Breaking the Internet

‘I feel a need to get vindication for the victim’: Meet the armchair detectives determined to solve the Nicola Bulley case

Since the disappearance of the mother-of-two last month, budding Sherlocks have flooded online discussion boards to try to solve the case and point fingers – leading to police frustration. Ben Bryant speaks to them

Monday 13 February 2023 15:52 GMT
Missing person posters depicting Nicola Bulley are held along a roadside in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire
Missing person posters depicting Nicola Bulley are held along a roadside in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire (PA)

In the Reddit group investigating Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, speculation is rife. “I believe the current theory being used by the police is that she put her phone on the bench to retrieve something from close to the waters [sic] edge and fell in,” writes MiddleAgeCool. “No ones [sic] buying that,” weighs in erminedereims. “She’s been abducted.”

“Mate not everything is an abduction just because it would be more interesting to think so,” writes Salt-Cup-2300. Pianoandrun’s thoughts? “Could have been UFO.”

The wisdom of crowds always has a few outliers – and this crowd is enormous. Right at this moment a cacophony of ideas are being pitched and skewered by armchair detectives in thousands of posts on Reddit and other websites. Their objective? To explain the high-profile disappearance of Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old mother-of-two who went missing while walking her dog along the river near St Michael’s on the Wyre on 27 January.

The interest is no longer confined to the web. This week police have reportedly banned amateur sleuths from the area – and even handed a dispersal order to a group of men who travelled 50 miles from Liverpool to the village. The men had been trying to get into a property that’s already been searched “top to bottom” by police, according to a frustrated Lancashire Constabulary spokesperson.

But after spending several days on the forums, I begin to see the appeal. The vanishing of Bulley was so sudden and mysterious that it’s a siren song to any budding Sherlock. Bulley was last seen by a first witness at 9.10am. At 9.20am, her phone and dog harness were discovered by another witness. This suggests that she disappeared in broad daylight within 10 minutes. The surrounding areas are well covered with CCTV. Expert divers have combed the river Wyre using sonar equipment to no avail. Perhaps the only one who knows what happened to her is her Springer spaniel, Willow, who was found dry, calm and running loose at 10.15am.

The official investigation has seen 40 detectives following 500 lines of inquiry. Dashcam footage from 700 drivers who drove past at the time is currently being sourced. There are plenty of people on the ground – so can a man sat hundreds of miles away with a keyboard and a mouse really help?

Yes they can, according to Marc, a finance professional working in the insurance industry. Marc is a longtime participant in the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit and now an active poster on the Nicola Bulley subreddit. He says he has “a very logical brain”, and calls himself an enthusiast of true crime stories – especially those involving missing people.

People want to be in the spotlight and will sometimes run with the most outlandish piece of evidence they find

“‘The crowd’ has unlimited resources the police have not,” he tells me. Marc is a bit dismissive of the overall police strategy so far, which he says has “ignored options other than drowning”. He and his fellow Redditors can hold the police to account, he says. At the same time, he thinks they have the numbers to examine every detail. By way of example, Marc tells me about a person local to St Michael’s on the Wyre that he’s decided, exclusively through online research, should warrant a closer look by police.

The police, meanwhile, issued a warning against “totally unacceptable” speculation and abuse on social media only a day after Bulley went missing. They’re afraid that scrutiny of those “merely assisting [their] inquiry” might impede the investigation by discouraging other witnesses from coming forward. Heather Gibbons, a friend of Bulley’s, has also condemned internet theorising about the case, calling the speculation “vile” and “incredibly hurtful”. Another friend, Tilly Ann, published 11 pieces of information dismantling untruths that had spread online, including claims about Bulley’s husband and objects fished out of the river. It is true that there is a comment or a thread highlighting just about anything and anyone with the slightest connection to the case – from friends and family to fundraisers and witnesses.

A lack of enthusiasm about the police is something of a theme on Reddit. “I tend to take police statements with a pinch of salt,” says Alex, a self-employed gardener. “Not due to any bias or negative feeling. Just because I have knowledge that what they release into the media is a well thought out PR stunt which gives away little anecdotal evidence or theories.” Alex had never commented on Reddit before but has been “very active” over the last week or so, he tells me. “I believe discussing the details is a very human thing to do,” he adds. “And positive in many ways.”

It’s certainly led to some blue sky thinking – with theories that occasionally walk a line between helpful and esoteric. The general discussion on Reddit is kept strictly to “realistic theories and speculations”, according to the group’s moderators. Explicitly banned are “theories and speculations based on supernatural forces, astrology and undistinguished statements and comments”. Two posts later, though, another person is speculating about Bulley being taken by a UFO.

In general, most people just seem to want to know what happened. Upvoting and downvoting demerits the most dubious takes, and the forum has become so popular that it even seems to be getting observed by real-life police. One user, who claims to be a real but off-duty police employee, posted an even-handed thread pointing out that the police “withhold a LOT of information” – including leads, suspects and data. That poster declined to talk on the record to The Independent, saying their force policy didn’t allow it.

Mother-of-two Nicola Bulley who has been missing since 27 January
Mother-of-two Nicola Bulley who has been missing since 27 January (PA)

“My motto is ‘the internet is the new crime scene’,” says Deanna Thompson, one of the amateur investigators from the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Don’t F*** with Cats. Thompson is the patron saint of armchair detectives, contributing to the investigation and eventual conviction of Canadian killer and cat mutilator Luka Magnotta. She is still an active participant in what she describes as “open source investigations”, meaning an investigation using information that’s available to everyone. Armchair detectives can be “incredibly helpful”, she says because they often have minds that think differently to those of police officers. They can also trace evidence that a traditionally trained officer would never look for. If the police are paying attention, it’s good news. “All of us [investigators] are super into getting justice,” says Thompson. “I personally feel a need to get vindication for the victims.”

On the other hand, she concedes, sometimes a crowd can be misled by the dubious motivations of one or more of its members. “People want to be in the spotlight and will sometimes run with the most outlandish piece of evidence they find,” she says. Confirmation biases push the crowd even further. At that point, a crowd can become a mob.

This week, a small chorus of them went after Peter Faulding, who led the underwater search operation for Bulley with his company Specialist Group International. “He clearly loves the attention,” wrote one Redditor. “Nobody cares for his theories,” wrote another. “The guy clearly loves himself.” Faulding had a strong message for them, too: “I suggest [the keyboard warriors] come out and look for dead people underwater on a freezing cold night at three in the morning,” he told TalkTV.

The incident highlights the tension between those trying to analyse from the outside and those working on the ground. Sometimes armchair detectives can “just add noise” to the lives of people whose job it is to solve these cases, says Thompson. “Imagine a small police force being inundated with thousands of nonsense tips that have to be looked into,” she says. “That is time and resources they sometimes just don’t have.”

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