The Daily Telegraph

Police: missing mother may have fallen in river

Investigat­ors suspect that the missing mother accidental­ly fell into the river, but remain open to other possibilit­ies


NICOLA BULLEY, the missing dog walker, fell into the river Wyre on the day she vanished, police believe, as her partner said he would “never lose hope” of finding her alive.

The officer leading the search for the 45-year-old mother of two said the “main working hypothesis” was that Ms Bulley toppled into the river by accident, with “no third party or criminal involvemen­t”.

Supt Sally Riley, of Lancashire Constabula­ry, said that after tracing CCTV, dashcam and doorbell footage, officers were “as sure as we can be” that Ms Bulley did not leave the area where she was last seen. She speculated that an issue with her dog, Willow, may have led her to the water’s edge before she fell in.

It is possible that a tennis ball for the dog could have rolled close to the river, and Ms Bulley followed to pick it up, Supt Riley said, adding that she was not aware of a ball having been retrieved.

Telephone records indicate that Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser, may have entered the water between 9.10am and 9.20am on Friday, Jan 27, when her mobile appears to have been placed on a bench where it was later found along with Willow’s lead and harness.

Shortly before the details were disclosed at a press conference yesterday, Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell, 44, spoke in public for the first time, saying he “cannot get his head around” her disappeara­nce. He said the past week had seemed like “a dream” and that he was only managing to cope by putting his “whole focus” on the couple’s two daughters, who are aged nine and six.

Supt Riley said: “Our main working hypothesis is that Nicola has suddenly fallen into the river, that there’s no third-party or criminal involvemen­t, and that this is not suspicious, but a tragic case of a missing person. Supt Riley said Willow had been dry when a member of the public came across the spaniel running loose near the bench where the phone and dog lead were found, and so “we assume the dog didn’t get into the river”.

She added: “There may have been an issue with the dog that led her to the water’s edge, she puts her phone down to go and deal with the dog momentaril­y, and Nicola may have fallen in.”

She said the search for Ms Bulley will continue, and police will do everything possible to “bring her home”.

Supt Riley urged the public in the area to keep an eye out for any of the items of clothing Ms Bulley was wearing when she was last seen.

‘We only have a 10-minute window in which we cannot account for Nicola’s movements’

‘Please can the public report only factual informatio­n and not speculatio­n about what may have happened to Nicola’

Aweek after a mother of two vanished, suddenly, while walking her dog on a crisp Friday morning, detectives are only truly confident of one thing.

Whatever happened to Nicola Bulley, happened in a narrow 10-minute window.

The disappeara­nce of the 45-yearold has sent a chill through the village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancs.

Her two young daughters, aged six and nine, are understand­ably bereft and the painful uncertaint­y led her sister, Louise Cunningham, to remark: “People don’t just vanish into thin air.”

As speculatio­n about Ms Bulley’s fate mounted, Lancashire Police yesterday revealed the working hypothesis: they were dealing with a tragic, freak accident.

Detectives suspect Ms Bulley may have slipped and fallen into the river Wyre, possibly while tending to an issue with her spaniel, after her phone was found on a bench next to a steep bank, along with the dog’s lead.

From there, it is feared she has since been swept downstream, over a weir, and into a tidal flow that ultimately reaches Morecambe Bay. The “unpreceden­ted” search effort and investigat­ion has led police to believe she was not deliberate­ly harmed by anyone else.

It remains the case, however, that the precise course of events in that 10-minute window is a mystery, and one that is tormenting her family.

Ten minutes

A combinatio­n of witness statements, analysis of phone data and nearby surveillan­ce footage has allowed police to build up a detailed picture of Ms Bulley’s last known movements.

On the morning of Jan 27, she dropped her children off at school before taking the family dog, Willow, on a morning walk.

At 8.43am, Ms Bulley, from nearby Inksip, was seen on a river path walking towards the iron bridge in the village, before being spotted again by another witness at 8.47am in the “lower field”.

She sent an email to her boss at 8.53am and, on her phone, joined a work call at 9.01am with her camera and microphone muted.

She was seen again at 9.10am – for the last time – in the upper field near the river, with Willow off the lead as was “normal” and “part of Nicola’s daily routine”, according to Supt Sally Riley, who is leading the investigat­ion.

A trace of “telephony” records has allowed investigat­ors to conclude that Ms Bulley’s phone was on the bench overlookin­g the river by 9.20am.

At 9.33am, a witness found the dog’s harness on the grass between the bench and the river’s edge, along with the phone. The witness raised the alarm.

Supt Riley said: “This means we have only a 10-minute window [9.10am and 9.20am] in which we cannot account for Nicola’s movements.”

She added that officers had examined dashcams, CCTV and doorbell camera footage from the area immediatel­y surroundin­g the scene of her disappeara­nce.

“This has allowed us to eliminate any trace so far of Nicola having left the riverside, which is really important,” she said.“we believe Nicola was in the riverside area and remained in the riverside area.”

The river

The river wending past St Michael’s on Wyre lends a picturesqu­e quality, but carries a significan­t risk if not approached with care.

A sign attached to a tree close to the bench where Ms Bulley’s phone was found says: “Danger, deep water.”

While the water appears to be relatively calm at the sharp drop in the riverbank where Ms Bulley is believed to have disappeare­d, jagged rocks jut out of the water just around the bend.

Supt Riley told reporters yesterday: “At the point where the bench is located, there is quite a steep drop to the river, albeit not high. Therefore, while I don’t want to speculate as to what may have happened, it is our working hypothesis that she has entered the water accidental­ly.”

She added that the river has many “different depths”, requiring some search teams to dive down to its lower reaches, while others have been working their way through dense undergrowt­h near the riverbank.

One factor that deepens the mystery was the absence of any visible signs that someone had fallen, slipped or tripped into the water at the riverside.

The dog

Willow, Ms Bulley’s brown springer spaniel, was dry when it was found by passers-by and no witnesses have described seeing it in the river.

Yet police believe the dog may hold the key to how Ms Bulley ended up in the water.

Supt Riley said: “Anything could have happened with the dog and I don’t wish to speculate, but it is possible as the dog was loosened off the lead that there might have been an issue with the dog that led her to go near to the water’s edge. She puts the phone down to go and deal with the dog momentaril­y and Nicola may have fallen in.

“That is a possibilit­y. We assume the dog didn’t get into the river, but we don’t know why Nicola may have.”

A toy belonging to the dog could have led Ms Bulley into the water, police have suggested. Supt Riley said: ‘I’m not aware of a dog ball being retrieved but it’s possible that a ball could have rolled down the steep bank close to the edge of the water and Ms Bulley was bending down to pick it up.”

The search

The lack of answers about Ms Bulley’s whereabout­s one week on from her disappeara­nce has naturally led to questions about the effectiven­ess and rigour of the police investigat­ion.

In an apparent effort to tamper down criticism, Supt Riley set out the sheer scale of the operation being undertaken in Lancashire.

Specialist search teams have scoured the area where Ms Bulley went missing including almost 10 miles of river to the sea and a radius of slightly more than half a mile on the ground from the point where she was last seen, including buildings and gardens.

Officers from other forces have been drafted in, along with the coastguard.

They have deployed overhead and underwater drones, police divers, helicopter­s, police cameras, sonar

equipment and specially trained dogs on either side of the riverbank. It has been an operation involving an “unpreceden­ted number of search resources”, said Supt Riley.

Investigat­ors are also said to have been “working tirelessly” in carrying out extensive house-to-house inquiries. They have spoken to several key witnesses, including three who saw Ms Bulley on the walk that morning, as well as those who knew her daily routes.

“All this has built up a really rich picture of data that’s allowed us to have a very tight timeline,” Supt Riley said.

Criminal involvemen­t?

The sudden nature of Ms Bulley’s disappeara­nce has fuelled speculatio­n about whether she was abducted or even murdered by someone, whether known to her or otherwise.

Police stated at the outset they did not believe she had been attacked, while saying they were keeping an “open mind” about her fate.

By yesterday, it was apparent that the evidence gathered so far had only hardened the detectives’ belief that there was unlikely to be a sinister explanatio­n for her disappeara­nce.

Their confidence has largely been due to the surveillan­ce footage gathered from the various entrances and exits to the riverside. All but one gate to the scene are either locked or covered by some sort of camera. The remaining entrance – by Garstang Lane, leading to the A586 – remains a key focus and detectives are keen that anyone with dashcam footage on the day Ms Bulley vanished comes forward to help their efforts.

Supt Riley expressed doubt about the idea an attacker had exploited this small blindspot to successful­ly target Ms Bulley without leaving a trace of their crime behind.

It was, she said, “so unlikely”. “When you triangulat­e all the witnesses, all the CCTV, the digital and telepathy, the whole picture produces such a tiny window for criminal involvemen­t that it becomes highly unlikely,” she said.

The location of Ms Bulley’s disappeara­nce makes it further unlikely, police believe.

“This is a low-crime area, it is a genuinely safe, tight-knit area, where people look out for each other,” Supt Riley said.

“The idea that there is a third party that we haven’t yet had any sightings of, haven’t caught on CCTV, dashcam, is just not likely.

“But we don’t shut our minds to the fact that there could be new informatio­n that we do not yet have and that is why we continue to the level of resourcing that we have.”

This forthright stance from a police force in the midst of a missing person investigat­ion is unusual and likely stems from the sheer level of public intrigue Ms Bulley’s disappeara­nce has caused. Supt Riley indicated that rampant speculatio­n on social media about what – or who – had caused the mortgage adviser to disappear was adding to the upset of her loved ones.

She said: “Our main working hypothesis is that … there is no third party or criminal involvemen­t and that this is not suspicious, but a tragic case of a missing person.”

“It is a strange case and it is perplexing, but that does not mean through diligence we cannot find answers for the family,” she added.

The public response

In the week since Ms Bulley vanished, public interest in the case has escalated both locally and across the country.

Armchair sleuths have, with grim predictabl­y, plastered social media with speculatio­n and accusation­s about what unfolded next to the river Wyre that morning.

Public fervour has reached such a pitch that the comments under pictures Ms Bulley posted on her own Facebook page have become littered with strangers openly discussing their suspicions that she has been murdered, complete with baseless allegation­s about culprits.

In one such post on Twitter on Thursday, a social media user claimed to have phoned police to report their suspicions about an individual they had seen on Facebook.

By yesterday, there were indication­s that the public’s enthusiasm to crack the case was starting to test the patience of the investigat­ors.

In a pointed interventi­on during the press conference, Supt Riley said: “Please can the public continue to report only factual informatio­n they have and not speculatio­n about what may have happened to Nicola, because this is a distractio­n to the police inquiry and not helpful for the family.”

When The Daily Telegraph later asked the detective about her comments, she revealed that the help the public was offering to police had bordered on the surreal.

“We’ve had lots of speculativ­e inquiries,” she said. They include “clairvoyan­ts” phoning the force to offer their assistance in trying to track down the missing mother,

Supt Riley said other examples included “someone seeing something factual and then hypothesis­ing about what that could mean”.

“If they see something relevant, please report that they think it is relevant – report that and don’t start thinking about what it might mean.

“Everything that takes away from the ability of the inquiry team to focus on the facts is a minute or an hour less that we can dedicate to more credible inquiries.”

Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell, 44, said yesterday he would “never lose hope” of finding her.

 ?? ?? Nicola Bulley may have fallen in the river when an issue with her dog, Willow, led her to the water’s edge, officers said
Nicola Bulley may have fallen in the river when an issue with her dog, Willow, led her to the water’s edge, officers said
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 ?? ?? Clockwise from right: Nicola Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, speaks publicly; a new family photo of Nicola, released yesterday and Supt Sally Riley, who said that the search was continuing
Clockwise from right: Nicola Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, speaks publicly; a new family photo of Nicola, released yesterday and Supt Sally Riley, who said that the search was continuing

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