Nicola Bulley, 45, was a mortgage advisor who resided in Inskip, Lancashire, England, with her partner, Paul Ansell, 44, and their two children.
Nicola loved taking her dog Willow, a springer spaniel, on walks along the River Wyre. On January 27, 2023, she dropped her children off at school in St. Michaels’ on Wyre and left her car parked at the school. She and Willow then walked to a nearby footpath at 8:43 a.m. that led to the river.
When Nicola and her dog failed to return home, she was reported missing at 11 a.m. She was last captured on CCTV leaving home with Willow to take her kids to school.
On January 28, Lancashire police launched an extensive search using drones, helicopters, and search dogs. Lancashire Fire and Rescue, Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team, and the North West underwater search team also joined.
The next day, volunteers scoured the area for the missing woman while Ansell also spent the day searching.
Investigators started to put together a timeline of events regarding Nicola’s activities on the morning of her disappearance.
An acquaintance of Nicola’s, another dog walker, saw Nicola walking with Willow around the lower field around 8:50 a.m. Their dogs briefly interacted before the friend left the area via the river path.
Police discovered that Nicola emailed her boss at 8:53 a.m. She logged into a work conference call through Microsoft Teams at 9:01 a.m.
Another witness who knew Nicola reportedly saw her walking Willow on the upper field at 9:10 a.m.
Nicola’s conference call ended at 9:30 a.m., but she never logged off. About three minutes later, Willow was seen running around off her leash.
Yet another dog walker found Willow running around and Nicola’s cell phone on a bench by a steep riverbank around 9:35 a.m., still connected to the conference call. Willow’s harness and leash were found halfway between the bench and the river.
On February 3, police held a press conference.
Supt. Sally Riley: “Our main working hypothesis is that Nicola has sadly fallen into the river, there is no third party or criminal involvement, and this is not suspicious but the tragic case of a missing person.”
However, a witness told police that he saw two suspicious men in the area where Nicola vanished. It struck him odd that the men attempted to hide their faces from him. He had seen them there the day before and saw one of the men on January 27 around 7:30 a.m.
Police investigated a red van seen in the area but said they were not treating it as suspicious. Officers also searched a derelict house across the other side of the river three times with permission from the owner but found nothing.
Nicola’s case went viral. Social media influencers, specifically TikTok and YouTube users, immersed themselves in the Bulley investigation. They turned into amateur sleuths, photographing and pestering locals. They also trampled the area near the River Wyre where Nicola was last seen.
Online detectives often lack the background and skills to investigate. A perfect example of this is TikTok. A few TikTokers currently purposely hunt pedophiles online by starting chats with them. They seem not to understand they are playing dangerous games.
Another example is the Gabby Petito case. It was all over social media, and people became obsessed with it.
The influencers’ meddling became so bad in the Bulley investigation that on February 7, police urged the public not to “take the law into their own hands” and warned amateur sleuths “not to abuse witnesses or attempt to break into abandoned or derelict buildings along the River Wyre.”
On February 8, a specialist underwater search team looking for Nicola pulled out of the search operation. They believed “categorically” she was not in the part of the river where detectives believe she fell.
A week later, police told the media that Nicola was vulnerable and graded as a “high-risk” missing person due to “significant issues with alcohol” and menopause. On January 10, Lancashire police and health officials responded to a welfare check on Nicola at her Inksip home over “significant issues with alcohol,” police said. However, they did not arrest her but said it remained under investigation.
The announcement caused a considerable backlash from the public on divulging medical information. However, the Lancashire police faced no disciplinary action.
On February 19, 11:35 a.m. GMT, police found Nicola’s body in the River Wyre after receiving a tip from a member of the public. The location was roughly a mile west of where Nicola disappeared and near Rawcliffe Road.
The police seemed overly confident that her body would be found in the river, but why did it take three weeks? Divers using sonar equipment never spotted her body on the river’s bottom. Ansell said he did not believe they would find Nicola in the water.
Well, there are many reasons why a body may not be found for weeks. For one, it may not stay in one position at the river’s bottom, near where the victim was last seen. It will resurface over time if not lodged in an unreachable underwater location.
Another reason is water currents can move a body far away from the center of the search. And finally, debris in the water also contributes.
An excellent example of this is the Naya Rivera drowning. The Glee actress was found dead in California’s Lake Piru five days after disappearing while boating with her son in July 2020. Her body had been trapped in underwater vegetation before resurfacing. Some bodies take weeks to resurface, while others never do
In early March, Lancashire police arrested a 34-year-old man on suspicion of malicious communication offenses and perverting the course of justice in the Bulley investigation. The man allegedly took photographs within a police cordon and uploaded them online. He was later released on bail with conditions.
Police have yet to release Nicola’s cause of death. An inquest into her death will be held sometime this month.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
My biggest thing with this case is that the police have never suspected foul play.
Supt. Riley’s statement mentioned above insinuates Nicola’s death was an accident. However, her cell phone was still connected to the conference call, which suggests to me that someone interrupted her before she could disconnect.
Furthermore, there’s the witness who spotted the two strange men. Maybe Nicola witnessed something she shouldn’t have, or they saw her and decided to harm her. The fact that they were trying to hide their faces is suspicious, to say the least.
The area is a bit isolated, so I think a crime could be committed without anyone knowing. Furthermore, this picture shows the bench and its distance from the river. You must rotate the image to the right and zoom in to see the bench by a tree.
Nicola would have to have been near the water’s edge to fall into the river accidentally. But if she could swim, she might have survived falling into the river. It does not look very deep or rough. Of course, it’s hard to tell from pictures alone. One tabloid says it’s 15 feet at its deepest. While 15 ft. is deep enough and paired with cold temperatures, I can see how she might have drowned. But I don’t believe that is the case.
Police theorized that something happened with Willow near the water, and Nicola fell in trying to catch her. They said this explains why Williow was found not wearing her harness and leash.
But there is a picture of Nicola at the river with Willow in the background, and the dog is not wearing a harness. I don’t know if this is the River Wyre, but it’s likely. Both are close to the river’s edge, and you can see that the water is shallow in this part, so she could not have drowned even if she fell in. Williow was likely well-behaved, so Nicola felt comfortable taking off the dog’s harness. Nicola was smart, and she knew this area well, so I doubt she’d risk slipping on the riverbank and falling into the river. Furthermore, Willow was found dry, not wet, so she had not been in the water.
I think it’s possible that someone abducted her, took her away from the area she was last seen, and then dumped her body into the river.
I also want to comment on the police statement about Nicola’s alcohol and menopause struggles. As a woman currently going through menopause, I can attest that while a woman’s body goes through significant changes and the process sucks, I know it’s temporary for the most part. There is light at the end of the tunnel. All women know this, so I don’t believe police should have labeled her high risk in part to menopause. I don’t think they should have mentioned her alcohol issues, either. It would be irrelevant to the case unless they knew she had been drinking that morning or it had caused her death.
A final thought: Nicola logged onto a conference call. There’s no mention in reports of whether she spoke on the call. Did team members see or hear her? Did she talk to any of them? Maybe I missed it, though.