The 45-year-old disappeared while walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre on 27 January, after dropping her two daughters at school nearby, leaving her phone on a riverside bench – still connected to a Microsoft Teams call – and her springer spaniel running loose.
In a bid to address the intense media online speculation – and criticism of its investigation – Lancashire Police held a press conference on Wednesday to shed light on “exactly we have done over the last 19 days”.
“As soon as she was reported missing, following the information that was provided to the police by her partner Paul, and based on a number of specific vulnerabilities that we were made aware of, Nicola was graded as high-risk,” said Detective Superintendent Becky Smith, who is leading the investigation.
“That is normal in a missing person investigation with the information we were in possession of.”
Insisting he was giving more detail “than would normally be the case with an investigation”, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson said a team of more than 40 detectives had since visited more than 300 premises, spoken to nearly 300 people and received around 1,500 pieces of information into the enquiry.
“The officers involved in the investigation are the same experienced specialists and many senior officers who are concerned in the investigation into the most serious and complex crimes,” he said. “That is the importance and focus we have given to the investigation to find Nicola.”
But the senior officer stressed that “it remains the case at the present time that there is no evidence in all the exhaustive enquiries we’ve made to suggest any crime has been committed, or that there is any third-party involvement in Nicola’s disappearance”.
Ms Bulley’s partner of 12 years, Paul Ansell, has reportedly expressed “frustration” with the progress made in the police search. “He’s struggling to get answers that he wants,” said forensic expert Peter Faulding.
Intense searches of the river and surrounding area have yielded no sign of Ms Bulley, and Mr Faulding, the diver whose team brought sonar to the search of the river last week, has said he is “convinced” that she is not in the Wyre.
Prior to the press conference, Simon Harding, a former detective chief inspector, had suggested that Lancashire Police should change the way it speaks to the public, to “reassure other people and stop people going to that scene and taking things into their own hands”.
“Come out and say, ‘we’ve done this, we have done this CCTV, we’ve done this researching’ to stop people. It’s the messaging, which is the problem for me,” he told Sky News – as the feverish online speculation continued to have consequences for those living in St Michael’s on Wyre.
Staff at the caravan park close to where Ms Bulley disappeared told The Independent on Tuesday that they had been warned by police to lock their doors, as vigilante detectives were alleged to have been filming through the windows of villagers’ homes.
Meanwhile, two people were arrested on suspicion of sending malicious communications related to her disappearance, with Lancashire Police saying it received reports over the weekend of messages being sent to Wyre Council members.
Police warned that the spillover of online speculation was also harming the investigation – with Det Supt Smith telling the press conference that her detectives have been “inundated with false information, accusations and rumours which is distracting” them from their work.
DSI Smith said that it remained her “main working hypothesis” that Ms Bulley had fallen in the river, but that the force remained “open-minded” – as members of Ms Bulley’s family have urged.
Police are “meticulously reviewing all information gathered from members of Nicola’s family, the public, CCTV, dash cam and other digital devices”, and are receiving strategic advice from experts at the National Crime Agency, Mr Lawson said.
Asked about Ms Bulley’s “specific vulnerabilities”, DSI Smith said: “It’s normal in any missing person investigation that you obviously gather as much information at an early stage about the person in question, which is no different and we did that with Paul [Ansell].
“I’m not going to go into the details of those individual vulnerabilities. I’ve asked you to respect the family, who are going through unimaginable pain and distress at this moment. But those vulnerabilities based our decision-making in terms of grading Nicola as high risk and have continued to form part of my investigation throughout.”
Asked if she hoped to find her alive, Det Supt Smith said: “I hope with all my heart that we find Nicola Bulley alive more than anything.”
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