An expert diver has claimed he “without a doubt” found Nicola Bulley’s body “within six minutes” as he hit back at a review into the police’s handling of the missing mother’s case that criticised his part in the search.
An independent investgation found that Peter Faulding gave statements to the media that were found to be "at odds" with what happened to Ms Bulley and that police felt some of his activities “caused challenges to the investigation”.
Mr Faulding had led a private search of the River Wyre in search for the mother-of-two, who was found on 19 February about a mile from where she vanished while walking her dog in St Michael’s in Lancashire three weeks earlier.
An inquest concluded her death was accidental, that she fell into the river on the day she disappeared and died almost immediately in the cold water.
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Faulding said he and his company, Specialist Group International (SGI), arrived in St Michaels on Wyre to assist with the search for Ms Bulley on 6 February and found no sign of her in a section of the river that day.
However, the following day, police told Mr Faulding’s team to scour what the diver called the “hot zone”, which was a non-tidal area in front of the bench where Ms Bulley’s phone was found down to the weir. “From experience, if Nicola had entered the water here, this is the area where she would most likely be found,” Mr Faulding said.
Six minutes after beginning the search, at 10.34am, the diver said he spotted “a significant target that appeared, from my experience, to take human form,” which was about 75 metres downstream from the bench.
Mr Faulding said he called Lancashire Police Search Adviser to tell them of his findings in less than 20 minutes, sending an image of what he had seen and requesting that SGI divers be put in the waters “immediately” to check the area.
However, he claimed that this request to dive was refused, alleging he was told North West Underwater Search Unit (NWUSU) would conduct the dive that afternoon instead.
The NWUSU told his team “the target was found to be ‘nothing’”, he claimed. “This baffled me deeply as I am not usually wrong when I locate a target, especially a body that shows a clear signature. Sonar shadows cannot be created by ‘nothing’.”
He alleged his team “discreetly rescanned the same area, which showed the same target in the same location” at 4.30pm that day.
Mr Faulding said: “Having worked closely with police and police dive teams for many years, I had nothing but respect for them and instinctive trust in their ability and had no reason to doubt their findings.
“Although I thought I had found a very credible target, I conceded that maybe I was wrong and later that afternoon I made a statement to the media saying that there was no sign of Nicola and that I did not think she was in the river.”
Mr Faulding said a request to the Lancashire Police Search Adviser to re-scan the same area of river was refused the following morning on the basis that “the target area was clear”.
He said: “Having thoroughly searched the parts of the river that we were tasked with and with no other targets found, I made the decision leave the search. After leaving the scene I had no further contact with Lancashire Constabulary, unusually they made no request for our search records or sonar data.”
In preparation for the inquest, which he said he was not invited to, he reviewed his sonar files and claimed it became clear upon enhancement of images that “the target which I had located was without a doubt Nicola”.
He said: “I had in fact found Nicola at 10.34am on 7 February 2023 after just 6 minutes of searching. The enhanced sonar file taken at 4.30pm on 7 February 2023 clearly shows Nicola’s body lying in a foetal position on her right side, legs bent.”
Although Ms Bulley’s body was found at a different point in the river, Mr Faulding said he believed this is because “decomposition gases inside her body built up enough to float her to the surface” and subsequently down the river, over the weir and into the tidal section of the river “where eventually she was deposited in her final resting place”.
The independent review said the diver who searched the area of interest that Mr Faulding had identified said the find was “tree branches underwater and, therefore, cleared as negative”. It added that NWPUSMU had previously searched the same area with negative results.
It also said the review team asked a leading government sonar specialist for their opinion, who concluded they had “low confidence that the images were that of a human casualty”.
The report added: “This find was sufficiently investigated by the search team, at the time, and was established to be a negative finding. This was additionally supported by the expert opinion of the images from two independent scientists, which were received during this review.”
Tuesday’s report led by the College of Policing also said Mr Faulding had informed the Bulley family that he thought he had identified a body deposition site (the location or believed location site of a deceased body).
As part of the review, Lancashire Constabulary suggested this had caused unwarranted distress and false alarm and resulted in the diversion of police resources to the family to remedy the situation.
The report continues: “It is the view of Lancashire Constabulary that Mr Faulding had a significant impact on the investigation and public confidence through his activities and his engagement with the media.
“The review team considers that some of his actions created a more challenging environment for the investigation team.
“His public statements often contradicted the investigative and operational approach, leading to confusion for the public and reducing the family’s trust in the investigation and search operation.”
Mr Faulding told the report authors that he was not advised or supported with any media guidance by Lancashire Constabulary, that he did not receive any instruction not to engage with press.