What happened to Nicola Bulley? Three theories on her disappearance

Here is what we know about the theories surrounding the disappearance of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire.

·5-min read
(PA)
The police's main theory about Nicola Bulley's disappearance was disputed by her family and friends. (PA)

A body has been found in a river close to where Nicola Bulley disappeared more than three weeks ago.

The body, which has not yet been formally identified, was found on Sunday morning about a mile from where the 45-year-old mortgage adviser was last seen along the River Wyre in Lancashire.

Bulley, from Inskip, Lancashire, was last seen walking her dog next to the River Wyre in the village of St Michael's on Wyre on 27 January, after taking her two daughters, aged six and nine, to school.

There have been three main theories surrounding her disappearance.

A map showing where a body was found in the river close to where Nicola Bulley went missing. (PA)
A map showing where a body was found in the river close to where Nicola Bulley went missing. (PA)

Lancashire Police said previously it is investigating all possible leads and "reviewing our decisions regularly".

The force has always maintained its “working hypothesis” was that Bulley fell into the river, saying it had found no evidence of any “criminal aspect or third party involvement”.

Here are the three main theories behind Bulley's disappearance.

Nicola Bulley fell into the river - theory #1

Lancashire Police's main theory about Bulley's disappearance has been that she fell into the River Wyre while walking her dog.

The 45-year-old's mobile phone was left on a bench still connected to a Microsoft Teams call and her spaniel Willow was found nearby without a harness.

Watch: Body found in river near where Nicola Bulley went missing

After an extensive search of the river in the days following her disapperance produced no results, search teams shifted their focus to the 10 miles or so of river downstream of the bench, where the River Wyre empties into the sea at Morecambe Bay.

Bulley's family and friends have continued to question the main theory, with her partner Paul Ansell saying he is "100% convinced it’s not the river."

Read more: Nicola Bulley - everything we know about the missing mother's disappearance

Detective Superintendent Smith has maintained her “main working hypothesis” is that Bulley fell into the River Wyre.

At a press conference at Lancashire Police HQ last week, she said: "At the initial stages based on the information I received, I made it clear that it was my working hypothesis at that time based with all the facts that the main hypothesis I was working on at that time was that Nicola had gone in the river.

“This has been misconstrued in the press and said that that was what I said. I said that was my main working hypothesis at that time, and that remains my main working hypothesis.”

Workers from a private underwater search and recovery company, Specialist Group International, including CEO Peter Faulding (centre) in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, use sonar to search for missing woman Nicola Bulley, 45, who was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the nearby River Wyre. Picture date: Tuesday February 7, 2023.
Workers from Specialist Group International in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, during the search for missing Nicola Bulley. (PA)
Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson (left) and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police update the media in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, as police continue their search for Nicola Bulley, 45, who vanished on January 27 while walking her springer spaniel Willow shortly after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school. Picture date: Wednesday February 15, 2023.
Assistant chief constable Peter Lawson (left) and detective superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police update the media on the search for Nicola Bulley. (PA/Alamy)

Diving and forensics expert Peter Faulding, whose team searched a section of the river, has previously said he doesn't believe Bulley fell into the river after failing to find her.

He had described her disappearance as a mystery, and said if was in the river then she would have needed to have been "shoved really hard".

Tilly Ann, a friend of Bulley, also disputed the idea she had gone into the river, saying she was "an incredibly strong swimmer".

Third party involved - theory #2

Former detective Mark Williams-Thomas said last week that "foul play" could be an option.

He tweeted: "For me the three options still remain very much on the table in relation to Nicola Bulley disappearance - all have some credence - although 1 and 2 are looking far less likely now. 1) She went into the water by some means 2) She left of her own accord 3) Foul play 3rd party."

A poster asking for information on missing Nicola 'Nikki' Bulley is pictured on a tree close to where her phone and dog's harness were discovered, by the banks of the River Wyre, in St Michael's on Wyre, near Preston, north west England on February 6, 2023, as the search for her continues. - Specialist divers were on Monday scouring a river bed for traces of a missing woman, more than a week after she appeared to
A poster asking for information about Nicola Bulley close to where her phone and dog's harness were discovered in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire. (AFP via Getty Images)
BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE. Undated Lancashire Constabulary handout photo of missing woman Nicola Bulley, 45, captured on aher Ring doorbell on Friday January 27th. Nicola was last seen on the morning of Friday January 27, when she was spotted walking her dog on a footpath by the nearby River Wyre. Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser from Inskip, Lancashire, vanished while walking her dog after dropping off her daughters, aged six and nine, at school. Her mobile phone and the lead and harness for her dog, springer spaniel Willow, were found on a bench close to the River Wyre in the Lancashire countryside. Issue date: Monday February 6, 2023.
Doorbell camera footage shows Nicola Bulley leaving her home to do the school run on Friday, 27 January. (PA)

But assistant chief constable Peter Lawson said that while Lancashire Police remain “open-minded”, there is still “no evidence to indicate a criminal aspect or third party involvement”.

He said: “I would emphasise that it remains the case there is no evidence to indicate a criminal aspect or third party involvement in Nicola’s disappearance.

“However, the officers involved in the investigation are the same experienced specialists and many senior officers who are concerned with the investigation of the most serious and complex crimes.”

Faulding has previously suggested that a third party could be involved, and speculated that Bulley's phone could have been placed on the bench as a "decoy".

(PA)
Nicola Bulley has been missing since 27 January. (PA)
Nicola's Bulley's partner, Paul Ansell, (right) visits the riverside with Peter Faulding. (PA)
Nicola's Bulley's partner, Paul Ansell, right, visits the riverside with forensic search expert Peter Faulding. (PA)

Nicola left area of her own accord - theory #3

At one point in the search last week, police said they were also looking at whether Bulley "could have left the area voluntarily".

Officers combed through hundreds of hours of CCTV and dashcam footage, without finding any evidence Bulley left the area.

Police have given no update about this theory.

Watch: Family and friends question police theory that Nicola Bulley fell in river