Timeline of Nicola Bulley disappearance as police search river ahead of inquest

Missing mother’s body was found in February - police have now returned to the scene in St Michael’s on Wyre

Andy Gregory,Martha McHardy
Saturday 15 April 2023 09:10 BST
Body found in River Wyre identified as missing mother Nicola Bulley

Police have revealed why officers returned to the River Wyre, six weeks after missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley was found there, and hit out at “misinformed speculation” over the renewed presence of officers at the scene.

The 45-year-old mortgage adviser went missing on 27 January while walking her dog along the river at St Michael’s on Wyre, after dropping her two daughters – aged six and nine – at school nearby.

Her mobile phone was found a bench near the riverbank, still connected to a Microsoft Teams work call, with her dog Willow left running loose.

There was a high profile missing persons search for Nicola Bulley (PA)

A huge police operation ensued as the search for Ms Bulley drew intense national attention, before Lancashire Police announced that a body had been discovered among reeds and undergrowth in the River Wyre on 19 February.

Police divers were spotted in the River Wyre on April 4 and a brief clip was uploaded to YouTube, prompting speculation about the activity on social media.

A Lancashire police spokesman later said there had been “misinformed speculation... relating to police activity”, adding that officers were there on the coroner’s request.

Here is a timeline of events after her disappearance:

– 27 January

At 8.26am Ms Bulley left her home with her two daughters, dropping them off at school and engaging in a brief conversation with another parent around 15 minutes later, before taking her spaniel for a walk along the River Wyre at 8:43am, Lancashire Police has said.

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 9.33am, another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two.

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.

(The Independent/ Datawrapper)

– 28 January

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.

– 29 January

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”.

– 30 January

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.

– 31 January

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.

Ms Bulley’s phone was found on a bench by the banks of the River Wyre (Danny Lawson/PA)

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”.

– 1 February

Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, spoke to The Mirror about the “horror” they faced over the possibility of never seeing her again.

Her father told the newspaper: “We just dread to think we will never see her again, if the worst came to the worst and she was never found, how will we deal with that for the rest of our lives?”

– 2 February

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, with her sister Louise Cunningham telling Sky News: “There has got to be somebody who knows something and all we are asking is, no matter how small or big, if there is anything you remember that doesn’t seem right, then please reach out to the police.”

Police divers back at the scene, weeks after her body was found (YouTube)

– 3 February

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

Superintendent 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. She urged the public to look out for items of clothing Ms Bulley was last seen wearing, and gave an extensive list.

Ms Bulley’s friends also shared heartfelt appeals via television interviews, including Emma White, who told the BBC that Ms Bulley’s daughters were continually asking where she was.

– 4 February

Ms White cast doubt on the police theory that she fell into a river, telling Sky News it was based on “limited information”.

She said: “When we are talking about a life we can’t base it on a hypothesis, surely we need this factual evidence. That’s what the family and all of us are holding on to, that we are sadly no further on than last Friday.”

A huge search effort took place in the weeks after her disappearance (PA Wire)

In a Facebook post, Ms Cunningham urged people to “keep an open mind” as there is “no evidence whatsoever” that the dog walker fell in the river.

Lancashire Police also announced it wanted to trace a “key witness” who was seen pushing a pram in the area on the morning of the disappearance.

– 5 February

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.

– 6 February

Ms Bulley’s friends expressed hope that the help of the specialist underwater rescue team would give the family answers.

Ms White told BBC Breakfast: “Following the hypothesis of the police that Nicola was in the river, we need some evidence to back that up either way and I feel Peter and his amazing bit of kit … is going to come and sweep the river bed and give us 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.”

Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell said his two daughters ‘miss their mummy desperately’ (Nicola Bulley/Facebook)

– 10 February

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

– 15 February

Police told a press conference that the mother-of-two was classed as a “high-risk” missing person immediately after she was reported missing due to “vulnerabilities.” Hours later, they disclosed Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and perimenopause.

– 16 February

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.

Ms Bulley walked her dog by the river most days (Family handout)

– 17 February

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.

– 18 February

Ms Braverman met with police leaders to discuss the handling of the investigation after the prime minister Rishi Sunak also expressed “concerns” about the revelation.

– 19 February

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt described the police’s 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.

That afternoon, Lancashire Police announced that a body had been found in the River Wyre, around a mile downstream from where her belongings were discovered.

Ms Bulley’s body was discovered in reeds at the edge of the River Wyre (Jason Roberts/PA)

– 20 February

The force confirmed that the body had been identified as Ms Bulley.

In a statement, her family said she was “the centre of our world”, adding they would “never be able to comprehend what Nikki had gone through in her last moments and that will never leave us”.

– 21 February

Broadcasting regulator Ofcom announced it had written to Sky and ITV “to ask them to explain their actions” after Ms Bulley’s family accused them of intruding on their privacy after her body was discovered.

Meanwhile, a campaign set up to raise money for Ms Bulley’s family received £10,000 in a single day, and has since gone on to raise nearly four times that amount.

– 22 February

Social media app TikTok said it would “take action” against users who violated its community guidelines by posting misinformation about Ms Bulley, after the company was criticised for allowing conspiracy theories to spread on its app.

– 23 February

A candlelit vigil was held for Ms Bulley in her former hometown of South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, with one organiser saying that the family “still hold a massive piece of all of our hearts” despite having previously moved up north. A large mural of Ms Bulley by local artist Danny Bench was also unveiled.

Flowers were left on a footbridge over the River Wyre in tribute (Getty Images)

– 25 February

Mr Faulding’s team of divers, Specialist Group International, was suspended from the National Crime Agency’s Expert Adviser Database while a review was carried out, law enforcement sources told The Times.

– 8 March

Lancashire Police arrested a man over footage shot inside a police cordon on the day Ms Bulley’s body was found. The 34-year-old from Kidderminster was arrested on suspicion of malicious communications offences and perverting the course of justice.

– 4 April

Police divers were spotted in the River Wyre and a brief clip was uploaded to YouTube. Lancashire Police later confirmed that its officers were “carrying out some work on the direction of HM coroner”, ahead of the inquest set for 26 June at County Hall in Preston.

– 14 April

Police put out a further statement about the renewed presence of officers on the River Wyre, hitting out at the “misinformed speculation”,

A Lancashire Constabulary spokesperson said: “There has been misinformed speculation over the past few days relating to police activity in the River Wyre.

“As previously stated, police divers were acting under instruction of HM Senior Coroner and had been asked to assess the riverbanks in the vicinity of where Nicola Bulley went missing.

“They had not been tasked either to perform any further searches within the river or along the banks or to locate any articles. This activity is to assist with the coronial process.”

“As previously stated, police divers were acting under instruction of HM Senior Coroner and had been asked to assess the riverbanks in the vicinity of where Nicola Bulley went missing.

“They had not been tasked either to perform any further searches within the river or along the banks or to locate any articles. This activity is to assist with the coronial process.”

Dr James Adeley, HM Senior Coroner for Lancashire, added: “Speculation as to the role and purpose of officers acting on my instructions is unhelpful in the resolution of this inquest.”

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