Nicola Bulley police blunders created 'information vacuum'

Nicola Bulley police blunders created ‘information vacuum’ that was filled by wild conspiracy theories on social media about the missing mother, landmark review finds

  • Review into the investigation has found police caused an ‘information vacuum’

Police caused an ‘information vacuum’ that was filled online with wild conspiracy theories when they investigated Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, a landmark review has found.

Lancashire Police faced a storm of criticism after revealing intimate details about the missing mother of two, including that she had been experiencing ‘significant issues with alcohol’ brought on by her struggle with the menopause.

Now a review into the investigation has concluded that the shock revelation – made as the baffling case made global headlines – was ‘avoidable and unnecessary’. 

The move was symptomatic of a ‘breakdown in public confidence’ in the police fuelled by the ‘cooling’ of relations between senior officers and the media, it added.

Ms Bulley, 45, vanished on January 27 this year while walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire. Her body was found in the River Wyre on February 19, about a mile from where she disappeared.

An inquest concluded her death was accidental, that she fell into the river on the day she disappeared and died almost immediately in the cold water.

Police caused an ‘information vacuum’ that was filled online with wild conspiracy theories when they investigated Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, a landmark review has found. Pictured is Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old mother of two

Lancashire Police faced a storm of criticism after revealing intimate details about Ms Bulley, including that she had been experiencing ‘significant issues with alcohol ‘ brought on by her struggle with the menopause. Pictured: Officers outside County Hall in Preston, Lancashire, in June this year on the first day of the inquest into Ms Bulley’s death

Now a review into the investigation has concluded that the shock revelation – made as the baffling case made global headlines – was ‘avoidable and unnecessary’. Pictured: Detective chief superintendent Pauline Stables (left) reads a statement from the family of Nicola Bulley at a police news conference in Preston on February 20, 2023

The report by the College of Policing was published yesterday and concluded that better liaison with the media could have avoided the need for police to disclose her health worries while she was still classed as missing.

READ MORE – Revelation that Nicola Bulley was experiencing ‘issues with alcohol’ before she went missing was cleared with her family in advance, review reveals 

The 143-page review – commissioned by the Lancashire police and crime commissioner Andrew Snowden – praised the investigation itself as ‘exemplary’ and describes the search as ‘well-conducted’. But it sparked an extraordinary row.

Senior officers failed to brief mainstream accredited reporters because trust between police and media had broken down – leading to an information vacuum and unchecked speculation. 

Lancashire Police was criticised over the way it made public details of Ms Bulley’s medical situation amid a media frenzy.

The report revealed that the revelation Ms Bulley was struggling with the menopause was made at the specific request of her family. Relatives also cleared the statement on alcohol.

The remarks at the time sparked a cross-party backlash with MPs calling it ‘deeply troubling’ and accusing police of ‘victim-blaming’. Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak voiced ‘concern’.

Private search expert Peter Faulding was also accused in the report of encouraging the family’s false belief that the mortgage adviser had not ended up in the river close to her home in the Lancashire village of St Michael’s-on-Wyre after going missing on January 27.

Yesterday, he doubled down on a sensational claim that his high-tech sonar spotted her body at the bottom of the river within six minutes.

Ms Bulley was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27 when she was spotted walking her dog

The river bank where Ms Bulley was last seen. Her mobile phone was found on this bench, alongside a dog harness 

Ring doorbell footage showed Ms Bulley, her partner Paul Ansell, and her children outside home on the morning of her disappearance. It was released by Lancashire Police 

His alleged find – a full 12 days before Ms Bulley’s remains were discovered by a ‘spiritual medium’ on February 19 – is dismissed by the report, which concludes the object was submerged branches.

But Mr Faulding insisted he had re-examined the images after her body was finally stumbled across and concluded ‘the target which I had located was without a doubt Nicola’.

He said he remained ‘certain’ of his evidence and added: ‘After 25 years of underwater search using the sonar, I know the difference between tree branches and human bodies.’

Mr Faulding’s name is no longer on the National Crime Agency’s list of independent advisers, a press conference was told yesterday.

The report reveals a string of errors contributed to the ‘social media frenzy’. These include:

  • A failure to declare Ms Bulley’s disappearance a ‘critical incident’ – a move which would have brought stronger leadership plus better support for her family;
  • A loss of control of the ‘media narrative’ after police failed to correct Superintendent Sally Riley’s ‘misleading’ statement on February 3 that Ms Bulley’s health was ‘not relevant’ to the investigation; 
  • The decision not to cordon off the riverside spot where Ms Bulley was last seen, which meant any forensic evidence would have been ‘lost’;  
  • Concerns over the ‘culture’ of the force, with claims that chief officers ‘observed but did not act’. 

Ms Bulley vanished after dropping off her two daughters – aged six and nine – at school in St Michael’s and walking spaniel Willow by the river.

Amateur sleuths took to social media and even began harassing villagers as they spread theories.

An inquest in June concluded Ms Bulley had drowned after accidentally slipping into the icy river. 

The report praises police for immediately classifying Ms Bulley as a ‘high risk’ missing person after her partner, Paul Ansell, 44, (who she’s pictured with) reported her missing 

Peter Faulding’s Specialist Group International (SGI) joined the search for Nicola Bulley

Mr Faulding, 60, scoured the River Wyre for three days after the mother of two vanished on January 27 (pictured on February 7)

Ms Bulley with her sister, Louise Cunningham. After her disappearance she was classed by police as a ‘high risk missing person’ 

READ MORE – Nicola Bulley’s final hours laid bare: How mother-of-two’s dog walk turned into mystery disappearance 

The report highlights criticism of Mr Faulding, who despite a confidential agreement gave a string of interviews setting out his belief that she had fallen into the river.

Unveiling the report in Preston, Mr Snowden said it had identified ‘learnings’ but stressed that ‘none of these actions would have changed the outcome of this tragic case’.

He admitted the bungled messaging had done ‘significant damage’ to the force’s reputation and he pledged to hold Chris Rowley, the force’s chief constable, to account to implement 17 recommendations.

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, of the College of Policing, said the failure to declare a ‘critical incident’ from the outset had led to ‘challenges’ in leadership. Ms Bulley’s family did not want to comment on the report.

Timeline: Disappearance of Nicola Bulley

January 27 

At 8.26am Ms Bulley left her home with her two daughters, aged six and nine, dropping them off at school. 

She then took her spaniel, Willow, for a walk along the path by the River Wyre at 8.43am, heading towards a gate and bench in the lower field. 

She was seen by a dog walker who knew her at around 8.50am, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways, according to the force. 

At 8.53am, Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, followed by a message to her friends six minutes later, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am. 

She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am, the last known sighting. 

Her phone was back in the area of the bench at 9.20am before the Teams call ended 10 minutes later, with her mobile remaining logged on after the call. 

At 10.50am, Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance. 

Lancashire Constabulary launched an investigation into Ms Bulley’s whereabouts on the same day and appealed for witnesses to contact them. 

January 28 

Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation. 

They were assisted by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team and the North West underwater search team. 

January 29 

Local residents held a meeting at the village hall to organise a search for Ms Bulley at 10.30am on Sunday, according to reports from The Mirror, and around 100 people joined in. 

Police urged volunteers to exercise caution, describing the river and its banks as ‘extremely dangerous’ and saying that activity in these areas presented ‘a genuine risk to the public’ 

January 30 

Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Constabulary said police were ‘keeping a really open mind about what could have happened’, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious. 

January 31 Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a potential witness, a man who had been walking a small white fluffy dog near the River Wyre at the time of Ms Bulley’s disappearance. 

Her family released a statement saying they had been ‘overwhelmed by the support’ in their community, and that her daughters were ‘desperate to have their mummy back home safe’.

February 2 

Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a second witness who they had identified with the help of the public using CCTV but they told police they did not have any further information to aid their inquiry. 

Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit searched the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found, while police divers scoured the River Wyre. Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s family appealed to the public for help tracing her. 

February 3 

Lancashire Police said it was working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre. 

Ms Riley urged against speculation, but said it was ‘possible’ that an ‘issue’ with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge. 

February 4 

Lancashire Police announced it wanted to trace a ‘key witness’ who was seen pushing a pram in the area near where Ms Bulley went missing on the morning of her disappearance. 

February 5 

The woman described as a ‘key witness’ by police came forward. The force insisted she was ‘very much being treated as a witness’ as it warned against ‘totally unacceptable’ speculation and abuse on social media. 

Peter Faulding, leader of underwater search experts Specialist Group International (SGI), began searching the river after being called in by Ms Bulley’s family. 

February 6 

Ms Bulley’s friends said they hoped the help of a specialist underwater rescue team would give the family answers. 

Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s partner Mr Ansell, in a statement released through Lancashire Police, said: ‘It’s been 10 days now since Nicola went missing and I have two little girls who miss their mummy desperately and who need her back. 

‘This has been such a tough time for the girls especially but also for me and all of Nicola’s family and friends, as well as the wider community and I want to thank them for their love and support.’ 

February 10 

Police urged people to refrain from indulging in commentary and conspiracy theories about Ms Bulley’s disappearance as speculation increases online. 

February 15 

Police held a press conference over the case and say the mother-of-two was classed as a ‘high-risk’ missing person immediately after she was reported missing due to ‘vulnerabilities.’ 

They later disclosed Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and perimenopause. 

February 16 

In a statement released through Lancashire Police, Ms Bulley’s family said the focus had become ‘distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her private life’ and called for it to end. 

Lancashire Police referred itself to the police watchdog over contact the force had with Ms Bulley prior to her disappearance. 

Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanded an ‘explanation’ for the disclosure of Ms Bulley’s private information by the force. 

February 17 

Lancashire Police announced it was conducting an internal review into the handling of Ms Bulley’s disappearance and the Information Commissioner said he would ask the force questions about the disclosure. 

February 18 

Ms Braverman met with police leaders to discuss the handling of the investigation after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also expressed ‘concerns’ about the revelation. 

February 19 

Appearing on the morning broadcast round, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt described the police disclosure as ‘shocking’ while shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who also wrote to the force over its handling of the case, repeated her concerns about the ‘unusual’ level of private information made public about Ms Bulley. 

A new search effort was launched less than a mile from where Ms Bulley vanished. 

Later on Sunday, Lancashire Police announced they had found a body in the River Wyre. 

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