Journalist Beth Colman is the host of the Case Remains podcast, dedicated to missing persons and unsolved mysteries. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, or you can visit her website, www.caseremains.com.
It is almost ten years since Claudia Lawrence disappeared, seemingly vanishing into thin air from a sleepy suburb of York. Though there have been numerous lines of enquiry and multiple arrests, this decade-long mystery is yet to be solved. And what evidence there is leaves more questions than answers.
At the time of her disappearance Claudia was 35-years-old, and lived alone in the village of Heworth, with a job in the kitchens at the nearby University of York. Her parents, Peter and Joan, divorced when Claudia was in her early 20s, but she remained close to them both, frequently catching up with them over the phone and seeing her father multiple times a week.
The day before anyone realised Claudia was missing was a day much like any other. The date was March 18th, 2009. She had awoken early in the morning and headed off for her shift in the kitchens. She was captured on the university’s CCTV arriving for work at 5:57 am. After an uneventful shift, she clocked out at 2:31 in the afternoon, where the same camera caught her leaving.
She had been home for about fifteen minutes when she popped out again to post a letter. During this outing she bumped into an acquaintance, who later described Claudia as ‘her usual happy, cheery self’. There were 2 CCTV cameras on her route to and from work, and the footage from this short journey would be the last verified sighting of Claudia Lawrence.
We know that Claudia was at home for at least some of the evening – she had spoken to her father on the phone at around 7:30, and called her mother Joan immediately afterwards. They chatted about a TV program they were both watching, which her mother has stated she could hear in the background the call, and made also made plans for Mothers day which fell on that very weekend.
Claudia sent a text to a friend at 8:23, and at 9:12 she received a text from a friend who lived in Cyprus. Police have never been able to confirm if she opened the message or not. According to her parents, when Claudia had an early shift at the university, she would try to be in bed by 9pm, so it is possible she may have been asleep by then. The next morning, however, Claudia never turned up for work.
It wasn’t until the next day that anyone realised Claudia was missing. She had been due to meet one of her best friends, Suzy Cooper, for a drink at her local pub on the evening of the 19th. Well-liked and sociable, Claudia could often be found at the Nag’s Head, located just four doors down from her home. When Claudia was a no-show, at first Suzy thought little of it, and sent her a text jokingly thanking her for standing her up.
But when Suzy still hadn’t heard from her the next day, she began to worry. She called the pub landlord George Foreman, who was also a friend of Claudia’s, and asked him to go and knock on her door. When there was no reply, Suzy called Claudia’s father, Peter, who had a set of keys to her house. Peter called the University of York, who confirmed that Claudia had not turned up for work the previous day.
Panicked, Peter drove the 20 miles to Heworth and picked up George Foreman from the pub. When the men let themselves in, they found the house exactly as they would expect it to be. Claudia’s bed had been made, her toothbrush stood on the kitchen draining board, and her breakfast plates were left in the sink, indicating she had got up and got ready the previous morning. Her slippers were left by the door, as if she’d taken them off to put on her boots.
The only missing items were Claudia’s backpack that she normally took to work, her chef’s whites, her hair straighteners and her mobile phone. With no sign of Claudia, Peter reported her missing to the North Yorkshire police and an investigation was launched.
Police faced a problem from the start – no one was sure which exactly which day Claudia had vanished. The things at her house, like the toothbrush and breakfast plates, suggested that she had left for work as normal on the morning of the 19th and that maybe something had happened to her en route. It was extremely dark in the mornings at that particular time of year, and Claudia had been walking alone, so it seemed to be a feasible explanation.
But analysis of Claudia’s phone revealed that it had powered down at around midnight, and police believed that it was turned off as opposed to running out of battery. According to her friends and family, Claudia was a prolific phone user, and would be on her mobile during her work breaks as well as on her journey home – a fact that her phone records were able to back up. Police also found Claudia’s charger at home, and it seemed odd that such a heavy phone user would leave for work not only with a dead phone, but nothing to charge it with.
Her handbag and bank card were also found at home, though colleagues later confirmed that she didn’t tend to take her bag with her to work. On top of that, police had no crime scene – there wasn’t a hair out of place in Claudia’s house, let alone any evidence of an injury or a struggle.
Within 10 days the investigation had intensified, with 100 police officers and 65 people from search and rescue teams combing the local area. It wasn’t long before the case garnered national attention, and a reconstruction of Claudia’s last known movements were recreated in early June on the popular UK TV program Crimewatch.
Police had no shortage of reports to look into as the public rallied round to try and help bring Claudia home. Among the most significant came a month after Claudia disappeared, when someone reported seeing a couple arguing next to a parked vehicle, just outside the University of York, where Claudia worked. The sighting came at around 10 past 6 in the morning, just after Claudia was due for her shift.
Another key sighting came from 5:35 that same morning, when a passing cyclist remembered seeing a man and a woman on Melrosegate bridge. This area is not only on Claudia’s route to work, but is just before a CCTV camera that would normally have captured her on her way to the university.
The woman was described as shorter than the man, with mousey brown hair and wearing a short blue jacket. The man was described as around 5 foot 6 with a skinny build, wearing a dark coloured hoody with the hood up and dark coloured combat trousers with pockets on the side. The witness also stated that he was holding a cigarette in his left hand. despite numerous appeals from the North Yorkshire police, the man and woman have never been identified.
On top of the numerous eyewitness statements, CCTV footage also captured something out of the ordinary that day. At 5:42 on the morning of the 19th, a CCTV camera near the back of Claudia’s house captured a light coloured Ford hatchback driving along Claudia’s road.
As it approaches level with her house, the car suddenly brakes. The car is too far away to make out the license plates, and despite public appeals, the driver remains unknown. This footage, combined with tips from the public, appeared to confirm the initial theory that Claudia had gone missing after she left for work on the 19th. But police had some information that they were keeping to themselves.
It was 6 years before police released more CCTV footage, showing a man just yards from Claudia’s home on the evening of the 18th, a short while before she spoke to her parents on the phone. He is shown walking along a road that leads to an alleyway at the back of Claudia’s house. He walks out of shot of the camera, but returns just over one minute later with what looks like a bag over his shoulder. He then walks up towards Claudia’s road, but stops when he sees another person coming down it, only carrying on once the person is out of view.
Five weeks after her disappearance, police announced that the investigation was formally classified as one of suspected murder, and a £10,000 reward was issued. The public’s perception of Claudia was about to drastically change, however, following an appearance on Crimewatch by Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway. Speaking during the appeal in May of 2009, he said: “Some of Claudia’s relationships have an element of complexity and mystery to them”.
With the investigation going nowhere fast, the media took Galloway’s statement and ran with it, producing headlines such as ‘Did missing chef Claudia Lawrence have a line of secret lovers?’ and, ‘Missing chef Claudia, so how many married lovers did she have?’
After delving into Claudia’s personal life, journalists soon found their way to the door of 40 year old nurse Beth Horwell. Beth revealed that husband Lee had a 2 month affair with Claudia which ultimately led to the couple’s divorce.
So were the media right about Claudia? Accounts from her friends and family paint a different picture altogether, describing a woman with low self-esteem who was a little naive when it came to men. As far as they were aware, Claudia had been in only three relationships of significance, the one with Lee Horwell included.
A review of the case in 2013 brought some new evidence to light. Analysis on Claudia’s missing phone showed that she had been spending time in the Acomb area of York in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. Police believe that she was likely in the area to see someone, and have asked for information from taxi drivers who may have taken her there or picked her up in the early hours of the morning. If Claudia had been in any kind of relationship at the time, it is not something she had shared with even her closest friends or family.
A re-examination of Claudia’s home with new forensic techniques also uncovered numerous sets of fingerprints which had not been previously picked up. While police have eliminated several of these prints, a number of them remain unknown. The cigarette butt with male DNA that was found in Claudia’s car was also sent for testing, but sadly no matches could be made
2015 saw a renewed interest from the police in the alleyway behind Claudia’s home, where the mysterious man had been spotted on CCTV on the night of the 18th March. Specialist search teams and highly trained sniffer dogs scoured the area, but if any new evidence was discovered this information has not been made public..
In the couple of years following the launch of the review, at least eight arrests were made in relation to Claudia’s disappearance. All were men, all older than Claudia, and all had one place in common – the Nag’s Head pub. In the end, however, there was not enough evidence to charge them.
In 2017, the mother of murder victim Becky Godden said she knew who was responsible for Claudia’s disappearance. The very same man who murdered her daughter.
Christopher Halliwelll, aged 52, is currently serving life in prison for the murders of of 20-year-old Becky and 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan. Becky’s mother Karen Edwards claimed that during her own investigation, she found a witness who says they saw Halliwell talking to Claudia shortly before she disappeared.
Sian and Becky both disappeared in Swindon, some 200 miles from Claudia’s home in York, although his father did live in Huddersfield, which about an hours drive away. Thin, 5’8 and a left handed smoker, Halliwell’s description bears startling similarities to the man reported by a witness on the morning Claudia missed her shift.
Halliwell had murdered Sian on a date of significance, it being the day that he and a girlfriend had broken up. The date in question was the 18th of March -.the same date that Claudia may have disappeared. While there are some similarities between the two cases, it is important to note that a new detective on the case has stated that ‘there remains no known link between Halliwell and Claudia’ and he is not considered a suspect.
Four years after the review began, the North Yorkshire police announced that it was all but complete, and that the investigation had been moved to the ‘reactive’ phase. Since Claudia disappeared, the police have taken 2,517 statements, checked 1,771 vehicles, searched 38 homes and business premises, examined 64 scenes and tested more than 200 items for DNA. In total, 159 people have been fully reviewed.
Peter Lawrence has worked tirelessly in the wake of his daughter’s disappearance to support those with missing loved ones. He campaigned for years to create legislation that let family or friends of a missing person to become legal guardians of their homes and affairs.
In April 2017 the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill, known as Claudia’s Law, was passed, and a year later Peter was awarded an OBE from the queen in recognition for his work. He continues to pay the bills for Claudia’s house, which stands almost exactly as it was left almost 10 years ago. Her clothes still hang in the wardrobe, her shoes sit in boxes under the stairs. Each item a small symbol of hope, that maybe, one day, she might come back home.