Whenever particularly sozzled, Claudia Lawrence liked to play the same Elton John track, Your Song, repeatedly at the Nags Head pub, Heworth, York, to amused groans from all those present until eventually someone intervened to prise the next pound coin destined for the jukebox from her hand. Usually only to play and wail along to Motorcycle Emptiness and a maximum of two other songs on repeat for an hour or two instead. When I first heard the terrible news she had disappeared, via Facebook, I revisited such memories I had of Claudia and her friends in hopes theyd stick in my mind longer, become clearer, perhaps even reveal something that might help investigators piece together what happened.
Leaving my bar job at the Nags the September before she disappeared, I missed six potentially vital months of goings on that could plausibly have nothing to do with finding out what happened to Claudia had she been abducted by a stranger or someone totally unconnected to the Nags Head crowd.
But my frame of reference, obviously, is the pub. Some insist police have been looking in the wrong place all this time. That any and all arrests made have been empty gestures intended solely to save face on the polices behalf. While its true that no-one arrested has ever been charged with Claudias murder, despite repeated requests for trial being submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service, all those who were are either regulars at the Nags Head pub or closely associated with someone who is.
And of course to this day, a decade later, no crime scene or body has ever been found.
Im unsure how many arrests have been made since 2009. Apparently the official number is nine. Of the six people discussed in the media I know all of the suspects except Shane Ruane, David Robinson and Paul Harris. Ive been reluctant to add to conjecture about people who were it not for Claudias disappearance would be described as some of her nearest and dearest and therefore people she could be judged by and precisely because of it are some of the natural suspects. Im going to focus on her friends misdemeanours a little though because I think they might help contextualise the many ghosts of Claudias.
I remember the day I found out that she went missing well already mulling over the death of a guy I knew, aged just 22, on March 18th, which just so happened to be the last day anyone ever heard from Claudia, I felt sick. We were never close, and I hadnt spent a significant amount of time with him specifically for a couple of years, but I was saddened to learn such a vibrant spirit had succumbed to the troubles Id heard rumours hed been struggling with and fighting for a while. The last time I bumped into them both was on the same night out in December 2008. A question mark hung over Claudias fate that didnt his but I feared she had met a grizzly one.
He died as he lived his younger brother told me at a club in York a couple of weeks after he passed away when I expressed my condolences. I wish that he hadnt because I couldnt help but think snarky to the point of venomous thoughts in response, knowing full well they were misplaced and unfair, especially towards him and especially so soon, even if unuttered. The last time I saw him was at the funeral service a week later sat with the rest of his family and his girlfriend. The anguish in his eyes distant and strained. Hed been forced to anticipate this ending for his elder brother long before he actually died. I lit a candle for Claudia and Ed in the church foyer that morning thinking it only a matter of weeks, if that, until inevitably shed be found, whatever the outcome. How wrong I was. Bittersweet giggles rippled through the church as speakers reminisced about Eds many hilarious, often inebriated antics??some I was present for, many I was not??brightening the eerily dim light. Any niggling sense of guilt felt by his nearest and dearest through to us well-wishers from his past temporarily stemmed as we simply remembered Ed being Ed, according to them.
A male friend whod had several drunken fights with him in clubs over the years inquired gingerly about the service when he visited a month or so after the funeral. Turns out hed never heard This Womans Work before??the song that played as Eds coffin disappeared behind the curtain??and after doing so it became an instant favourite, playing it four times in a row before I gently insisted he didnt a fifth. Remember the dead for who they were! he chuckled without a hint malice or irony before changing the subject and playlist completely. I knew in his own weird way hed been touched by Eds death too of course. But had he actually learnt anything?
The last time I bumped into Claudia was over Christmas in 2008. Not at the Nags Head like usual but in York city centre outside a late night bar deceptively named Dusk??probably its least busy trading hours??at around 1am. Id bumped into Ed earlier that evening. I have no idea if they knew each other but I wouldnt be surprised if they did. Claudia wasnt at the Nags Head that night but she definitely was with a couple of her male friends I knew from there. As well as a few people I didnt know at all. Surely its just as plausible that she spent more time than usual in Acomb prior to disappearing, as North Yorkshire Police confirmed from her mobile phone data early on in the investigation, because she wanted to socialise away from certain people or situations at the Nags, as it is that she did so to meet up with someone romantically who either lived in Acomb or for whatever reason regularly frequented pubs in the area.
A Facebook exchange I saw between two people I know who knew Claudia said she last visited the pub on Sunday, March 14th, 2009. Media and police reports purport she failed to meet her friend Suzy for a drink on Thursday evening. Suzy was made aware Claudia had missed work by a mutual friend after which time the alarm was raised with her father, who then rang the university. The police werent notified until Friday morning by Claudias dad Peter after according to Neil Roots book he visited her house with her friend George on the Thursday evening with his spare key thinking that she may have suffered a medical emergency at her home. If I suspected thered been a medical emergency Id prefer to check the house with a female friend. Perhaps George had medical training Jen and Suzy didnt, or they werent available at the time, or Peter for whatever reason wanted to check the house with George, or George insisted on going with him.
Finding Claudias house empty, with no obvious sign of disturbance, her slippers had been left by the front door like usual, as if shed left for work on Thursday morning, used breakfast dishes resting in the sink, her electric toothbrush left out on the side. Gone was her rucksack, chef whites, mobile phone and hair straighteners. Left behind were Claudias bankcards, her passport, and most of her worldly possessions.
Suzy had last met up with Claudia the previous Friday. Knowing broadly the regularity with which they all drank at the Nags, that Claudias last Sunday was spent in part at the pub on a busier, livelier, racing weekend??I think it was Cheltenham??where not only were more locals present than usual but also randoms and visitors from further afield means increased likelihood an incident or conversation had occurred that preceded her disappearance and probable murder in the eyes of the culprit. An Express article??note I refer to numerous Express articles throughout, the newspaper that pushed the story that Claudia was involved with a policeman when she first disappeared, decide for yourself why that might be quoting a colleague claims Claudia told them on March 18th shed been out in town on a date on Sunday evening, presumably after shed been to the Nags in the afternoon, drinking until 4am, narrowing her possible location to a select few bars and clubs in York city centre on which they were surely caught on CCTV. Was this person someone Claudia already knew, or someone she met at the Nags that day?
Claudia last attended work on March 18th 2009. She is seen on CCTV first leaving the university, then posting a letter in a postbox outside Melrosegate post office. What could this mean about the letter? She may have made use of the university facilities to print out a form or document on break or after work; Im pretty sure she didnt own a computer, so that would make sense. She doesnt buy a stamp from the post office, meaning either the letter was free post or she had a stamp with her. If she had walked to work that morning from her own address with the letter in her bag, why didnt she post it then? Upon returning home after being given a lift by a colleague driving past her on Melrosegate??Id be interested to know if this person had given Claudia lifts before or if March 18th was the day they found out where she lived??she left the house once more, chatting to an acquaintance then returning home within fifteen minutes.
Her most vocal critics didnt seem to know her well. Those who didnt frequent the pub lock-ins yet spoke with authority as if they were covert orgy sessions, not-quite-suburban Yorks answer to Eyes Wide Shut, the exaggerated sentiment of which really has echoed throughout media coverage of her murder inquiry since, tabloid and otherwise, always baffled me??that being said, I didnt know many of the alleged facts back then??because all that ever seemed to happen at them centred around the same eight to twelve drunk people singing joyously if out of tune along to the pub jukebox, spilling drinks on themselves, dancing, and being handsy to the extent some social circles just are more handsy with each other generally. For usually no longer than a couple of hours after last orders in the main bar at their local boozer most Friday and Saturday nights for a few years.
The pub I used to work at remains cloaked in mystery whenever talk about Claudias whereabouts is raised claim the investigators and journalists interviewed in the 2013 Donal McIntyre documentary. Locals to this day apparently remain suspicious of both. Threatening journalists attempting to report on Claudias disappearance has been common according to one startled Sky news reporter, who says hes never experienced as much resistance fact finding a murder inquiry as he has done with Claudias. Though I detect from his reference to market town in the video edit hes referring to people he encountered in Malton. Evening Press journalist Nicola Fifield recounts similar experiences in reference to the lock-ins at the Nags Head. McIntyres doc ultimately concludes Claudia most likely met her demise or at the very least with the culprit the evening of March 18th 2009. Either at her home or elsewhere. Indeed my own questions as a civilian to people I knew from the Nags, people who knew I knew Claudia too, whenever Ive bumped into them since have been met with a resounding We dont know no matter how I phrased things.
When I inquired for information about what was going on at the pub and with Claudia around the time she disappeared, the potentially vital six months that I missed, the answer was the same: We dont know.
Interviewees in the documentary describe an overarching climate of fear compounded by anger at police tactics that helped drive a wedge between investigators, the media, and the people who knew Claudia best, leading to a oft repeated wall of silence that still managed to throw around far too often anonymously sourced hearsay with abandon while there was a market for it. One Yorkshire radio journalist opines with relish in the documentary that locals simply didnt like a light being shone back on their lives.
Whenever I agreed to work the lock-ins I was always one of the last to leave the pub, closing down the bar and so forth. While its possible that people hid around corners and then returned once Id left, obviously I never witnessed any of this. For the majority of the time pub chef Ray lived in one of the B&B rooms so if anything sordid regularly went on in any of them he would no doubt have had an inkling about it, Jim and George too, and the police, surely, would already be aware.
Eyes Wide Shut vibes aside, the infidelities I sensed were going on didnt involve Claudia at all but as far as I suspected most probably did take place in the B&B rooms. Occasions when certain perhaps emotionally inappropriate relationships became physically inappropriate too were always extremely blatant. Everyone in the bar in so far as the lock-in crowd were concerned were aware and accepting at them and discreet about any night before occurrences during regular drinking hours. So, I can say with a degree of certainty adultery amongst the group was far from constant. But it did happen. However I dont think I saw Claudia being blatant with anybody, married or otherwise, the entire time I knew her, although I did George, Pete, Jen, Suzy, and many others. Ive read someone say, anonymously of course, that Claudia would regularly invite men back to her house from the pub lock-ins but if she did so I didnt notice, unless of course she asked by text, in which case how could I have.
What I did notice is that some of the men, Alistair Cooper springs to mind, disclaimer I liked Alistair least out of their gang, another friend and perhaps lover according to some who was one of the four men arrested on suspicion of Claudias murder in 2015, whose son worked behind the bar during university breaks, seemed to me to be amongst the most uncouthe men towards Claudia, despite himself being married, whod often also tut along with her critics behind her back. Usually to passive silence from her other friends if they were within earshot. Did any of them ever tell Claudia about this? I really dont know. I just know that I didnt. Alistair was respected by Claudia and her pals though and in many senses was one of them. But I wouldnt put it past him, though he wasnt the nastiest piece of work there, to overreact had Claudia ever decided to get her own back on him in some way. This made his absence from initial appeals for information and the Neil Root book all the more conspicuous to me, although in fairness he tended to avoid group photos and events when I knew them all too.
Alistair used to wear a sandy coloured mid-length mac coat. The description of a man seen standing outside Claudias house between 6.45 and 6.55am on March 19th could potentially be him. I remember the coat because of its distinctiveness from his usual attire. If he is responsible and Claudias murder was not premeditated its plausible that he loitered in a catatonic state after whatever happened happened, presumably inside Claudias house, outside it. Had she been killed on March 18th and Alistair isnt involved its possible her abductor sent him a text, if not from from her phone then from someone elses claiming to be her, or perhaps she had two phones, asking him to meet her at her house on Heworth Road at that time in the morning, or someone deliberately either bore false witness or broadly matched his description and wore a coat similar to his. If he was involved, and he and whoever he was in cahoots with muddied the waters just enough, perhaps his choice of coat and the dithering that would on one hand imply Claudias murder hadnt been premeditated was being worn specifically because any witness descriptions would point vividly to him.
Georges admission in the local paper that hed been aware of three married men connected to the pub that Claudia had entered relationships with during the time I knew them all shocked me, made me re-evaluate a lot of the assumptions I held back then, whilst retaining skepticism on the basis that he didnt have to say that, and that he said so at least in part in response to accusations being levelled against him … Something about an Evening Press article I read where George reportedly gave someone a Heimlich manoeuvre on a bus, and another about Pete Ruanes I think relative Terry Ruane, a taxi driver, being a witness to a wedding of two strangers at a registry office, one of whom happens to either be or share a name with a London BNP candidate, is interesting.
Co-Landlord George and his friend Steve Sammons, who for not too long lived in Cyprus but would visit the pub Id say every four to six weeks over at least a six month period??I think I enquired once or twice about why he was back and forth from Cyprus so much, the reasons he gave varied??themselves first met at international school in Bahrain.