How Nicola Bulley disappeared in 10 minutes

Nicola Bulley has now been missing for more than a week - Family handout
Nicola Bulley has now been missing for more than a week - Family handout

A week after a mother-of-two vanished, suddenly, while walking her dog on a crisp Friday morning, detectives are only truly confident of one thing: whatever happened to Nicola Bulley, happened in a narrow 10-minute window.

The disappearance of the 45-year-old has sent a chill through the village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancs.

Meanwhile, wider public interest has reached almost feverish levels.

Her two young daughters, six and nine, are understandably bereft and the painful uncertainty even led her sister, Louise Cunningham, to remark: “People don’t just vanish into thin air.”

As speculation about Ms Bulley’s fate mounted, on Friday Lancashire Police finally revealed the working hypothesis: they were dealing with a tragic, freak accident.

Detectives suspect Ms Bulley may have slipped and fallen into the River Wyre, possibly while tending to an issue with her spaniel, after her phone was found on a bench next to a steep bank, along with the dog’s lead.

From there, it is feared she has since been swept downstream, over a weir, and into a tidal flow that ultimately reaches Morecambe Bay.

The “unprecedented” search effort and investigation has meant police believe she was not deliberately harmed by anyone else.

It remains the case, however, that the precise course of events in that 10-minute window is a mystery, and one that is tormenting her family.

The 10-minute window

A combination of witness statements, analysis of phone data and nearby surveillance footage has allowed police to build up a detailed picture of Ms Bulley’s final movements.

On the morning of January 27, she dropped her children off at school before taking the family dog, Willow, on a morning walk.

At 8.43am, Ms Bulley, from nearby Inksip, was seen on a river path walking towards the iron bridge in the village, before being spotted again by another witness at 8.47am in the "lower field".

She sent an email to her boss at 8.53am and, on her phone, joined a work call at 9.01am with her camera and microphone muted.

She was seen again at 9.10am - for the last time - in the upper field near the river, with Willow off the lead as was “normal” and “part of Nicola’s daily routine”, according to Supt Sally Riley, who is leading the investigation.

A trace of telephone records has allowed investigators to conclude that Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was on the bench overlooking the river by 9.20am.

At 9.33am, a witness found the dog’s harness on the grass between the bench and the river’s edge, along with the phone. The witness then raised the alarm.

Supt Riley said: “This means we have only a 10-minute window in which we cannot account for Nicola’s movements.”

The crucial period is between 9.10am and 9.20am.

She added that officers had examined dashcams, CCTV and doorbell camera footage from the area immediately surrounding the scene of her disappearance.

“This has allowed us to eliminate any trace so far of Nicola so far having left the riverside, which is really important,” she said.

“We believe Nicola was in the riverside area and remained in the riverside area.”

The river

The river wending through the countryside on the edge of St Michael’s on Wyre lends the area a picturesque quality, but carries a significant risk if not approached with care.

A sign is attached to a tree close to the bench where Ms Bulley’s phone was found. It says: “Danger, deep water.”

While the water appears to be relatively calm at the sharp drop in the riverbank where Ms Bulley is believed to have disappeared, jagged rocks can be seen jutting out of the water just around the bend.

Supt Riley told reporters on Friday: “At the point where the bench is located, there is quite a steep drop to the river, albeit not high. It is steep.

“Therefore, while I don’t want to speculate as to what may have happened, it is our working hypothesis that she has entered the water accidentally.”

She added that the river has many “different depths”, requiring some search teams to dive down to its lower reaches, while others have been working their way through dense undergrowth near the riverbank.

One factor that deepened the mystery was the absence of any visible signs that someone had fallen, slipped or tripped into the water at the riverside.

The dog

Willow, Ms Bulley's brown springer spaniel, was dry when it was found by passersby, nor have any witnesses come forward to describe seeing it swimming in the river.

Yet police believe the dog may hold the key to how Ms Bulley ended up in the water.

It was clear that Willow was roaming free at the point Ms Bulley disappeared, as its lead and harness was found close to the scene.

Supt Riley said: “Anything could have happened with the dog and I don’t wish to speculate, but it is possible as the dog was loosened off the lead, that there might have been an issue with the dog that led her to go near to the water’s edge.

“She puts the phone down to go and deal with the dog momentarily and Nicola may have fallen in.

“That is a possibility. We assume the dog didn’t get into the river, but we don’t know why Nicola may have if she did.”

A toy belonging to the dog could be the key, the police have suggested. Supt Riley said: 'I'm not aware of a dog ball being retrieved but it's possible that a ball could have rolled down the steep bank close to the edge of the water and Ms Bulley was bending down to pick it up."

The search

The lack of answers about Ms Bulley’s whereabouts one week on from her disappearance has naturally led to questions about the rigour and effectiveness of the police investigation.

In an apparent effort to tamper down criticism, Supt Riley set out clearly the sheer scale of the operation currently being undertaken in Lancashire.

The search has seen specialist search teams scour the area where Ms Bulley went missing, just shy of 10 miles of river to the sea and a radius of slightly more than half a mile on the physical stretch of ground from the point where she was last seen, including empty buildings and gardens.

And it has not just been Lancashire Police involved in the search. Officers from other forces have been drafted in, along with the coastguard, to hunt for Ms Bulley.

They have deployed drones, underwater drones, police divers, helicopters, police cameras, sonar equipment and specially trained dogs on either side of the riverbank.

It has been, in Supt Riley’s words, an operation involving an “unprecedented number of search resources”.

“Unfortunately, we have still not found Nicola, but our search does continue,” she said.

The investigation involves other dimensions, too. Investigators are said to have been “working tirelessly” in carrying out extensive house-to-house inquiries.

They have spoken to several key witnesses, including three who saw Ms Bulley on the walk that morning, as well as those who knew her daily routes.

“All this has built up a really rich picture of data that’s allowed us to have a very tight timeline,” Supt Riley said.

Criminal involvement?

The sudden and unexpected nature of Ms Bulley’s disappearance has inevitably fuelled speculation about whether she was abducted or even murdered by someone, whether known to her or otherwise.

Police stated at the outset that they did not believe the mother had been attacked, while saying clearly that they were keeping an “open mind” about her possible fate.

By Friday, it was apparent that the evidence gathered so far had only hardened the detectives’ belief that there was unlikely to be a sinister explanation for her disappearance.

Their confidence has largely been due to the surveillance footage gathered from the various entrances and exits to the riverside; all but one gate to the scene are either locked or covered by some sort of camera.

Supt Sally Riley, who is leading the investigation, has expressed doubt that there is any criminal involvement in the case - Danny Lawson/PA
Supt Sally Riley, who is leading the investigation, has expressed doubt that there is any criminal involvement in the case - Danny Lawson/PA
Police involved in the search for Nicola Bulley have used drones and underwater drones - Danny Lawson/PA
Police involved in the search for Nicola Bulley have used drones and underwater drones - Danny Lawson/PA
Christine Bowman, pictured with her dog Snowdrop, told police she did not see Ms Bulley during her walk in the area last Friday - Warren Smith
Christine Bowman, pictured with her dog Snowdrop, told police she did not see Ms Bulley during her walk in the area last Friday - Warren Smith

The remaining entrance - by Garstang Lane, leading to the A586 - remains a key focus and detectives are keen that anyone with dashcam footage from the area on the day Ms Bulley vanished comes forward to help their efforts.

Speaking to journalists after the televised press conference, Supt Riley expressed doubt about the idea an attacker had exploited this small blindspot to successfully target Ms Bulley without leaving a trace of their crime behind.

It was, she said, “so unlikely”.

“When you triangulate all the witnesses, all the CCTV, the digital and telepathy, the whole picture produces such a tiny window for criminal involvement that it becomes highly unlikely,” she said.

The location of Ms Bulley’s disappearance makes it further unlikely, police believe.

“This is a low-crime area, it is a genuinely safe, tight-knit area, where people look out for each other,” Supt Riley said.

“The idea that there is a third party that we haven’t yet had any sightings of, haven’t caught on CCTV, dashcam, is just not likely.

“But we don’t shut our minds to the fact that there could be new information that we do not yet have and that is why we continue to the level of resourcing that we have.”

This forthright stance from a police force in the midst of a missing person investigation is unusual and likely stems from the sheer level of public intrigue Ms Bulley’s disappearance has caused.

Supt Riley indicated that rampant speculation on social media about what - or who - had caused the mortgage adviser to disappear was now adding to the upset of her loved ones.

The officer said: “Our main working hypothesis is that…there is no third party or criminal involvement and that this is not suspicious, but a tragic case of a missing person.

"This is particularly important because speculation otherwise can be really distressing for the family and Nicola’s children.”

Supt Riley, talking candidly after the press conference, admitted it would be too devastating to consider at this stage that there was a chance Ms Bulley might never be found.

“It is a strange case and it is perplexing, but that does not mean through diligence we cannot find answers for the family,” she added.

The public response

In the week since Ms Bulley vanished, public interest in the case has escalated both locally and across the country.

Armchair sleuths have, with grim predictability, taken to social media with speculation and accusations about what unfolded next to the River Wyre that morning.

Public fervour has reached such a pitch that the comments under pictures Ms Bulley posted on her own Facebook page have become littered with strangers openly discussing their suspicions that she has been murdered, complete with baseless allegations about culprits.

In one such typical post about the case, posted on Twitter on Thursday night, a social media user claimed to have phoned police to report their suspicions about an individual they had seen on Facebook.

On Friday, there were indications that the public’s enthusiasm to crack the case was starting to test the patience of the police force investigating the disappearance.

In a pointed intervention during the press conference, Supt Riley said: “Please can the public continue to report only factual information that they have and not speculation about what may have happened to Nicola, because this is a distraction to the police inquiry and not helpful for the family.”

When The Telegraph later asked the detective about her comments, she revealed that the help the public was offering to police had bordered on the surreal.

“We’ve had lots of speculative inquiries,” she said.

They included “clairvoyants” who had been phoning the force to offer their assistance in trying to track down the missing mother.

Supt Riley said other examples included “someone seeing something factual and then hypothesising about what that could mean”.

“That isn’t helpful,” she said. “If they see something relevant, please report that they think it is relevant - report that and don’t start thinking about what it might mean.

“Everything that takes away from the ability of the inquiry team to focus on the facts is a minute or an hour less that we can dedicate to more credible inquiries.”

Earlier on Friday, Ms Bulley's partner Paul Ansell, 44, said he would “never lose hope” of finding her.