It is now 14 days since mum of two, Nicola Bulley was last seen – leaving her family, friends and the police baffled by her disappearance. Let’s be clear: people don’t just vanish, there is always an explanation.
So, what could have happened to her?
To my mind, there are three options. The first is what police have believed from day one: that Nicola fell into the River Wyre. However, even though they have made this their main focus, this is looking more and more unlikely. They have flooded the search of the river with massive resources, including private divers, which will have detracted from other areas being searched. Yet they still have no evidence to support their hypothesis that she has fallen into the river.
The other two options are therefore, in my opinion, becoming increasingly more likely: that she left of her own free will, or a third-party was involved.
The police have identified a window of opportunity of about 10 minutes, when they have no sighting or information about Nicola’s whereabouts. This is ample time – either for her to get herself some distance from the river bank and the phone, or for someone else to have been involved. I know the police have stated clearly that they have no evidence of third-party involvement or criminal behaviour, but neither do they have any evidence that she fell into the river. So, all three options must remain on the table until they are eliminated.
To date, the assumption has been that if Nicola left by what whatever means, it would have been by a path – but how can we be so certain about that? Had she left via a field or non-official path, she would not have been seen on CCTV.
A lot has been made of her mobile phone on the bench as being the location she entered the water, but evidence from the police who have thoroughly searched the area downstream to the weir tells us that this is almost certainly not the case. With the flow of the River Wyre at the time only being very slightly higher and faster, it is still not enough to drag a fully clothed, fit and healthy person far downstream. If she did lose consciousness straight away, because of the water temperature she would have sunk to the bottom.
The police have come under a lot of criticism – some founded, some very unfair. Nobody can doubt their desire to find Nicola, but what has been lacking is a clear, appropriate and effective media strategy. For example, on day one conflicting information was released about where the dog was found. They also said they were certain Nicola did not leave the area, only to follow it up a few days later saying it’s possible – because a path was not covered by CCTV.
But my biggest concern is the police concluding – within days of Nicola’s disappearance – that they had formed a working hypothesis that Nicola fell into the water and drowned. My major problem with having a hypothesis so early is it has the danger of looking for evidence to fit that theory, rather than everyone remaining open-minded.
With my experience as a former detective, I think this is what the police investigation should focus on now:
1) Conclude the water search as soon as possible – once all areas are eliminated;
2) Focus on a wider search of the fields and wooded area on land;
3) Fitbit data on average updates every 15 minutes via Bluetooth to Nicola’s phone – when did that last happen? This will help give an indication of when the watch went out of range, and if the watch was still on her wrist this could significantly helping with the time line and radius of search;
4) Reconstruction and road checks – people are creatures of habit. Most of us take the same route at the same time, on the same day, every week. This may well identify new witnesses, who have not yet come forward.
Having dealt with many families who are in the same place as Nicola’s family now tragically find themselves in, I know they hold on to every possible piece of hope. They will be watching the news and reading articles. It will be a relief for them I am sure that the brilliant forensics expert Peter Faulding did not find her, but I can tell you from experience it’s the not knowing that eats away, far more. That is why they need answers, not hypotheses.
Mark Williams-Thomas is an investigative reporter. He is also the presenter of ITV and Netflix series The Investigator
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