These Questions Remain About The Police Probe As Nicola Bulley's Body Is Found

A body in the River Wyre has been identified as the missing mother-of-two – but the handling of Nicola's disappearance is still under scrutiny.
Yellow ribbons on the bench where the phone of Nicola Bulley was found, next to the River Wyre in St Michael's
Yellow ribbons on the bench where the phone of Nicola Bulley was found, next to the River Wyre in St Michael's
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Police have formally identified the body found in the River Wyre as Nicola Bulley’s.

This difficult news comes after more than three weeks of nationwide interest in the mother-of-two’s disappearance on January 27.

Nicola’s family have said they “will never be able to comprehend what Nikki had gone through in her last moments”, adding “that will never leave us”.

Although she’s now been found, the case has still raised a lot of questions about the Lancashire Police investigation, which has been at the forefront of the news cycle over the last three weeks.

Why did the river investigation take three weeks?

A body was found “sadly recovered” after Lancashire Police were alerted to the River Wyre near Rawcliffe Road at 11.35am on Sunday by two members of the public. The cause of death was initially treated as “unexplained”.

Even before the body was officially identified, Nicola’s family were alerted to the news and home secretary Suella Braverman also extended her sympathies on Twitter.

Ever since Nicola’s disappearance, police had insisted that their main theory was she went into the river although they still had two other, less likely, hypotheses: that there was a third party involved, or that she left the area voluntarily.

The force therefore put a large amount of resources into searching the area around the river.

But, Nicola’s friends and family expressed concern over the main theory after officers found no trace of the missing mother within the first few days.

Speaking to 5 News presenter Dan Walker, Nicola’s partner Paul 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.”

The location on the River Wyre near St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, where police recovered a body on Sunday.
The location on the River Wyre near St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, where police recovered a body on Sunday.
Owen Humphreys - PA Images via Getty Images

Despite these suggestions, police also went on to search the river’s mouth at Morecambe Bay and the surrounding sea earlier in their investigation.

So it’s particularly unusual that the body was then found a mile from the last sighting of Nicola.

As the BBC’s home editor Mark Easton pointed out: “People will now be wondering if the search was handled properly, which comes on top of a huge focus on the way Lancashire Police have conducted this investigation.”

The river is not large and falls away into a stream in some parts.

But, according to former Lancashire Police chief superintendent Bob Eastwood, it is possible that the body was not found because of the ebb and flow of the river.

He told BBC Breakfast on Monday: “The way the tide comes and goes...it is possible that the body could have flowed in and flowed out and has eventually been given up by the water.

“To jump in... and automatically assume that the body was there the whole time is a step too far.”

Why was there scrutiny around diving experts?

The team from private Specialist Group International (SGI) prepare to scan the bed of the River Wyre on February 6, 2023,
The team from private Specialist Group International (SGI) prepare to scan the bed of the River Wyre on February 6, 2023,
PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images

Unease over the police investigation was also fuelled by diving experts recruited by Nicola’s family to search the river for three days, starting on February 6.

Peter Faulding, leader of underwater search experts Specialist Group International (SGI) – a team which has worked with the Thames Valley police for years – 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”.

After Sunday’s discovery of a body, before official identification, Faulding defended his team’s efforts.

He said: “We thoroughly search[ed] the riverbed and can categorically confirm that Nicola was not laying on the riverbed on the [three] days that we searched.

“The police underwater search teams and land search teams were searching for three full weeks and were also unable to find Nicola.

“Unfortunately, it was a member of the public that made a grim discovery, unconfirmed as yet to be Nicola.”

He also noted that the body was found in the reeds at the side of the river, “which was not part of our remit”, an area which could only be searched with “a riverbank and wade search”.

“The difference between these two search areas has caused a lot of confusion and unfair criticism towards myself and my team at Specialist Group International (SGI).”

Amid accusations that he offered his team’s services for publicity, Faulding denied it and said: “I simply wanted to lend extra resources to help a family in despair and this was supported by Lancashire Police.”

He concluded: “Sadly, for circumstances out of our control, and as hard as we try, sometimes we are unable to locate the missing person.”

Nicola Bulley was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the nearby River Wyre.
Nicola Bulley was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the nearby River Wyre.
Family handout via PA Media

Why was so much personal information about Nicola shared?

Before the body was found, the police had come under fire for revealing details about Nicola’s struggles with the menopause and alcohol.

During a press conference last week, police revealed Nicola was listed as “high-risk” after going missing, meaning her disappearance required focused attention and significant police resources due to her “vulnerabilities”.

However, at the time – around 11.45am – the officers 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 U-turning on their decision not to disclose her “vulnerabilities”.

It revealed personal details, including that Nicola had “significant issues with alcohol” linked to the menopause.

They claimed they revealed this to “avoid any further speculation”.

The statement read:

“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.”

It quickly prompted a public statement from home secretary Suella Braverman asking for an explanation as to why the force had chosen to reveal such details.

Victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird said this was a “dreadful error” from the police, telling BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “I’m afraid this is the biggest error that I have seen for quite a long time. It’s going to just, you know, very sadly, to undermine trust in the police yet further.

“I’m sure they would have explained themselves if they had an explanation… if it was relevant, it needed to be in a public domain at the start and it wasn’t. I mean, that is a really worrying error. It is frankly dreadful.”

Although the criticism was widespread, Nicola’s family actually spoke out defending the police. They said in a statement: “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.”

Nicola’s relatives said that the police knew the perimenopause had left her with brain fog, restless sleep and that she was taking HRT to help.

They added: “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.”

Assistant chief constable Peter Lawson and senior investigating officer, detective superintendent Rebecca Smith, holding a press conference at Lancashire Police HQ.
Assistant chief constable Peter Lawson and senior investigating officer, detective superintendent Rebecca Smith, holding a press conference at Lancashire Police HQ.
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Why did Lancashire Police struggle with the public interest?

The police made it clear that the public had become too involved with the case during their press conference last week.

“We are being inundated with false information and accusations and rumours which is distracting us from our work,” the officers said.

Police also issued a 48-hour dispersal order after reports that people had travelled to the village to see where Nicola was lasted sighted.

But a former police officer, Martyn Underhill, told a Sky News podcast: “Nine out of 10 missing people [cases] are solved by the public, not by the police.”

But, he added: “You have to manage that expectation. And I call it the tail wagging the dog. You have to have clear strategies in place so that the public feel like they’re being involved – the armchair detectives don’t feel rejected.”

He added that you “cannot beat local knowledge” which can become “absolutely crucial in solving a murder or a missing person”.

The case also attracted a lot of attention online but, as former chief superintendent at the Metropolitan Police, Dal Babu, explained, this is an element of the investigation that officers will have to grapple with.

“Police really need to be having that conversation to look at what happens when you have an unprecedented interest on social media,” he told Sky News.

What happens next?

Lancashire Police will be carrying out an internal review into the investigation.

They have also referred themselves to the police watchdog, the Independent Office of Police Standards, over contact the force had with Nicola prior to her disappearance.

The IOPS 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.

The Information Commissioner will be asking the force about the decision to reveal details about Nicola’s struggles too, over “data protection laws”.

The Home Office said it is now receiving regular updates from the Lancashire Police on its handling of this case, including why they revealed personal details about her.

UK policing is already under scrutiny, with six forces in “special measures” at the moment.

Lancashire is not part of this group, but it was last investigated back in 2017.

Although it was effectively given the all-clear, inspectors felt more needed to be done at senior levels to support the force’s investigations involving vulnerable people and to protect vulnerable victims.

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