A body found in the River Wyre has been formally identified as that of Nicola Bulley.
The mother-of-two was found on Sunday a mile from where she was last seen, walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, three weeks ago.
Her death is still being treated as ‘unexplained’ while post-mortem examinations continue.
The family were in ‘agony’ after learning of the body’s discovery, Nicola’s partner Paul Ansell said on Monday, though they have yet to comment since the formal identification was confirmed.
The find concludes a major search of the area which saw specialists comb a large stretch of the river for days on end.
Nicola’s body is understood to have been found among reeds, making it difficult for experts to find her.
Specialist divers who volunteered to scan the riverbed with state-of-the-art equipment said she was ‘categorically not’ in the section where police believe she fell in.
Specialist Group International (SGI) said they searched the bed near where Nicola was eventually found ‘for four hours on our first day’ but that they were ‘not involved or tasked with’ the search of the riverbank, which includes reeds.
Police were alerted to the body shortly before midday on Sunday by a pair of dog walkers.
Lancashire Police chief superintendent Bob Eastwood said the force had received an ‘absolute onslaught’ of criticism for failing to find Nicola sooner which was based on misunderstandings.
He told BBC Breakfast on Monday: ‘The way the tide comes and goes…it is possible that the body could have flowed in and flowed out and has eventually been given up by the water.
‘To jump in… and automatically assume that the body was there the whole time is a step too far.’
It’s believed an inquest will soon be launched to establish the exact circumstances of Nicola’s death.
The 45-year-old, who worked as a mortgage adviser, was last seen with her springer spaniel Willow after dropping off her two daughters, aged six and nine, at school on January 27.
Willow was found wandering loose the same morning along with Nicola’s phone, which was still logged onto a conference call, on a bench by a steep riverbank.
Detectives say she may have fallen into the river and drowned after dropping her dog’s ball and trying to retrieve it.
There remains no indication of foul play or third-party involvement.
Police are also continuing to investigate the hacking of Paul’s social media accounts.
Timeline of events in Nicola Bulley case
At 8.26am Ms Bulley left her home with her two daughters, aged six and nine, dropping them off at school and engaging in a brief conversation with another parent around 15 minutes later, Lancashire Police has said.
She then took her spaniel, Willow, for a walk along the path by the River Wyre at 8.43am, heading towards a gate and bench in the lower field.
She was seen by a dog walker who knew her at around 8.50am, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways, according to the force.
At 8.53am, Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, followed by a message to her friends six minutes later, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am.
She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am, the last known sighting.
Her phone was back in the area of the bench at 9.20am before the Teams call ended 10 minutes later, with her mobile remaining logged on after the call.
At 9.33am, another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two.
According to police, she was wearing a black Engelbert Strauss coat, black jeans and had long green walking socks tucked into her trousers under ankle length green wellington boots.
Her hair was tied into a ponytail and she was wearing a pale blue Fitbit fitness tracker.
At 10.50am, Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance.
Lancashire Constabulary launched an investigation into Ms Bulley’s whereabouts on the same day and appealed for witnesses to contact them.
Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation.
They were assisted by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team and the North West underwater search team.
Local residents held a meeting at the village hall to organise a search for Ms Bulley at 10.30am on Sunday, according to reports from The Mirror, and around 100 people joined in.
Police urged volunteers to exercise caution, describing the river and its banks as ‘extremely dangerous’ and saying that activity in these areas presented ‘a genuine risk to the public’.
Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Constabulary said police were ‘keeping a really open mind about what could have happened’, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious.
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a potential witness, a man who had been walking a small white fluffy dog near the River Wyre at the time of Ms Bulley’s disappearance.
Her family released a statement saying they had been ‘overwhelmed by the support’ in their community, and that her daughters were ‘desperate to have their mummy back home safe’.
Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, spoke to The Mirror about the ‘horror’ they faced over the possibility of never seeing her again.
Her father told the newspaper: ‘We just dread to think we will never see her again, if the worst came to the worst and she was never found, how will we deal with that for the rest of our lives?’
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a second witness who they had identified with the help of the public using CCTV but they told police they did not have any further information to aid their inquiry.
Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit searched the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found, while police divers scoured the River Wyre.
Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s family appealed to the public for help tracing her.
Speaking with Sky News, her sister Louise Cunningham said: ‘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 seem right, then please reach out to the police.
‘Get in touch and get my sister back.’
Ms Bulley’s father said his family hoped their interview would ‘spark a light’ that would lead to her being found.
Lancashire Police said it was working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre.
Ms Riley urged against speculation, but said it was ‘possible’ that an ‘issue’ with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge.
She urged the public to look out for items of clothing Ms Bulley was last seen wearing, and gave an extensive list.
Ms Bulley’s friends also shared heartfelt appeals via television interviews, including Emma White, who told the BBC that Ms Bulley’s daughters were continually asking where she was.
Ms White cast doubt on the police theory that she fell into a river, telling Sky News it was based on ‘limited information’.
She said: ‘When we are talking about a life we can’t base it on a hypothesis, surely we need this factual evidence.
‘That’s what the family and all of us are holding on to, that we are sadly no further on than last Friday.’
In a Facebook post, Ms Cunningham urged people to ‘keep an open mind’ as there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ that the dog walker fell in the river.
On the same day, Lancashire Police announced it wanted to trace a ‘key witness’ who was seen pushing a pram in the area near where Ms Bulley went missing on the morning of her disappearance.
The woman described as a ‘key witness’ by police came forward.
The force insisted she was ‘very much being treated as a witness’ as it warned against ‘totally unacceptable’ speculation and abuse on social media.
Peter Faulding, leader of underwater search experts Specialist Group International (SGI), began searching the river after being called in by Ms Bulley’s family.
Ms Bulley’s friends said they hoped the help of a specialist underwater rescue team would give the family answers.
Speaking to broadcasters, Ms White said the family had asked Mr Faulding and his company for help.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘Following the hypothesis of the police that Nicola was in the river, we need some evidence to back that up either way and I feel Peter and his amazing bit of kit… is going to come and sweep the river bed and give us answers.’
Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s partner Mr Ansell, in a statement released through Lancashire Police, said: ‘It’s been 10 days now since Nicola went missing and I have two little girls who miss their mummy desperately and who need her back.
‘This has been such a tough time for the girls especially but also for me and all of Nicola’s family and friends, as well as the wider community and I want to thank them for their love and support.’
Police urged people to refrain from indulging in commentary and conspiracy theories about Ms Bulley’s disappearance as speculation increases online.
Police held a press conference over the case and say the mother-of-two was classed as a ‘high-risk’ missing person immediately after she was reported missing due to ‘vulnerabilities.’
They later disclosed Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and perimenopause.
In a statement released through Lancashire Police, Ms Bulley’s family said the focus had become ‘distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her private life’ and called for it to end.
Lancashire Police referred itself to the police watchdog over contact the force had with Ms Bulley prior to her disappearance.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanded an ‘explanation’ for the disclosure of Ms Bulley’s private information by the force.
Lancashire Police announced it was conducting an internal review into the handling of Ms Bulley’s disappearance and the Information Commissioner said he would ask the force questions about the disclosure.
Ms Braverman met with police leaders to discuss the handling of the investigation after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also expressed ‘concerns’ about the revelation.
Appearing on the morning broadcast round, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt described the police disclosure as ‘shocking’ while shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who also wrote to the force over its handling of the case, repeated her concerns about the ‘unusual’ level of private information made public about Ms Bulley.
Later on Sunday, Lancashire Police announced they had found a body.
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