THE bench where missing mum Nicola Bulley's phone was found could be spattered with blood, a former detective claims.
Martyn Underhill fears the 45-year-old's disappearance could remain unresolved for months because investigators failed to send it for laboratory testing.
The ex-Met officer, who later became Detective Chief Inspector at Sussex Police and crime commissioner for Dorset, thinks cops should have "completely and utterly contained" the scene after Nicola's possessions were discovered on the day she vanished.
He told The Times: "That bench on that river in my view should have gone to a forensic laboratory.
"If Nicola had been attacked there could be blood spatterings on it.
"Sadly it’s still in situ. It is questionable to put it bluntly."
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Nicola was last seen walking her dog along the river in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, at 9.10am on January 27.
She was reported missing after her phone, which was still connected to a work call, was discovered on a bench overlooking the water.
Police quickly said they suspected she had fallen in and launched an extensive search of the River Wyre.
But 18 days later and there is still no sign of the mortgage adviser, leading her family, friends and experts to believe a third party may be involved.
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Nicola cops search caravan site yards from where mum's phone was found
Underhill, who was a senior officer in the Sarah Payne murder investigation in 2000, worries focusing on the river theory could have jeopardised the investigation.
Highlighting some "glaring issues" with how it has been handled so far, he told GB News: "What you learn on big cases like Sarah Payne and Madeleine McCann is that there are mantras you have to stick to.
"The first one is 'respect the golden hour'. Forensic evidence and witness memory fade very quickly and you need to capture that in the first 24 hours.
"[Lancashire Police] don't seem to have done that."
Underhill believes officers should have been conducting door-to-door inquiries from day one and immediately "cleared the ground under their feet".
"I'd have expected the famous bench where Nicolas's phone was found to go straight to a laboratory to be tested for blood splatters and hair," he added.
"The Bulley family deserve better than this.
"We haven't found Nicola and we could be in this now for the long-haul.
"This could be a Madeline McCann."
'SOMETHING HAPPENED THAT DAY'
Nicola's loved ones are convinced she's not in the water and have pleaded with officials to "scrutinise" nearby land.
Her partner Paul Ansell said in an interview with Channel 5: "You cannot walk your dog down a river and just vanish into thin air. Something happened that day.
"My plea now is, personally, I want every house, every garage, every outbuilding, the land, scrutinised.
"I want it all searched, I want it all scrutinised, every piece of it."
Cops were yesterday seen scouring a caravan site just yards from where Nicola's phone was found, but most of their search has taken place in the river or out to sea.
Search expert Peter Faulding, who was drafted in to help find the mum-of-two, is now hunting for sites where someone could bury a body without being seen.
He has compiled a list of ditches, woodlands and hedgerows close to where Nicola vanished and plans to probe them next week if she isn't found before then.
Faulding told Jeremy Kyle on TalkTV: "Surrounding land should have been searched thoroughly straight away.
"There needs to be a lot more done. Land needs to be searched now."
He said, from experience, people are usually found within a couple of miles of where they disappeared.
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Lancashire Police insist detectives remain open-minded about what happened to Nicola and are doing all they can to find out.
Anyone with information is asked to call 101, quoting log 473 of January 27, or dial 999 for immediate sightings.
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