Police have formally identified a body in the River Wyre as that of missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley.
After a three-week search operation, officers were called on Sunday to reports of a body less than one mile downstream from where the 45-year-old was last seen in St Michael’s on Wyre.
Bulley vanished while walking her dog in the Lancashire village on 27 January. Her phone was discovered on a bench still logged in to a work conference call that she had joined earlier. Her springer spaniel was also found running loose between the river and the bench.
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The case generated “intense interest”, with an “unprecedented level of voyeuristic speculation” on social media in particular, said The Economist. Rebecca Smith, the detective superintendent who led the investigation, said she had “never seen anything like it”. Bulley’s disappearance prompted dozens of amateur sleuths to visit the village and a media frenzy amongst the British press – which the Bulley family has now strongly criticised.
“Despite the use of significant resources, including divers, helicopters, police boats, sonar equipment and sniffer dogs, it was two members of the public who spotted her body on Sunday morning,” said The Times.
The police searches had concentrated on a different stretch of the river “leading to the estuary and the Irish Sea” some 11 miles away, “with police boats seen out on Morecambe Bay and upstream of the river mouth”.
Police initially scanned the river nearest to where she went missing, but the operation moved downstream following the arrival of Peter Faulding, a private search expert who was drafted in to help officers on 6 February.
A 33-year-old man, Jason Rothwell, has identified himself as one of the people who discovered Bulley’s body at the weekend. A self-described “spiritual medium”, Rothwell said he had also “previously assisted in the recovery of Michael Brooks”, a 19-year-old who went missing in Lancashire in 2018.
Briefing the media at police headquarters on Monday, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson said Bulley’s family were “of course devastated”. Her death will now be investigated by a coroner.
A challenging search
Bulley’s disappearance sparked weeks of false speculation on social media over how her body might have been missed by police. But “contrary to the conclusions of social media sleuths, finding bodies in water is one of the toughest challenges in policing”, said the BBC’s home and legal correspondent Dominic Casciani.
That is because “bodies do not stay in one position at the bottom of water, near where they were last seen”, he said. Over time, they eventually resurface “unless they have become completely lodged in an unreachable underwater location”.
Bulley’s family said they would never understand “what Nikki had gone through in her last moments” and hit out at the media and some sections of the public, who they said had “misquoted and vilified friends and family”.
In a statement read by police, the family singled out ITV and Sky News, accusing the broadcasters of contacting them after they had been told Bulley’s body had been found, despite having “expressly asked for privacy”.
Criticising the press more generally, they said: “They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles. It is shameful they have acted in this way. Leave us alone now.”
Lancashire Constabulary has also come under fire for its “poor handling” of communications, the consequences of which will affect the police “for years to come”, said Robyn Vinter in The Guardian.
The force came under particular criticism for its disclosure of sensitive information about Bulley’s alcohol dependency issues and severe symptoms of menopause.
Although the handling of the search itself may have been proven to be “good enough”, they are likely to be remembered as “blundering and incompetent”, added Vinter.
The media frenzy over the case wasn’t helped by a police service that has been tight-lipped since the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, after which officers were told to stop all unauthorised contact with journalists, said John Sturgis in The Spectator. Since then a “mood of paranoia around the media has gripped the police” and a “‘don’t talk to the media’ mindset” has become “entrenched”.
While this has been a “frustration” for the press, it is “increasingly clear that the police are suffering its consequences just as badly”, said Sturgis. Stephen Wright, associate editor at the Daily Mail, agreed that if journalists had been told in confidence about Bulley’s vulnerabilities from the start, it “might not have turned into the circus that it arguably has”.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman is awaiting the outcome of internal inquiries over Lancashire Constabulary’s handling of the case before confirming if an external review will take place.
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