Nicola Bulley could have gone ‘off-grid’: Missing persons expert says there is ‘no indication’ mother is in river – as police are accused of undermining public confidence with ‘deeply disturbing’ handling of case
- Lancashire Police have been accused of ‘undermining public confidence’
- The search to find the missing mortgage adviser has now entered a fourth week
- Suella Braverman demanded answers and ‘asked to be updated on investigation’
A former police chief has accused Lancashire Police of ‘undermining confidence in the police’ by releasing highly personal details about missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley, as another missing persons expert today said there was ‘no indication’ she was in the River Wyre.
Criticism of the force has been mounting since the 45-year-old’s disappearance on January 27, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman both expressing concerns.
Now former Inspector of the Constabulary Zoe Billingham says the force’s actions have created ‘an element of doubt’ for families over turning to the police if a loved one goes missing.
Meanwhile missing persons expert Charlie Hedges suggested Ms Bulley could have ‘gone off-grid’.
This week police publicly divulged information about Nicola Bulley’s battles with alcohol and the menopause – a decision some have described as ‘sexist’.
Mortgage adviser Nicola Bulley, 45, went missing after 9am on January 27
The internal probe comes exactly three weeks after 45-year-old mortgage adviser Nicola Bulley (pictured) vanished during a dog walk in St Michael’s on Wyre
Lancashire Police have launched a probe into their investigation, which appears to have stalled, but have raised questions by not taking up offers from other forces such as the Metropolitan Police to conduct the review instead.
Speaking to Sky News, Ms Billingham said detail about Ms Bulley’s struggles with her health is ‘deeply personal information’ that ‘none of us can readily understand why it was relevant to the investigation.’
She accused Lancashire Police of harming the public’s trust in police: ‘I think the fact that this very personal information has made its way into the public domain and is being poured over is going to cause people to have an element of doubt over whether or not they will phone the police now if their loved one went missing, which is a terrible thing to happen in the sense that the police are there for us.’
She continued: ‘99.9 percent of police officers do a great job for us every day, are here to make us safe and the public should report this in.
‘But to actually have undermined confidence in the police in this way is deeply disturbing.’
It has now been three weeks since Ms Bulley, who has two children aged nine and six, vanished during a dog walk in St Michael’s on Wyre, near to her home in Inskip.
Lancashire Police also faced backlash after announcing early in the investigation that their ‘main hypothesis’ was Ms Bulley fell in the river, despite there being no evidence to prove this was the case.
This caused Ms Bulley’s friends and family to renew appeals for public help to bring her home.
Her partner of 12 years Paul Ansell told Channel 5 he was ‘one hundred percent’ sure she did not end up in the water.
International search and rescue specialist Peter Faulding also told media he did not believe Ms Bulley had gone into the river after conducting extensive searches with sonar equipment.
He pointed out that the river was so shallow by the village Ms Bulley could have ‘just stood up’.
Missing persons expert, Charlie Hedges, told GB News on Saturday there is ‘no indication’ Ms Bulley is in the river.
He continued: ‘Nobody goes missing without a reason, and understanding what’s going on in someone’s life is very, very important.
‘It may be that she took the decision to go off, but it’s not very easy to go off-grid in today’s world.’
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said they were assessing the information to determine whether an investigation would be necessary over the contact officers had with the missing mother-of-two on January 10. Pictured: Officers in St Michael’s on Wyre on Thursday
Lancashire Police also faced backlash after announcing early in the investigation that their ‘main hypothesis’ was Ms Bulley fell in the river, despite there being no evidence to prove this was the case
Former Inspector of the Constabulary Zoe Billingham said today the release of Ms Bulley’s private information could undermine public trust in policing
Former police officers also questioned why basic actions such as closing off the area where Ms Bulley’s phone and dog were discovered for forensic examination were not completed.
Meanwhile PM Rishi Sunak, speaking after Lancashire Police announced it will conduct an internal review into the missing person investigation, said he is ‘pleased police are looking at how that happened in the investigation’.
He said that like Home Secretary Suella Braverman – who yesterday demanded an explanation from police – he was ‘concerned that private information was put into the public domain’.
‘I’m pleased that the police are looking at how that happened in the investigation,’ the Prime Minister said during an interview with Sky News.
‘Obviously my thoughts are with Nicola’s friends and family and the focus must now be on continuing to try and find her.’
A source close to Ms Braverman told MailOnline: ‘The Home Secretary today [Friday] spoke with Lancashire Police Chief Constable Chris Rowley and his senior team to discuss the handling of the investigation into the disappearance of Nicola Bulley.
‘She outlined her concerns over the disclosure of Ms Bulley’s personal information and listened to the force’s explanation.
‘The Home Secretary asked to be kept updated on the investigation.’
The force today confirmed a date had been set for the internal review, which will be conducted by their Head of Crime, Detective Chief Superintendent Pauline Stables.
In a statement confirming the internal review, a police spokeswoman said: ‘A review of the investigation is diarised and will be conducted by our Head of Crime Detective Chief Superintendent Pauline Stables.’
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) also revealed yesterday it had received a referral from the force regarding the contact officers had with Ms Bulley on January 10 – before she went missing.
Ron, the dogwalker who found her phone, went public this morning three weeks after the mortgage adviser vanished in St Michael’s on Wyre. He is pictured this morning on Sky News
Pictured: The bench where Nicola Bulley’s phone was found, on the banks of the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre
Police officers are seen searching the Wyre river bank at Wardley Yacht Marina on Thursday
Ms Bulley’s father, Ernie Bulley, is hoping for a breakthrough in the case. He is pictured with Nicola Bulley in an undated photo
Ms Bulley vanished after dropping off her daughters, aged six and nine, at school on January 27 in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire.
She was last seen at 9.10am taking her usual route with her springer spaniel Willow, alongside the River Wyre.
Her phone, still connected to a work call, was found just over 20 minutes later on a bench overlooking the riverbank, with her dog running loose.
Ron, the dogwalker who found her phone, yesterday described how he knew something ‘was not right’.
In an extraordinary coincidence he appeared on television walking his dog as Sky News recreated 45-year-old Ms Bulley’s own walk.
He told the interviewer: ‘Each day something new comes out doesn’t it.’
He didn’t know Ms Bulley but recognised her dog Willow.
‘I’d seen both owners of Willow walking this dog in the past, but while I knew their faces I didn’t know their names,’ he said.
Ron shared that when he first found the phone he thought ‘somebody had gone to toilet’.
He added: ‘I got to about this red brick building here and I thought ‘this is not right’.
‘Then it was just a progression of things happening, you know. Because of the wallpaper on the phone we found out who the couple were, and the school was contacted and Paul arrived.’
He confirmed he had given a full statement to the police after finding Ms Bulley’s phone on the bench at around 9.30am on January 27.
On February 3, Lancashire Police told the public of its main hypothesis that Ms Bulley had fallen into the River Wyre in a ’10-minute window’ between 9.10am and 9.20am on the day she disappeared.
The search for her has since been extended to the sea but she has not been found.
Lancashire Police said that Nicola was immediately graded as ‘high-risk’ due to ‘specific vulnerabilities’
Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson (left) and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police updates the media on Wednesday
Peter Faulding (centre, pictured searching for Nicola on February 8) said it is ‘absolutely outrageous’ the information was withheld from him, as it would have changed how he searched the stretch of the River Wyre in the village of St Michael’s
On Friday Nicola’s father Ernie said ‘every day is a struggle’ and said the anguished family ‘just need a breakthrough to give us some hope.’
Ernest, 73, and Nicola’s mother Dot Bulley, 72, yesterday left a yellow ribbon tied to the bridge over the River Wyre near where their daughter vanished.
Among other ribbons left by friends and well-wishers, the message from Ms Bulley’s parents read: ‘We pray every day for you. Love you, Mum + Dad XXX.’
A second ribbon, believed to be from Ms Bulley’s sister Louise Cunningham, read: ‘Nikki please come home. I love you. Lou XXX’.
Nicola Bulley’s family statement
‘It has now been three weeks since Nikki went missing. We, as a family, believe that the public focus has become distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her and Paul’s private life.
‘As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki.
‘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.
‘Due to the peri menopause Nikki suffered with significant side effects such as brain fog, restless sleep and was taking HRT to help but this was giving her intense headaches which caused Nikki to stop taking the HRT thinking that may have helped her but only ended up causing this crisis.
‘The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.
‘Despite what some media outlets and individuals are suggesting, we are being updated daily and receive support from our family liaison officers.
‘Nikki is such a wonderful daughter, sister , partner and mother and is missed dearly – we all need you back in our lives.
‘Nikki, we hope you are reading this and know that we love you so much and your girls want a cuddle. We all need you home. You can reach out to us, or you can contact MissingPeople.org.uk. Don’t be scared, we all love you so very much.’
The tributes came after Ms Bulley’s family released a statement yesterday urging people to stop ‘making wild theories up’ about her and called for an end to the ‘speculation and rumours’ about her private life.
The family also pleaded for her to come home after they revealed she suffered a ‘crisis’ after she stopped taking menopause drugs.
‘We all need you home. You can reach out to us,’ her family pleaded yesterday. ‘Don’t be scared, we all love you so very much.’
The family said they feared her decision to stop taking her hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs may have played a factor in her disappearance.
‘Due to the perimenopause Nikki suffered with significant side effects such as brain fog, restless sleep and was taking HRT to help but this was giving her intense headaches which caused Nikki to stop taking the HRT thinking that may have helped her but only ended up causing this crisis,’ the statement said.
Reiterating their pleas that the focus returns to finding Ms Bulley, they went on: ‘The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.’
The family are holding on to hope that Ms Bulley will come home to them safe and well, ending with a personal message.
They said: ‘Nikki is such a wonderful daughter, sister, partner and mother and is missed dearly – we all need you back in our lives.
‘Nikki, we hope you are reading this and know that we love you so much and your girls want a cuddle. We all need you home.
‘You can reach out to us, or you can contact MissingPeople.org.uk. Don’t be scared, we all love you so very much.’
Information Commissioner John Edwards confirmed on Friday he will be asking Lancashire Police about its decision to disclose Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and HRT.
He said in a statement: ‘Data protection law exists to ensure people’s personal information is used properly and fairly. This includes ensuring personal details are not disclosed inappropriately.’
‘Given the high-profile nature of this case, we will be asking Lancashire Police to set out how they reached the decision to disclose this information in due course.’
The force also came under fire from the leader of Wyre Council, who said there were ‘lessons to be learned’.
But in an interview with Sky News, he claimed the police’s decision to release personal information about Ms Bulley was because ‘other people were seeking to make that information public.’
He added: ‘That wasn’t the police’s decision, their hand was forced.
‘Should they have done it? Again, with the benefit of hindsight, that should be looked into in future cases.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told Times Radio he ‘was very surprised to see what the police had put out there’, noting he was not sure ‘why the degree of personal information was necessary’.
The decision by the force to reveal details of Ms Bulley’s ‘vulnerabilities’ had earlier been criticised by MPs and campaign groups.
Since Ms Bulley vanished, huge public and media interest has resulted in what police described as ‘false information, accusations and rumours’ and an ‘unprecedented’ search of both the River Wyre, downstream to Morecambe Bay and miles of neighbouring farmland
Nicola Bulley, 45, from Inskip, Lancashire, was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the River Wyre off Garstang Road in St Michael’s on Wrye
An aerial view of Blackpool Lane in St Michaels on Wyre, which was not covered by CCTV on the day that Nicola Bulley went missing, on February 15
The Conservative police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, Andrew Snowden, said the force was being ‘as transparent as they can be’ following the press conference.
Experts, including ex-Scotland Yard detectives, said police had mishandled the missing person’s probe by initially suppressing relevant information, then oversharing details they said should have stayed private.
The broadside, from former victims’ commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird, contained the gravest accusations against officers so far.
Dame Vera said today: ‘Would we have had police officers saying, you know, if it was Nicholas, he’s been unfortunately tied down with alcohol because he’s been suffering from erectile dysfunction for the last few weeks? I think not.
‘You can hear all the senior police officers squirming as I say it, I would have thought.’
Dame Vera added: ‘This is the biggest error that I have seen for quite a long time.
‘It’s going to just, you know, very sadly, to undermine trust in the police yet further.
‘It is a dreadful error to put this in the public domain for absolutely nothing and I’m afraid I think it’s as sexist as it comes.
‘A future family like this is going to face the torment of not knowing whether to run the risk of gratuitously wrecking your relative’s reputation by giving every detail away – or missing the chance of catching whoever has got them, or getting her back.’
From HRT side effects to the symptoms that affect nearly nine in 10 women, our essential Q&A reveals how menopause can have a devastating effect
Revelations that Nicola Bulley was battling alcohol issues following an early menopause has thrown a fresh spotlight on the effects of the condition:
What is the menopause?
Menopause occurs when your periods stop permanently, marked by the point when a woman hasn’t had one for 12 months in a row.
It usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55, with 51 being the UK average.
It is a normal part of ageing and occurs because the ovaries stop producing eggs. As a result, levels of the hormones the ovaries produce drop.
Revelations that Nicola Bulley was battling alcohol issues following an early menopause has thrown a fresh spotlight on the effects of the condition (file image)
Potential side effects of HRT?
HRT replaces the hormones that a woman’s body stops producing due to the menopause, such as oestrogen and progestogen. Side effects can include bloating, breast tenderness or swelling, nausea, cramps, headaches, indigestion, bleeding, depression and acne.
The NHS advises people who suffer side effects to try to persevere for three months if possible as they can stop as the body gets used to the medication.
Do benefits outweigh risks?
For many women struggling with menopause symptoms the answer is yes.
HRT has been hailed as life-changing by women who say it has let them regain energy levels and live an active life.
In addition to HRT, women suffering from mental health symptoms may be offered cognitive behavioural therapy. There are also moisturisers and lubricants to ease discomfort.
How many take the drug?
Nearly two million women in England are taking HRT, which can come as patches, gels or tablets. HRT use jumped by 35 per cent in the last year, as women have sought prescriptions to ease symptoms.
What’s an early menopause?
Roughly one in 20 women will experience an early menopause, when periods stop before the age of 45.
Signs can include having irregular menstrual cycles over a few years, spotting between periods and changes in monthly bleeding.
Early menopause can increase the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones), heart disease, depression, dementia and Parkinson’s. Sufferers also tend to experience menopause symptoms more severely.
Early menopause is different to premature menopause, which is the term used for when a woman’s periods stop before the age of 40. This only affects around 1 per cent of women.
Nearly nine in ten women suffer from symptoms. Mental health symptoms include changes to mood, such as anxiety and low self-esteem, as well as memory or concentration problems.
Hot flushes, sleeping difficulties, heart palpations, headaches and muscle and joint pain are among the physical symptoms. As are weight gain and a reduced sex drive.
Symptoms usually start before the menopause officially begins, as periods become irregular. This is the perimenopause.
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