"Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all."
It was the 18th of March 2009. A Thursday evening. Suzy Cooper sat in the Nags Head, a pub in Heworth, York, United Kingdom, waiting for her good friend Claudia Lawrence to arrive. They had arranged to meet for a drink, something they often did. The two women were so close that they felt more like sisters. As Suzy waited, there was no sign of Claudia so she thought she was just late and sent her a text. She received no reply so called her but the call went straight to voicemail. It wasn't like Claudia to just not show up but she presumed she had fallen asleep.
The Nags Head Pub
Claudia worked as a chef at the University of York so had many early starts. When she got the job, she moved to Heworth Road and lived alone in a small terrace house. As she lived alone, she liked to go out and do things. She met up with friends often in the Nags Head pub and spent time with her horse. Horse riding was a hobby that began when she was just a child.
Claudia had a pony when she was a little girl and her family home in Malton, a North Yorkshire Market Town, had a paddock. Her life at home had been good and fun. She was the youngest of two girls. Her sister Ali was three years older than her. Her parents, Peter and Joan, had given the two girls a great life and a great education. They went to a private school and had a really comfortable upbringing. Aside from that though, they really learned the value of kindness and love. They looked after animals in need at their home and Claudia maintained that kindness and nurturing side with her as she got older. Her father was a Solicitor in the town and she was close to both her parents, even after they divorced when she was an adult.
Claudia didn’t arrive at the Nags Head that night and Suzy didn’t hear from her so the next morning, Suzy thought she would check up on Claudia again. She just felt that it really wasn't like Claudia to just not show up without even a text. This time, the call didn't even go to voicemail. Claudia's phone had been switched off. That caused alarm bells for Suzy. Claudia didn't go anywhere without her phone. She loved to text non stop. So, she called Peter and told him that she could not get hold of Claudia and he agreed to go to Claudia's house to see what was going on. They feared that Claudia may have had an accident at home or worse, that she may have encountered some kind of attack from an intruder.
Peter called the University of York. Claudia worked there as a chef and was due to work on the Thursday. They informed Peter that she had not been at work that day. That was the news he didn't want to hear.
Peter arrived at Claudia's house and everything looked normal. Claudia's slippers were by the door and her dishes had been stacked. Her bed had been made. Jewellery she always wore , except at work, was at the house. Her passport and bank cards were there too. The only things missing were her phone and rucksack. She always carried her rucksack to work with her as she used it to carry her chef's whites in it. So everything pointed to her leaving for work as planned on the morning of the 18th of March and if that was the case, the fact that she didn't make it into work implied something had happened to her on the way. Peter called the police and reported her missing.
Peter and Claudia
This was an unusual case from the outset. Police began searching immediately which is unusual given that Claudia was a 35 year old woman and that there was no evidence of any sort of foul play. Sometimes, people just need a break from life and time to themselves and eventually turn up. This wasn't the impression police got in relation to this case. Claudia had last been seen on the Wednesday and she had spoken to both Peter and Joan Wednesday night on the phone. After that, nobody knew what happened to Claudia. No clues were left behind.
Police acted quickly as they knew time was of the essence. Almost 200 police officers arrived in the area to search around her house and the route she normally took to work. They also looked back on the day she was last seen to try to ascertain if anything unusual happened.
The day before, a Wednesday, Claudia was captured on CCTV footage leaving work just after half 2 in the afternoon. The route she took home involved a 45 minute walk and she was captured at various points along the way home from different CCTV cameras. She posted a letter on her way home. A colleague saw her walking and offered her a lift and she got home before 3pm. She went inside her house and left again and was seen walking towards her home 15 minutes later. That night, she called her dad Peter and spoke to him on the phone and then she later called Joan. It was a normal phone call. There was nothing alarming or distressing about the call. It was the usual type of call they had. They were both watching the same TV show, Location Location Location. Claudia told Joan she would be going to bed shortly as she had work early the next morning. Her shift was due to begin at 6am. She made plans with Joan for Mother's Day and said goodnight. That was the last time Joan would ever speak with her daughter again.
CCTV Footage of Claudia on her way home from work on the Wednesday
Claudia sent a text from her phone at 8.23 pm that night. A friend from Cyprus sent her a text an hour later but Claudia never replied. Her phone was switched off at 12.10 .
Police believed Claudia got up for work the next morning as planned and left her home with her rucksack and phone. They believed something happened to Claudia on the 19th of March between Heworth Road and Goodricke College. A cyclist claimed he saw a woman who looked like her talking to a man. Police referred to this man as a "left hand smoker". He saw them near the electricity substation at Melrosegate at 5.35am. That time was consistent with the time Claudia would normally be at that spot as that Bridge was a ten minute walk from her home. There was a CCTV camera at the Melrosegate shops which was a little further along the route but that never captured any images of Claudia.
Similar rucksack and phone to the ones that Claudia had
Another witness saw a man and woman arguing at the grass verge next to a parked vehicle on University Way around the time Claudia was due to start work.
Nobody came forward in relation to those sightings and despite police searching the area and appealing for information, nothing emerged that gave any sort of indication as to what happened to Claudia. There was no crime scene and nobody knew for sure if Claudia was missing since the Wednesday night or if indeed she did leave for work on the Thursday morning.
There were a number of mistakes made in the case that did not help in the search for Claudia. The picture that was circulated online and via news agencies was a picture of Claudia with blonde hair. However, at the time of her disappearance , she had dark hair. Claudia did not have a smart phone and she didn't have a social media account . That made it difficult for police to trace her last movements.
Police looked at CCTV footage near Claudia's house and they discovered that on the Wednesday, a man with a rucksack on his back, walked into the alleyway behind Claudia's house at 7.15pm. He left one minute later. A further unusual aspect is the fact he can be seen on the CCTV standing back and waiting for a passerby to walk on before he walked out. It was as if he didn't want to be seen. At 5.07am on the Thursday morning, CCTV also captures a man walking into the same alleyway and again leaving one minute later. Due to the quality of the CCTV footage, it can't be determined if it was the same man. No man ever came forward in relation to same.
Nothing of great value was found in the search of Claudia's house. An unidentified partial fingerprint was found and DNA from a "left hand smoker" was found in the car. This was significant in the sense that the cyclist who saw a man and woman on the morning police believe Claudia went missing was described as a left hand smoker.
Alleyway behind Claudia's House
Six weeks after Claudia went missing, police changed the case to a suspected murder case. While there was no evidence that Claudia was dead, there was also no evidence that she was alive.
In the midst of the search for Claudia, the media coverage of the case changed which in turn had an impact on how people viewed the case. Initially it was very much a case about a young woman who was hard working and friendly who went missing on her way to work one morning. Everyone in the area was desperate to find out what happened. When a woman disappears on her way to work, it causes fear and panic as people can really relate to it in the sense of they fear it could happen to them. When crimes are committed on regular people doing regular things, it has such an impact on others as it emphasises that it could happen to absolutely anyone.
That soon changed. It emerged that Claudia had somewhat of a secretive life and had many relationships with men, some of whom were married. Some of the coverage changed from a missing beautiful and friendly girl to a missing "home wrecker". As some of Claudia's relationships were with married men, they of course did not wish to cooperate in any investigation and therefore a lot of mystery and rumours and allegations surrounded the case and there are people, still to this day, that will not share relevant information. Claudia's relationships should not have changed any of the coverage in this case. Claudia was a single woman and she had no children and her relationships should not have been used for headlines and sound bites. Those who knew Claudia knew her as a loving and caring friend. The only reason her relationships should be relevant are in terms of whether or not any of the men were involved in her disappearance and that's why the secrecy surrounding some of those relationships has frustrated efforts to find Claudia. The reality is that on that Wednesday night, she may not have gone to bed in her own house. She may have met someone and if that is the case and they have not disclosed that information, the question that needs to be asked is "why not?". Sadly, to date, no answers have been given and Claudia's disappearance remains unsolved and a complete mystery.
Joan and Claudia
There has been some movement in the case since Claudia was first reported missing. In 2014, some 5 years after Claudia's disappearance, police made their first arrests in the case. A house in North Shields on Tyneside was searched and a pub in Acomb in York had its cellar dug up. Claudia's phone had been traced to that area in the weeks before she vanished.
A 59 year old man was held on suspicion of murder and a 46 year old man was held on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. They were both released without charge.
A year after that, four men who drank in the Nags Head pub were arrested on suspicion of murder. The case didn't go ahead due to lack of evidence.
This case is still shrouded in secrets, mysteries and lies and a break may only come if someone decides to share some information one day. All her family has left is hope that one day they will find out what happened to their much loved daughter and sister.