On a cold January morning, a mother-of-two dropped her young daughters off at school before taking her springer spaniel for their usual walk by the river.
Mortgage broker Nicola Bulley greeted fellow dog walkers as she took a route along the River Wyre in Lancashire, northern England, police believe.
During the walk, she dialed into a work conference call, keeping her camera off and microphone muted. By 9.30 a.m., the Teams call had ended – but Bulley remained logged on.
A short while later, her dog Willow was found wandering alone. Her phone was recovered on a riverside bench. But Bulley had vanished.
The 45-year-old went missing in the village of St. Michael’s on Wyre on Friday, January 27. She has not been seen or heard from since then.
Stephanie Benyon, a friend of Bulley’s whose children attend the same school, told CNN that she is a “kind, loyal and thoughtful person who adores her two girls and family and friends.”
A search party launched by Lancashire Police involving specialist resources is now into its eighth day.
Officers say they do not believe her disappearance is suspicious and people “should not speculate or spread false rumors.” This has done little to assuage public concern, however, with some local women fearful of going out in the village where Bulley disappeared, British tabloid Daily Mirror reported.
It also comes at a time of heightened mistrust of police, after former London Metropolitan Police officer David Carrick recently admitting to a litany of sexual attacks on women, sparking calls for an inquiry into the UK’s largest police service.
Retracing final steps
Others out walking their dogs that morning were the last people to see Bulley before she vanished – and it seems there was nothing unusual about her manner.
According to Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley, Bulley was familiar with the area and would often do the same walk.
A friend of Bulley’s told the Mirror that she had since spoken to two dog walkers who had seen Bulley that day, saying that she had been “laughing and joking” with them as she passed by.
Bulley’s partner of 12 years, Paul Ansell, rushed to the scene after receiving a call from his daughters’ school that the family dog had been found, Bulley’s friend told the Mirror. He quickly phoned the police.
During Friday’s press briefing, Superintendent Riley said officers were “particularly interested” in the time between the phone being placed on the bench at 9.20 a.m. and the device being recovered 10 minutes later.
“We only have a 10-minute window in which we cannot account for Nicola’s movements,” she said.
Using underwater drones, divers have been scouring the full length of the River Wyre downstream. On the ground, the search for Bulley continues, with officers using specially trained police dogs.
Amid growing speculation and local safety concerns, Superintendent Riley told the press conference that their “main working hypothesis” was that Bulley had fallen into the river.
“The inquiry team has undertaken a number of dashcam, CCTV and ring doorbell footage. This has allowed us to eliminate any trace so far of Nicola having left the riverside, which is really important.
“We believe that Nicola was in the riverside area and remained at the riverside area. We remain open to any inquiries that might lead us to question that, but at this time we understand that she was by the river.”
Bulley’s family were left unsatisfied with the police’s theory, however. In a post on Facebook, her sister Louise Cunningham insisted the case was “far from over.”
“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. 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.”
Meanwhile, worried locals keen to aid in the search operation have been participating in organized walks.
Benyon told CNN how the local community had come together to help find her. “We have arranged walks around the river from St Michaels up to Knott End for the community to follow. Today [Friday] we have been stood on the main road appealing for witnesses with banners and placards.
“We are desperately trying to find Nikki to bring her home to her family and friends who all love her very much.”
Superintendent Riley acknowledged there has been a high level of concern in the local community. “However, parts of the riverbank are treacherous, and we would ask that nobody puts themselves in danger and that the police and partner agencies’ efforts to find Nicola are not compromised,” she said.
‘People don’t just vanish into thin air’
Bulley’s family have urged anyone who may have information to come forward.
“Something has got to have been missed. Somebody most know something. People don’t just vanish into thin air,” her sister Louise Cunningham said in a recent interview with Sky News.
“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 seen right, then please reach out to the police.”
A statement released by Bulley’s family said her two daughters, aged six and nine, are “desperate” to have their mother back safely.
Bulley’s partner, Ansell, described the situation as a “perpetual hell.”
“We are living through this but it doesn’t feel real. All we can say is we need to find her. She’s got two little girls that need their mummy home,” he said, according to PA Media.
“We’re never, ever going to lose hope, of course we’re not, but it is as though she has vanished into thin air. It’s just insane,” the UK news agency quoted him as saying.