A forensic search expert has said he suspects a third party could be involved in the disappearance of Nicola Bulley if a river search today yields no results.
The 45-year-old has been missing since 27 January and was last seen walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, at around 9.10am that morning after dropping her two daughters, aged six and nine, off at school.
Lancashire Police say Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss at 8.53am, followed by a message to her friends six minutes later, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am. She was then seen by a second witness at 9.10am, the last known sighting.
Her phone was back in the area of the bench at 9.20am before the Teams call ended ten minutes later, with her mobile remaining logged on after the call. At 9.33am, another dog walker found her phone on a bench on a steep river bank overlooking the water - still connected to a Teams call - along with a dog lead and a dog harness on the ground.
On Monday night (6 February), the head of a private underwater search team cast doubt on the force’s current working hypothesis that Ms Bulley had fallen into the river.
Ahead of the Specialist Group International (SGI) beginning its second day of searching the River Wyre on Tuesday (7 February), Peter Faulding said he did not think the missing mother was in the water.
Speaking to TalkTV, the leading forensic search expert and SIG’s founder said: “I personally don’t think she’s in the river, that’s just my gut instinct at this point.”
After spending Monday searching “three or four miles” of the river until it grew dark alongside Lancashire Police, Mr Faulding admitted he was “baffled” by the case.
He told the Daily Mail: “Police were there on day one diving where the phone was found on the bench. Normally, if a person has drowned, they go down within a few metres if being searched for the same day.
“In another couple of days I will be confident she is not in that area at all. We have the best sonar you can buy. We have scanned a huge area today (Monday) and there is nothing there.”
He added: “A body will move after a time, but they searched that area and came up with nothing – that is what is weird here. We are baffled.”
‘Third party probably involved’
Mr Faulding said his team of divers would go back up the river as the search enters its 11th day, to assess the area once again near the point where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found on a bench.
If the search fails to find anything, Mr Faulding said he suspects a third party is likely involved in Ms Bulley’s disappearance. Speaking on Good Morning Britain, he said: “Bodies can get lodged in reeds and show up months later, the sonar won’t go into the reeds.
“But then that’s the idea of the divers and as I said before, it was originally searched when she supposedly went in. I personally think, if I rule this stretch of river out today where we are working, I don’t think she is here and there is probably a third party involved."
Police divers have already searched the river and riverbank all the way to the sea, using search teams, sonar, search dogs, drone, helicopter and CCTV. Mr Faulding said it is unlikely that the police have missed anything, adding: “Normally when we deal with drowning victims they go to the bottom and they will stay there for a while.
“The police divers have done a thorough search of that river twice and nothing was found. This is one of the most odd cases I’ve ever worked on. Underwater search - I’m a forensic diver as well - is a particularly difficult task. Generally, things aren’t missed, they [police divers] have done it thoroughly. If anything is there, we will find it.”
Asked if Ms Bulley could be in a different part of the river, he said: "Unless someone’s put her in a different part of the river somewhere or she’s fallen in somewhere ... It is a very short stretch. On a normal river we can scan ten miles a day for a body and locate it very quickly.”
In a separate interview on BBC Breakfast, Mr Faulding suggested that Ms Bulley’s phone could have been placed on the bench as a “decoy”. He said: “If Nicola is not in that stretch of river today my view is that there is a third party involved and this was a decoy placed by the river.
“It could have been placed as a decoy. There is not enough CCTV to cover particular areas here. The police are working hard in the background to cover everything."
What have the police said?
However, police have continued to reject suggestions that Nicola Bulley could have been a victim of crime.
Supt Sally Riley, of Lancashire Police, said “every single” potential suspicion or criminal suggestion that had come in, had been looked at by detectives and discounted.
In a statement on Tuesday (7 February), she said: “I would like to reassure the community that nothing in this investigation so far, it has been checked out if it has come in suggesting crime, it has been checked and discounted. So every single potential third party line of inquiry and potential suspicious or criminal element has been looked at and discounted.
“It does remain our belief that Nicola sadly fell into the river and that this is a missing persons inquiry.”
Police say it is still a “possibility” she left the area by one path not covered by cameras which is crossed by the main road through the village, and officers are now trying to trace dashcam footage from 700 drivers who passed along the road at the time she disappeared, around 9.20am on January 27.
Responding to Mr Faulding's comments, Ms Riley told reporters at a press conference in the village that he is not included in “all the investigation detail”.
She said: “Our search has not found Nicola in the river and then a re-search in parts by SGI has found the same. That does not mean… that Nicola has not been in the river.
“In the light of other inquiries being discounted from the investigation so far… clearly our main belief is that Nicola did fall into the river.
“Clearly Mr Faulding isn’t included within all the investigation detail any more than the members of the public are that I’m briefing through these sorts of press conferences.”
Anyone with information or footage is asked to call 101, quoting log 565 of 30 January. For any immediate sightings call 999.