Nicola Bulley has been missing for almost three weeks – and the level of public interest has reached fever pitch.
Bulley, a 45-year-old mortgage adviser, disappeared on the morning of January 27 when walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre.
The troubling case has prompted an exceptional amount of online speculation, leading police to hold a press conference on Wednesday to tackle the widespread theories and the criticism that levelled at them.
But the briefing has since come under fire too, as police later U-turned over revealing the “vulnerabilities” which made Nicola high-risk. Now home secretary Suella Braverman has stepped in and demanded to now why detectives have revealed a series of personal details.
Nicola, 45, of Inskip, Lancashire, went missing on January 27 in St Michael’s on Wyre after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, off at school.
Lancashire Police say she took her spaniel, Willow, for a walk along the path by the River Wyre, heading towards a gate and bench in the lower field.
Nicola sent an email to her boss, followed by a text message to her friends to book a playdate at 8.57am, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call.
Her phone was back in the area of the bench before the Teams call ended ten minutes later, at 9.30am, with her mobile remaining logged on after the call.
Another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two.
According to police, she was wearing a black Engelbert Strauss coat, black jeans and had long green walking socks tucked into her trousers under ankle length green wellington boots.
Her hair was tied into a ponytail and she was wearing a pale blue fitbit.
From very early on, Lancashire Police has said it was working on the hypothesis that Nicola may have fallen into the River Wyre.
The force has been working with emergency services and underwater experts to search the river and riverbank, and later started looking into an area upstream, where the River Wyre empties into the sea at Morecambe Bay.
Police described the search for Nicola as “unprecedented”, with a team of 40 detectives investigating 500 different lines of inquiry and police receiving “thousands” of pieces of information.
“That does not mean that we are not continuing to investigate every single line of enquiry,” superintendent Riley said last week.
Last week, family and friends started to question the police theory that she fell into a river.
In a Facebook post, her sister Louise Cunningham urged people to “keep an open mind” as there was “no evidence whatsoever” to support the hypothesis.
Louise’s partner, Paul Ansell, was also unconvinced. Speaking to 5 News presenter Dan Walker, Ansell said: “There has to be a way to find out what happened, there has to be. You cannot, you cannot walk your dog down a river and just vanish into thin air. Something happened that day, something…”
He went on: “Personally, I am 100% convinced it’s not the river, that’s my opinion.”
Unease with the police investigation was also been fuelled by diving experts recruited by Nicola’s family to search the river.
Peter Faulding, leader of underwater search experts Specialist Group International (SGI), said if his team could not locate Nicola in the river then she is not there and he would not rule out “third party involvement” in her disappearance. He suggested the phone being left on a bench overlooking the river could be a “decoy”.
Lancashire Police were clearly irritated by the intervention, and were forced to publicly reject suggestions that Nicola could have been a victim of crime.
Superintendent Riley said “every single” potential suspicion or criminal suggestion that had come in had been looked at by detectives and discounted. He added that Faulding is not included in “all the investigation detail”.
Last week, a family friend, Heather Gibbons, spoke out about the speculation that was rife on social media. She said her disappearance has led to members of the public arriving from far and wide, some bringing children and taking selfies, making the area feel like a “tourist spot”.
As a sign of the frenzy gripping the area, the local Wyre Council removed councillors’ contact details from its website due to “inappropriate emails and phone calls” about Nicola’s disappearance.
Aside from not finding Nicola in the river jarring with police theory, there are other aspects of the investigation underpinning the speculation.
Questions have also being raised about gaps in CCTV coverage of the area where she vanished from. A camera close to where Nicola vanished was not working at the time of her disappearance, and the force says it is still a “possibility” she left the area by one path not covered by cameras which is crossed by the main road through the village.
As the investigation entered its third week, Lancashire Police held another press conference in an effort to dispel “false information and rumours” – but also to defend aspects of their investigation against the growing criticism.
Detective superintendent Rebecca Smith, the lead investigator, told reporters activity by “TikTokers … playing their own private detectives” had meant officers were “distracted significantly”.
Asked if “social media video-makers and wannabe detectives have been an annoyance or a hindrance in the inquiry”, she said: “Yes, it has significantly distracted the investigation. In 29 years’ police service I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She dismissed “persistent myths” about the case, including the derelict house (which has been searched three times and “Nicola is not in there”), the red van (a red van reported in the area on the morning of Nicola’s disappearance is not being treated as suspicious), and a glove found near to where she disappeared (which does not belong to her).
The force maintained there was no evidence a crime had been committed, or that there was any third party involvement.
Detective superintendent Smith that her “working hypothesis” continued to be that “Nicola has unfortunately gone in the river” – but felt obliged to explain precisely what she meant by that.
She added: “I have to stress this because this has been continually misconstrued, I cannot be 100% certain of that at the minute because we are continuing, it’s a live investigation, and there is always information coming in.
“But we are in the 20th day, we have had a thorough, dedicated, meticulous investigation and there is not one single piece of information that’s come to note that would suggest that Nicola has left those fields.”
While that is the main theory, two other hypotheses at play: that she left the area voluntarily and that there was a third party involved.
The big revelation – and one that may come to mark the most significant moment in how the probe is remembered – was that Nicola was listed as “high-risk” after going missing. It meant her disappearance required focused attention and significant police resources due to her “vulnerabilities”.
However, at the time – around 11.45am – the force would not be drawn on the specifics of these vulnerabilities, despite the vague language, even when pushed by journalists because it is “personal, private information”.
Admitting that it was an “unusual step”, Lancashire Police later that day released a statement backtracking on their decision not to disclose her “vulnerabilities”. It revealed personal details, including that Nicola had “significant issues with alcohol” linked to the menopause.
“Sadly, it is clear from speaking to Paul and the family that Nicola had in the past suffered with some significant issues with alcohol which were brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause, and that these struggles had resurfaced over recent months.
“This caused some real challenges for Paul and the family.
“,As a result of those issues, a response car staffed by both police and health professionals attended a report of concern for welfare at Nicola’s home address on January 10. No one has been arrested in relation to this incident, but it is being investigated.
“It is an unusual step for us to take to go into this level of detail about someone’s private life, but we felt it was important to clarify what we meant when we talked about ‘vulnerabilities’ to avoid any further speculation or misinterpretation.”
Lancashire Police has faced a fierce backlash from politicians and policing experts since.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs committee, tweeted: “I am deeply uncomfortable with the police releasing Nicola Bulley’s so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ on menopause and alcohol.
“I struggle to ascertain how this will assist police in their search & investigations. I do see how it would assist those wishing to victim-blame or diminish.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper also weighed in when speaking to Sky News on Thursday, saying “it’s very unusual and it does raise some quite significant concerns”.
Zoe Billingham, chair of NHS mental health trust and former inspector of HM constabulary told Radio 4 the revelation about Bulley’s health “stopped me in my tracks”.
She said: “What confidence will women have about reporting their mum or sister to police as missing if there is this fear that very deeply personal information is going to be put into the public domain for no apparent reason?”
Billingham added that if revealing such information was relevant, it should have been disclosed earlier – not 20 days into the investigation.
Barrister and director of campaign group Right2Equality Dr Charlotte Proudman also tweeted that it was a “serious invasion into her private life” and that it was a “shameful” move from the police.
In a statement released on Thursday, Bulley’s family defended the police’s decision.
It said: “We as a family believe that the public focus has become distracted from finding Nikki and more about speculation and rumours into her and Paul’s private lifeprivate life.”
The statement added: “As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki.
“Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her. This is appalling and needs to stop.”
They added tht the police “knew the truth about Nikki”, and explained: “Due to the perimenopause, Nikki suffered with significant side-effects such as brain fog, restless sleep, and was taking HRT to help, but this was giving her intense headaches, which caused Nikki to stop taking the HRT thinking that may have helped her, but only ended up causing this crisis.
“The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.”
They also claimed that the police have been giving them daily updates about the search and they have the backing of family liaison officers.
Despite the family’s intervention, Rishi Sunak’s government has signalled unease at the latest developments.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Nicola Bulley’s family at this incredibly difficult time.
“The home secretary and policing minister are receiving regular updates from Lancashire Police on its handling of this case, including why personal details about Nicola was briefed out at this stage of the investigation.”
Lancashire Police have now referred themselves to the police watchdog over contact the force had with Nicola prior to her disappearance.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct said they were assessing the information to determine whether an investigation would be necessary over the contact officers had with the mother-of-two on January 10.