Mystery of Nicola Bulley's missing 10 minutes before disappearance

Mystery of Nicola Bulley’s missing 10 minutes: The five unanswered questions about how she could have slipped into river while retrieving dog’s ball and been drowned while weighed down by her water- logged clothes

  • Missing mother Nicola Bulley’s family are clinging to hope she is still alive
  • Police today confirmed they believe beloved mother fell into the river last week
  • There are ten crucial minutes in which Nicola is thought to have disappeared 

Police are urgently trying to find out what happened to missing mother Nicola Bulley in a crucial ten-minute window after she was last spotted, as her sister last night said there was ‘no evidence whatsoever’ she had fallen into a nearby river. 

Ms Bulley, 45, was last seen by a witness at 9.10am on January 27, but it remains unknown what she did until 9.20am, when police know her phone was placed on the bench where it was later discovered.

It comes as Nicola Bulley’s family last night asked the public to keep an open mind as key questions about her disappearance remain unanswered more than a week later. Her partner Paul Ansell yesterday made an emotional appeal for the return of Nicola, who is mother to two daughters, nine and six.

Police yesterday expressed concerns the missing mother-of-two may have fallen in the icy cold water of the River Wyre while trying to retrieve her dog Willow’s tennis ball. Specialist search crews have not recovered the ball – or anything of note – at this stage.

On Friday Ms Bulley’s sister Louise Cunningham urged the public to keep sharing their appeal to find her.

Nicola Bulley’s sister (pictured together) warned there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ that suggests the missing mother fell in the river, despite police confirming it’s their lead theory

Ms Bulley’s sister Louise Cunningham urged the public to keep an open mind in a social media post, tagging Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell in the post

Willow was known to play with a ball in the area – and even sometimes the river – as evidenced by Ms Bulley’s Strava account pictures 

‘Off the back of the latest police media update, please can I add there is no evidence whatsoever that she has gone into the river, it’s just a theory,’ she said.

‘Everyone needs to keep an open mind as not all CCTV and leads have been investigated fully, the police confirmed the case is far from over.’

As the search for Ms Bulley enters its ninth day, the mystery surrounding the mother-of-two remains.

Police released a detailed timeline of Ms Bulley’s morning, revealing she was last seen walking her dog along the river by a witness who is known to her.

Ten minutes later, at 9.20am, the police know her phone was on the bench it would later be found.

At 9.33am Nicola’s dog was found running around in an agitated state, near to the bench where her phone, the dog’s lead and harness were lying.

A key part of the investigation concerns what happened during those missing ten minutes.

Investigators are also trying to substantiate whether Ms Bulley put her phone down on the bench herself because her dog was in danger.

At a press conference on Friday, Supt Riley from Lancashire Police said it was ‘possible’ Ms Bulley rushed to the aid of her dog Willow and consequently fell into the River Wyre.

She may have momentarily put her phone down on the nearby bench in order to help Willow. But they added that was speculation, and her dog was found to be ‘bone dry’, meaning it most likely did not enter the water at any point.

Police are therefore also considering whether Ms Bulley had been trying to retrieve Willow’s ball and then entered the water.

Photographs show she often let her dog off the lead to play near the river, and the ball may have slipped down the riverbank. No ball has been found at the scene, but it could have fallen into the river. 

There is also the question of how Nicola may have ended up in the water. This could be due to the treacherous and slippery nature of the riverbank in the area – she could have fallen in and become weighed down by her heavy clothing.

But her family have said there are no signs of a fall at the river, which is muddy at this time of year, and that she is a strong swimmer.

Another mystery is where Nicola and her possessions may be now.

Police say it is possible Ms Bulley was attempting to help her dog Willow (pictured) or retrieve a tennis ball for her and then fell into the river 

Ms Bulley’s distraught partner attempted to remain composed as he told the media he was trying to protect his daughters

Police divers have reportedly not yet located anything of note in the river after nine days of searching

Divers will continue looking for the missing mother throughout Saturday 

She was last seen wearing an ankle-length black quilted gilet jacket, a black Engelbert Strauss waist-length coat, tight-fitting jeans and green wellies.

She had a pale blue Fitbit strapped to her wrist as she took her Spaniel, Willow, on a brisk walk through River Wyre – a route she took often after dropping her daughters to school nearby.

The police are searching a 10-mile stretch of river to the Irish sea but have so far found no sign of the 45-year-old. Members of the public are urged to look out for anything which could belong to her.

Police have confirmed there are other lines of inquiry, including a ‘very small area’ leading out of the park which has no CCTV nearby and could be crucial to the development of the investigation. 

Substantial CCTV in the region has all but ruled out she exited the park from most of the surrounding gates, but the path leading to Garstang Lane toward the A5/A6 has thus far proven to be a camera black spot.

Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley told the Lancashire Post: ‘Several exits of the riverside area have CCTV covering them or exits are locked and therefore couldn’t have been passed through by Nicola. 

‘There’s only a very small area onto Garstang Lane toward the A5/A6 which is not covered by CCTV and that’s why we’re appealing today for dashcam footage or for people who may have been walking on Garstang Lane or driving in the area to come forward if they can.’ 

While police are still investigating, their lead theory is that for some as yet unknown reason, she did enter the river on the morning of Friday January 27, shortly after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school.

Since then Ms Bulley’s distraught family have been clinging to hope she may still be alive.

When Willow was found by another dog-walker – just 13 minutes after Ms Bulley vanished – she was ‘bone dry’, leading police to determine she likely had not been in the water, despite being alone, out of her harness and ‘worked up’. 

Last night Ms Bulley’s family were finding the candid police assessment ‘hard to contemplate’ but continued to hold onto hope, the Mail was told.

Ms Bulley’s desperate parents, sister, partner and daughters have all been living a nightmare over the past week. 

Partner Paul Ansell, a 44-year-old company director, shares the bewilderment of millions who had followed the agonising mystery since his partner of 12 years disappeared.

Pictured: Ms Bulley’s devastated parents Ernie and Dot, and sister Louise speaking to the media earlier this week

Pictured: Ms Bulley’s distraught partner, Paul Ansell, said on Friday it was as if Nicola had ‘vanished into thin air’

Police expressed concerns that the missing mother-of-two may have wound up in the icy cold water on River Wyre while trying to retrieve her dog Willow’s tennis ball 

At the scene yesterday he said: ‘My whole focus is my two girls, just staying as strong as I can for them. I’m scared that if I put focus into anything else it’s going to take my focus off that. 

‘I just can’t believe we’re a week on, and it seems like we’re no further on. It just seems absolutely impossible. Like a dream. I cannot get my head around it. Right now it’s like she’s vanished into thin air, it’s insane.’

Friend Luke Sumner acknowledged the evidence thus far does appear to point to the river.

‘It’s very, very wet, the banks can be quite steep in certain areas, and the current can be quite fast,’ he told Radio 4’s PM programme. But he said family and friends continued ‘clinging to any hope there is’.

Speaking to MailOnline following a press conference in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Supt Riley said officers were looking at all scenarios, including that Ms Bulley got into trouble trying to retrieve Willow’s ball.

Ms Bulley posted numerous images of herself exercising along the same stretch of the River Wyre to where she was last seen last on the running tracking app Strava.

Specialist crews were on the water on Friday searching for clues

Police divers from North West Police Underwater Unit returned to the River Wyre yesterday to continue scouring the riverbed for clues

Nicola Bulley’s daughters ‘miss their mummy’ as they point out their hair ‘was not done how she does it’: READ MORE 

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.

‘What she was wearing could also be a factor.

‘I don’t wish to speculate but the facts are that she was wearing a quilted, ankle-length gilet, which is a big coat, and underneath that there was another coat and then under that coat more clothing.

‘She was also wearing ankle-length wellingtons. One would assume they fill with water when someone enters a river so all of that clothing is heavy, particularly on someone who is of slight build and only five foot three.’

Outdoor swimming expert Camilla Golledge told MailOnline the shock of the cold water could also limit a person’s ability to swim to safety. 

The Kent-based instructor said: ‘People are experiencing cold water shock at the moment because the water is so cold… which means that your natural response if to take a big gasp of air, meaning water will fill your lungs.

‘Everybody would experience it unless you are an experienced outdoor swimmer.

‘It has less to do with the clothes. They certainly won’t help.’

Nicola Bulley kept a harness on her dog for walks – prompting questions about why it was found near to where she vanished, but police say this was not out of the ordinary

The process of searching the river is tedious and slow moving, but police remain hopeful

Police were pictured on the riverbank yesterday as the investigation carried on

She said Ms Bulley may have been unable to call for help, especially because her clothes and wellies would have weighed her down.

‘Most people suffering from cold water shock or drowning in open water are people that did not mean to be there,’ Ms Golledge said.

‘What you need to do is coach your breathing, get in slowly, rather than falling or jumping in.

‘Even I as an experienced open water swimmer, I get in slowly and I have to coach my breathing. My body does feel shock with that unnatural breath in.’

READ MORE: Friends fear Nicola Bulley ‘slipped down steep and muddy riverbank’ while walking her dog

Supt Riley said there were no reports of anyone in distress, no shouting or splashing, and no footprints were found on the bank. 

Search teams from Lancashire Constabulary are continuing to trawl the River Wyre, working on the hypothesis that the 45-year-old mortgage adviser, from nearby Inskip, could have fallen in.

They will return to the scene at the weekend, aided by specialists and divers from HM Coastguard, mountain rescue, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service – with sniffer dogs, drones, and police helicopters deployed.

Detectives are also working behind the scenes to analyse CCTV and dashcam videos, and members of the public with footage which could be useful have been urged to come forward.

Friends of the family said on Friday that Ms Bulley’s daughters had been asking: ‘Where’s Mummy? How is Mummy?’ 

Social media sleuths sharing theories about Ms Bulley’s disappearance online have been warned they’re only adding to the hurt and pain felt by her family.

A friend said: ‘They perhaps need to find a better way of occupying their time… They could do something more useful and proactive with their time… help search, share posters, but allegations are cruel and unhelpful.’

Armchair detectives and well-meaning strangers have made wild allegations in the days since Ms Bulley vanished. 

Some people claiming to be psychics say they had visions of the mother-of-two in the river, while others insist she was ‘taken’ – despite repeated police statements saying there does not appear to be third party involvement.

Speaking to The Mirror, a friend said she believes these outlandish hypotheses are the work of ‘attention seekers’, describing the comments as ‘cruel, unhelpful’ and hurtful to Ms Bulley’s loved ones.

The missing mortgage adviser, 45, sent a text to a friend organising a playdate for their children minutes before she vanished, it emerged yesterday. 

A resident of St Michael’s on Wyre told the publication: ‘She booked a playdate, 8.57am, she sent a text message to a friend whose mortgage she had just recently signed off on to arrange for the girls to go for tea this week.’

The local, who did not want to be named, said this was more evidence that she had no intention of voluntarily disappearing, adding: ‘You wouldn’t have done that if you were going to get up and go missing.’

Mr Ansell tried to gently break the news of her disappearance to their two daughters, who are now confused and continuing to ask their grandparents when she is coming home

Specialist police are seen here moving the boat down into the water to resume the search

Specialist police officers have scanned the section of the River Wyre close to the bench where her mobile phone was recovered later in the morning last Friday.

The spot is 300metres away from a weir, which divides the river between tidal and non-tidal.

Nothing of note had been found, the officer said, but she added that a ‘large mass’ could go over that weir downstream, which would present ‘more complexities and challenges’ as it flows out to the coast nine miles away at Fleetwood.

Officers have scoured the riverbed with modern underwater drones, which are similar to mini submarines equipped with cameras operated by someone on land or on a boat.

Author and former soldier Chris Ryan, who goes by ChrisRyanMM and was a member of the British Army’s elite SAS squadron for a decade, also highlighted the struggles Nicola would have faced if she did fall in the water.

Members of the public line the road into St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, with missing posters of Ms Bulley 

This aerial view shows the vast, expansive land which has been at the centre of the police search

‘It is an awful case and my heart goes out to her and her family. During my SAS service I was part of three missions involving river falls and sadly, people can underestimate the power of water along with the dangers of an unstable riverbank,’ he told MailOnline.

Ms Bulley’s Strava account reveals route was one she often took 


‘We all take these walks and on any given day they go by without incident. Collapses aren’t always predictable, so the surprise will often dictate the way in which a person enters the water, for example head first. Then consider several other factors like shock, undercurrents, debris and clothing.

‘A grown adult can be swept away in as little as 17 inches of fast flowing water. Then consider a swollen and fast flowing river with a lot of loose debris. If a person falls into a river, their clothes will absorb the water and that extra weight would make swimming or staying above the surface very difficult.’

He added: ‘I really hope this young woman is found soon, I walk my dog along a river so know too well that at first glance it’s a lovely place to be.’

Earlier, Supt Riley said detectives are ‘as sure as we can be’ that the missing mother-of-two didn’t leave the riverbank in St Michael’s on Wyre and ‘this is not suspicious but a tragic case of a missing person’.

Supt Riley said they are trying to piece together ‘a ten minute window where we can’t account for her movements’ – from when she was last seen at 9.10am last Friday and when her phone was put down on a bench at 9.20am.

She said: ‘We believe she remained in the riverside area. Our working hypothesis is that she has sadly fallen into the river for some reason. There is no evidence whatsoever that there is anything suspicious about her disappearance or any third-party involvement in her going missing’, adding ‘speculation otherwise is distressing for Nikki’s family.’

The bench where Ms Bulley is thought to have left her mobile phone before she vanished

‘The combination of the depth and how cold it is at this time of year makes [the river] very dangerous,’ a source said

A police officer guarding the entrance to the path where Ms Bulley was last seen

The 67-year-old woman in a red coat who was the subject of a police witness appeal told officers she did not see Ms Bulley during her walk 

Earlier this week, police issued a public appeal for a woman seen in CCTV wearing a red coat on the River Wyre around the time Ms Bulley vanished. 

MailOnline revealed the 67-year-old woman, Christine Bowman, told police she did not see Ms Bulley during her walk with her own dog Snowflake.

Ms Bowman said she was baffled by the appeal to track her down because she had already spoken to officers on the day Ms Bulley disappeared – and she ‘doesn’t know anything’.

Why hasn’t Nicola Bulley been found in the river and why was her dog’s harness removed? Fifteen vital questions about mother-of-two’s disappearance


The local resident – who police hoped could provide key pieces of information in the search for Ms Bulley – does not travel as far as the bench where the missing mother’s phone and dog were found. 

‘The security camera footage that she was caught on was taken from the caravan park next to the towpath.

‘That’s as far as she goes, she doesn’t walk her dog further along the footpath than that point.’

It’s a devastating blow for Ms Bulley’s family, who have been waiting with bated breath for updates in the investigation.

In the appeal to track down the woman, a spokesman for Lancashire Police said: ‘She is described as wearing a red and white coat with a fur hood, light-coloured trousers and a light bobble hat.

‘She was walking a small, white dog. The woman was seen on CCTV at around 8.48am on Allotment Lane, close to where Nicola was last seen and was also seen near to the gate at the end of Allotment Lane.’

However a friend said: ‘Their paths did not cross, she has no information on where Nicola could be sadly.’ 

As the investigation continues, a source from St Michael’s Angling Association said the stretch of river where Ms Bulley vanished is notorious and ‘very dangerous’, with a depth of about 15ft. 

‘The combination of the depth and how cold it is at this time of year makes it very dangerous,’ he told The Times.

‘I certainly would not want to fall in there and I’m a very strong swimmer.’ Specialist police divers have been painstakingly searching the riverbed for clues. 

Officers taped off Skippool Creek car park by the River Wyre in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, with investigators wearing white forensic suits seen carrying away bags of evidence 

Nicola Bulley’s disappearance: A timeline 

– January 27 

The 45-year-old dropped her daughters – aged six and nine – off at school in the morning before walking her dog, Willow, in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire. 

Lancashire Police have said the mortgage adviser, from nearby Inskip, had been walking along a path beside the River Wyre just before 9am. 

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, 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.

By 9.30am, Ms Bulley’s Teams call had ended, but her phone stayed connected to the call. Approximately five minutes later, 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.

 – January 28 

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. 

– January 29 

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 the search.

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’. 

– January 30 

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. 

– January 31 

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. 

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’. 

– February 1 

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.’ 

– February 2 

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. Speaking with Sky News, her sister Louise Cunningham said: ‘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. 

‘Get in touch and get my sister back.’ Ms Bulley’s father said that his family hoped their interview would ‘spark a light’ that would lead to her being found. 

– February 3 

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

Superintendent Sally 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. 

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