Detective Superintendent Steve Bolam of Northumbria Police, who is heading the search, said yesterday: "The best hope of Laura still being alive is that she is being held by someone. As time passes it becomes more unrealistic that Laura will be found alive but there is the possibility that someone has her."
He said officers have already directly interviewed more than 20 known sex offenders who live in the area near the nine-year-old's home on the outskirts of Sunderland and that they were still pursuing that line of inquiry.
Laura has been missing since 4pm last Wednesday when she left her home in Penshaw village, Tyne and Wear, telling her mother that she was going to visit a friend.
Laura, who is 4ft 8in tall, with long dark brown hair, was wearing an orange crop top and skirt, a white cardigan with multi-coloured flecks and pink flip-flop type shoes.
"There is a possibility that someone may have offered her shelter from the torrential rain on the night she disappeared and is holding her against her will," said Det Supt Bolam. "We are still looking at the Sex Offenders Register and have spoken to numerous people on that list. I still hope that Laura is alive and we are doing everything we can to find her."
Det Supt Bolam revealed two more confirmed sightings of Laura within a couple of hours of her leaving home - but nothing in the past five days.
A woman had already reported seeing her shortly after 4pm. Yesterday it emerged that a man also noticed a girl answering her description in a street near her home at 5.30pm. A group of adults also saw her alone at 7.30pm. Det Supt Bolam said: "It is absolutely crucial that anyone in the village who saw Laura on Wednesday evening gets in touch with us immediately.
"She was seen in a fairly tight area and it raises the question of where she was between those times."
At the end of three days of intensive searching by members of the North East Search and Rescue Association, police said that the volunteers would no longer be conducting searches. About 70 rescue experts had conducted a search of 18 square miles of woodland and hills around Laura's home.
Yesterday police divers continued to sweep ponds in nearby mining reclamation sites and ponds in parks near to the village. Det Supt Bolam dismissed suggestions that the cancelling of the volunteer searches amounted to a scaling down of the operation and stressed it was simply to concentrate efforts inside the village confines, where 30 police officers, including dog handlers, are searching.
A mobile police station, set up just off the village green, is being manned 24 hours a day. In a bid for fresh information a public appeal for help was broadcast and flashed across giant screens in front of 40,000 fans at the Stadium of Light where Sunderland played Coventry City on Sunday.
Laura's mother, Carol, 37, and her father, Martin, 39, have both made emotional pleas for public help in tracing their daughter but so far all efforts have been in vain.Reuse content