Armchair detectives, ‘persistent myths’ and police under fire … but still no sign of missing UK mom
One video shows a single blue glove, found in the field where missing British mother Nicola Bulley was last seen before she vanished over three weeks ago.
Another urges police to investigate a derelict house on the riverbank, opposite where Bulley disappeared while walking with her dog Willow.
Yet another simply shows a section of the River Wyre in northern England near where she vanished, in an effort to prove how slow-moving and shallow the water is. Divers have been scouring the river downstream amid fears she has gone into the water. “There is no way on God’s earth Nicola is in this river,” the caption reads.
These viral videos have been condemned by police as social media users “playing private detectives” and distracting their search for the missing mother of two.
Bulley went missing in the village of St. Michael’s on Wyre on the morning of Friday, January 27. Police say she was walking her dog after dropping her two children off at school.
A short while later, her dog was found wandering alone and her phone spotted on a bench next to the river, still logged into a group work call. But police are yet to find a trace of the missing 45-year-old.
Three weeks on, an investigation launched by Lancashire Police continues to draw a blank.
After reviewing hundreds of hours of CCTV and dashcam footage, and investigating tip-offs from the public, police officers have insisted that there is still no evidence to indicate third-party involvement and their main working hypothesis remains that she fell into the River Wyre.
The case has baffled the public and attracted widespread media attention, with police also – unusually – choosing to reveal that Bulley had been struggling with alcohol issues and menopause at the time of her disappearance.
This week saw investigators sharply criticize members of the public they say are pedaling “persistent myths.”
Lancashire Police Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith told journalists on Wednesday that the social media frenzy had “significantly distracted” the investigation.
“In 29 years’ police service, I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Some of it’s been quite shocking and really hurtful to the family. Obviously, we can’t disregard anything, and we’ve reviewed everything that’s come in but of course it has distracted us significantly.”
Smith took the opportunity to denounce some of the conspiracy theories. “The derelict house which is across the other side of the river has been searched three times, with the permission of the owner, and Nicola is not in there,” she said.
As for the blue glove, Smith said: “You’ll no doubt be aware that TikTokers have been playing their own private detectives and have been in the area.
“A glove has been recovered that is not believed to be relevant to the investigation. It is not Nicola’s, but we have got that in our possession.”
While asking members of the public to stop inundating them with “false information, accusations and rumors,” Lancashire Police has taken flak for its own handling of the case.
Much of this criticism has centered on the police’s decision to reveal personal details about Bulley, starting with Smith’s comments at a press conference on Wednesday: “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.”
Police later that evening clarified that she had “in the past suffered with some significant issues with alcohol” in struggles which had “resurfaced over recent months” as she went through menopause.
For David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, the revelation of such personal details about Bulley’s life had a “whiff of misogyny.”
“There’s a lot of distrust at the moment in the police – especially from women – specifically because of a number of high-profile femicides in London,” he told CNN. “So the police have to be as open and honest as they can be, but last night they lost a lot of my sympathy as what they said seemed like victim blaming and had a whiff of misogyny – revealing Nicola’s alcohol problems and menopause struggles.”
The hashtag “menopause” was trending on Twitter in the wake of the police announcements, with some social media users accusing Lancashire Police of letting women down.
At least 16 women, most recently Sarah Everard in 2021, have been killed by serving or retired police officers over the last 13 years in the UK, according to the Femicide Census, a group that collects data on women killed by men. Campaigners feel that tackling gender-based violence is not a police priority.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, director of women’s rights group Right To Equality, wrote on Twitter: “Missing mother Nicola Bulley had ‘some significant issues with alcohol’ brought on by struggles with the menopause, police have said. Such a serious invasion into her private life which will only result in further victim blaming. Shameful.”
Another Twitter user named Sue McKay said: “By describing Nicola Bulley as a menopausal woman with drink issues, it just proves just how out of touch Lancs Police are with mental health. This will in effect make the public’s trust and credibility in them even less.”
Professor Wilson, who works with and trains the police, understands that sometimes the force is “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” However, for him, there was something insensitive in the tone of Wednesday’s press conference.
“Their recent press conference was at times insensitive – it seemed like they were scolding the public, when in fact they rely on the public to provide information, and so it’s no good saying they sometimes give information they don’t want, is misleading or wastes their time.
“Of course the TikTokers and armchair detectives were clearly a hindrance to them, but that is simply a new reality that has to be managed – you can’t wish it away.
“Above all I worried last night that their clarification about Nicola was made to protect their institutional reputation and had lost sight of the humanity of the people at the heart of the investigation,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a statement on Thursday, Bulley’s family called for an end to the speculation.
“As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki,” the statement said.
“Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her. This is appalling and needs to stop.
“The police know the truth about Nikki and now the public need to focus on finding her,” they added.
Criticism of the police has continued. Vera Baird, who in her former role as victims’ commissioner for England and Wales aimed to encourage good treatment of crime victims, said the criticism of police was “totally justified.”
“I’m afraid this is the biggest error that I have seen for quite a long time,” she told the BBC.
And British Home Secretary Suella Braverman raised concerns with police over its handling of the case, according to a Home Office spokesperson on Friday.
“The Home Secretary and Policing Minister are receiving regular updates from Lancashire Police on its handling of this case, including why personal details about Nicola was briefed out at this stage of the investigation,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, there is still no trace of Bulley.
Other dog walkers were the last to see her. During the walk, she dialed into a work conference call, keeping her camera off and microphone muted. By 9:30 a.m., the call had ended – with Bulley still logged on.
A short while later, her dog Willow was found wandering alone and her phone was recovered on a riverside bench, but Bulley had vanished.
Police are “particularly interested” in the time between the phone being placed on the bench at 9:20 a.m. and the device being recovered 10 minutes later.
“We only have a 10-minute window in which we cannot account for Nicola’s movements,” Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley said.
Stephanie Benyon, a friend of Bulley’s whose children attend the same school, previously told CNN that she is a “kind, loyal and thoughtful person who adores her two girls and family and friends.” Her partner of 12 years, Paul Ansell, described the situation as a “perpetual hell.”
For Wilson, it is no surprise that Bulley’s case has captivated the general public. “Someone goes missing in the UK every 90 seconds. Thankfully, most are found within 48 hours, but a number disappear for much longer.
“Nicola Bulley was always going to generate media interest – a White, middle class, professional woman from a picture-perfect village where crime was almost nonexistent, was always going to grab headlines that the disappearance of a working-class Black man from inner city London just wouldn’t.”