Armchair detectives, ‘persistent myths’ and police under fire… but still no sign of missing UK mum


One video shows a pair of blue gloves, found in the field where missing British mother Nicola Bulley was last seen before she disappeared more than three weeks ago.

Another urges the police to investigate an abandoned house on the river bank, opposite where Bulley disappeared while walking her dog Willow.

Another simply shows a section of the Wyre in northern England close to where she disappeared, in an attempt to prove how shallow the water is. Divers are scouring the river downstream amid fears she may have entered the water. “There is no way on God’s earth Nicola is in this river,” the caption reads.

Police have criticized these viral videos as social media users “playing private detective” and derailing their search for the missing mother-of-two.

Bulley went missing in the village of St. Michael’s on Wyre on Friday morning, January 27. Police say she was walking her dog after dropping her two children off at school.

A short time later, her dog was found wandering alone and her phone was seen on a bench near the river, still logged into a group work call. But police are yet to trace the missing 45-year-old.

Three weeks later, an investigation launched by Lancashire Police continues to draw a blank.

A search dog from Lancashire Police and a crew from Lancashire Fire and Rescue service search the River Wyre near the bench where Bulley's mobile phone was found, in the village of St Michael's on Wyre on 1 February 2023.

After reviewing hundreds of hours of CCTV and dashcam footage, and investigating tips from the public, police insist there is still no evidence to suggest a third party is involved and that their main hypothesis remains that she fell into the River Wyre.

The case shocked the public and attracted widespread media attention, while the police also – unusually – chose to reveal that Bulley was struggling with alcohol and menopause issues when she went missing.

This week investigators sharply criticized members of the public who they say are pegging “perpetuating myths”.

Detective Superintendent of Lancashire Police, Rebecca Smith, told journalists on Wednesday that the investigation had been “significantly disrupted” by the social media frenzy.

“In 29 years of police service, I have never seen anything like this.

“Some of this was very disturbing and hurtful for the family. Of course, we can’t ignore anything, and we reviewed everything that came in but of course it really affected us.”

Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police updates the media on Wednesday.

Smith took the opportunity to debunk some of the conspiracy theories. “The derelict house across the river has been searched three times, with the owner’s permission, and Nicola is not in it,” she said.

Regarding the blue glove, Smith said: “You won’t know that TikTokers are playing their own private detectives and have been in the area.

“A glove was recovered which is not believed to be relevant to the investigation. It’s not Nicola’s, but we own that.”

Lancashire Police have taken the blame for their own handling of the situation while asking members of the public to stop passing on “false information, allegations and rumours”.

Much of this criticism focused on the police’s decision to release personal details about Bulley, starting with Smith’s comments at a press conference on Wednesday: “As soon as she was reported missing, after the information provided by her partner to the police, Paul, and based on a number of specific vulnerabilities that have been brought to our attention, Nicola has been graded as high risk.”

Police clarified later that evening that she had “in the past suffered from some significant problems with alcohol” and struggled “which resurfaced in recent months” as she went through menopause.

Candles show a photo of missing woman Nicola Bulley and her partner, Paul Ansell, at St Michael's Church in St Michael's on Wyre.

For David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, the revelation of such personal details about Bulley’s life had a “streak of misogyny”.

“There’s a lot of distrust in the police right now — especially from women — especially because of some high-profile femicides in London,” he told CNN. “So the police have to be as open and honest as they can be, but last night they lost a lot of my sympathy because what they said seemed to blame the victim and there was a reek of unease Nicola – revealing Nicola’s alcohol problems and her menopause struggles.”

The hashtag “menopause” trended on Twitter following the police announcements, with some social media users accusing Lancashire Police of letting women down.

At least 16 women, most recently Sarah Everard in 2021, have been killed by serving or retired police officers over the past 13 years in the United Kingdom, according to the Femicide Census, a group that collects data on women who have killed men. Campaigners feel tackling gender-based violence is not a policing priority.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, director of women’s rights group Right To Equality, wrote on Twitter: “Missing mother Nicola Bulley had ‘significant problems with alcohol’ due to her struggles with menopause, police said. Such a serious intrusion into their private lives will only lead to additional victim blaming. Disgraceful.”

Another Twitter user named Sue McKay said: “By describing Nicola Bulley as a menopausal woman with drinking problems, it proves that Lancs Police have nothing to do with mental health. As a result, public trust and credibility in them will be even less.”

Professor Wilson, who works with and trains the police, understands that the force is “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” However, for him, there was something insensitive in the tone of Wednesday’s press conference.

“Their recent press conference was insensitive at times – it seemed like they were mocking the public, when in fact they rely on the public to provide information, so it’s not a good thing to say that sometimes they give information that is not they want, it is misleading or a waste of their time.

“Obviously the TikTokers and armchair detectives were an obstacle for them, but that’s just a new reality that has to be managed – you can’t ask for it.

“Above all I was concerned last night that the clarification about Nicola was done to protect her institutional reputation and that she lost sight of the humanity of the people at the heart of the investigation,” he said.

Police walk past a missing person appeal poster for Nicola Bulley.

A private underwater search and recovery company, Specialist Group International, in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, uses sonar equipment to search for Bulley.

Meanwhile, in a statement on Thursday, Bulley’s family called for an end to the speculation.

“As a family, we were aware in advance that last night Lancashire Police released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki,” the statement said.

“While we know Nikki would not want this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her. This is appalling and must be stopped.

“The police know the truth about Nikki and now the public must focus on finding her,” they said.

Criticism of the police continued. Vera Baird, whose former role as victims’ commissioner for England and Wales focused on encouraging good treatment for victims of crime, said criticism of the police was “completely justified”.

“I’m afraid this is the biggest error I’ve seen in a long time,” she told the BBC.

And Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman raised concerns with the police about their handling of the case, according to a Home Office spokesman on Friday.

“The Home Secretary and Policing Minister are receiving regular updates from Lancashire Police on their handling of this case, including why personal details about Nicola have been released at this stage of the investigation, ” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Meanwhile, there is still no sign of Bulley.

Other dog walkers were the last to see her. During the walk, she shouted into a work conference call, keeping her camera off and microphone muted. By 9:30 am, the call was over – with Bulley still logged on.

A short time later, her dog Willow was found wandering alone and her phone was found on a riverside bench, but Bulley disappeared.

The police are “particularly interested” in the time between the phone being placed on the bench at 9:20 am and the device being recovered 10 minutes later.

“We only have a 10-minute window in which we can account for Nicola’s movements,” Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley said.

    Yellow ribbons and heart-shaped paper notes decorated with messages of hope and goodwill are tied to the footbridge in the village of St Michael on Wyre.

Stephanie Benyon, a friend of Bulley’s whose children attend the same school, previously told CNN that she is “a kind, loyal and thoughtful person who loves her two girls and her family and friends.” Her partner of 12 years, Paul Ansell, described the situation as “perpetual hell”.

For Wilson, it’s no surprise that Bulley’s case has captivated the general public. “Someone goes missing in the UK every 90 seconds. Fortunately, most are recovered within 48 hours, but some take much longer.

“Nicola Bulley was always going to attract media attention – a white, middle-class, professional woman from a picture-perfect village with almost no crime, always making headlines for a working-class Black man leaving the inner city . London wouldn’t.”

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