A face that haunts York

Fifty days after the search began for Claudia Lawrence, Jonathan Brown reports on the fruitless bid to find her
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The Independent Online

Her face, with its shy grin and trusting eyes, is hard to avoid in the city in which she disappeared. Up the cobbled streets off Micklegate, where the hen and stag parties totter drunkenly each weekend, that same serene smile can be seen on the beer mats in the pubs. Her posters adorn the windows of the tourist shops in the narrow medieval streets leading up to York's mighty Minster, just as they do in the bakers and butchers of the suburbs and neighbouring villages. It is the same in the university buildings where she worked. In her home town of Malton, just a short drive to the east, the image is omnipresent. But while Claudia Lawrence is everywhere, she is nowhere, too.

The disappearance of the 35-year-old chef, who was last heard from on 18 March when she telephoned her parents – a routine call that for them now signals the end of their hitherto quiet lives in the Yorkshire countryside – has proved as exasperating to the detectives charged with finding her as it has been painful to the friends and family who have joined the search.

Tens of thousands of police hours have been clocked over the past 50 days, trying to find out exactly what happened after Claudia hung up. Since then, officers have fielded more than 1,000 calls, taken a similar number of statements and searched 1,270 properties. Huge areas of open ground in the city have been searched; rivers, ponds and sewers dredged. A £10,000 reward has been offered but there have been no takers. The countless appeals made by Claudia's father Peter, 62, a solicitor whose quiet dignity has grown increasingly unbearable to witness as he has been steadily swallowed by grief and the agony of not knowing what has happened to his daughter, have yielded little in the way of concrete leads.

The man charged with leading the investigation, which began as a missing persons inquiry but is now a full-scale murder hunt, albeit one without a body, is Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway. He has three sightings on which he believes he can make progress.

First, two men were spotted at Claudia's front door in the Heworth area of the city in the days leading up to her disappearance. The fact that the men were Asian perhaps made them stand out among York's overwhelmingly white population.

The second sighting was of a feuding couple in the early hours, around the time and on the route Claudia would have taken to her job as a chef at nearby Goodricke College. The third was of an unidentified man and woman spotted near to her home three days after the final phone call. But so far, despite repeated appeals, none of these people have been identified.

The Lawrence family, though tortured by the lack of progress, are satisfied with the police effort. As a former prosecution solicitor, Peter Lawrence is all too aware of how cases such as this develop. "He knows the law, he knows the form, he knows the procedure," explained family friend Martin Dales, who used to pay Claudia to babysit his children but is now acting as media adviser in the search. Mr Dales is in turn being advised by Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for Madeleine McCann's family, who specialises in helping distraught families in the public eye. His message to the Lawrences has been simple: keep the story in the news. "The media are a willing partner on a search such as this and if you are open with the media it will reap benefits," he said.

But while Mr Mitchell concedes that missing adults do not command the same kind of sustained attention that snatched children do, he counsels a steady drip-feed of fresh photographs, videos and press briefings to keep the search in the public domain. One place Claudia's story has thrived is on the internet. A Facebook site dedicated to finding her has 25,000 members. The family launched its own website, findclaudia.co.uk, on Tuesday, which has elicited 160 messages. Yet the cyber-chatter at times proves frustrating to the police, who have had to deploy officers to monitor posts, many of which are anonymous but hold the tantalising prospect of useful information.

Det Supt Galloway admits the operation has come close to being overrun with information gleaned online, much as detectives hunting for the Yorskshire Ripper were ensnared by the sheer volume of paperwork in the days before police computers. The internet has also become a place for recycling innuendo about Claudia's private life, though her family is adamant she had no secret life or illicit lover. The fact she did not own a computer means there is no electronic trail to follow. Her mobile phone, on which she was a devoted texter, has not been found.

The family wants anyone with genuine information to go to the police – not to post it on the internet. Much of the fresh data is emerging from overseas, particularly in South Africa, where the case is being followed closely. It is in that direction the inquiry could develop. "This is a new month with a new message and we remain hopeful," added Mr Dales. "But who knows anything? The whole thing is such a mystery and that is the biggest problem."