia’s family had given up hope of finding Claudia alive. But potential witnesses were more likely to come forward if the investigation was treated as suspected murder rather than a missing person case. He said police had received a good response following last week’s appeal for Facebook users to get in touch with information they had posted on the website that could potentially help the investigation. Anyone with information can phone North Yorkshire Police on 0845 60 60 247, or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.