BRADFORD, England (AP) — The week-long search for Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old woman who went missing while walking her dog in a small English town, came to an end Monday when police confirmed her body was found.
But the intense debate sparked by the case, and the circus surrounding it on social and national media, may be just beginning.
The mortgage adviser disappeared on January 27 after dropping her two daughters off at school and taking the family dog for a walk along the river in St Michael’s on Wyre in north-east England.
The only clues were her mobile phone, discovered on a bank near the river by a local dog walker, and the family dog, Willow, running around with no owner in sight.
The mysterious disappearance caught the attention of an army of online sleuths, many of whom descended on the small town to follow leads based on social media speculation. The twists in the investigation also fueled a national conversation about privacy, sexism and police treatment of women.
Privacy and police sexism?
Lancashire Police announced early Sunday morning that an underwater search team and specialist officers had recovered a body in the River Wyre. Police confirmed the body was Bulley’s in a declaration mondayending the saga that dominated newspaper headlines and television coverage in Britain for weeks.
The relatives described the media attention on the case as “shameful” after several outlets contacted them despite a request for privacy.
Speaking of Bulley’s two young daughters, the family’s statement read: “It saddens us to think that one day we will have to explain to them that the press and public have accused their father of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family.”
Facing mounting criticism as the case went cold, police said last week that Bulley was classified as a “high risk” missing person “based on a number of specific vulnerabilities.” Then they announced in a Press conference that she struggled with “significant alcohol problems” that were influenced by struggles with menopause that had “resurfaced in recent months.”
The disclosure drew criticism from many, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who told the BBC he was “worried that private information would be put in the public domain.”
A day after Lancashire police revealed details about Bulley’s troubles, her family issued a public statement saying they were forced to reveal personal information about her because people were “speculating and threatening to sell stories about her”.
“Due to perimenopause, Nikki was suffering from significant side effects including brain fog, restless sleep, and was taking HRT to help but this was causing severe headaches which caused Nikki to stop taking HRT thinking that could have helped her, but only ended up causing this crisis,” the statement said.
At a time when trust between women and the police in Britain has been eroded by a series of high-profile scandals and murder cases, the revelation that Bulley was struggling with menopause was also criticized by some as having a sexist background.
“At the time this information was published, there seemed to be a collective response that framed Nicola as a menopausal alcoholic,” said Fiona L. Brown, a professor and PhD researcher at the University of East London.
“This was sensitive information that really allowed for a narrative of Nicola as a hormonal middle-aged woman who took alcohol to ‘cope,’” she said. “Prior to this, she had been framed as a loving and caring mother and career partner.”
“It certainly wouldn’t have been information that the police released if it was a man.”
NBC News has contacted Lancashire Police for comment.
Too far for a true crime?
Police commissioned 40 detectives to review hundreds of hours of CCTV footage to try to crack the case, conducting land and underwater searches in the river and surrounding waters while consulting with tidal and environmental experts.
As confidence in police work plummeted, some members of the public took matters into their own hands.
The local community organized a search, while social media like TikTok was saturated with videos of people interested in the case, as well as influencers and self-proclaimed experts speculating about what might have happened, racking up tens of thousands of views.
Some even broke into abandoned buildings in the local area or launched nightly patrols, challenging locals who found strangers loitering on their property and drawing criticism from police for impeding the investigation.
One influencer said he had been detained and fined by police after posting on YouTube that he had been in “people’s backyards at night with torches.”
With the release of a series of true crime documentaries and Netflix’s dramatization of several serial killer cases, the public’s fascination with true crime has never been more insatiable.
Does the circus surrounding Bulley’s disappearance suggest he’s gone too far?
“On a societal level, it has been real crime that has done the heavy lifting, exposing misogyny, femicide, homophobia and ageism,” said David Wilson, a leading British criminologist and professor of criminology and sociology at Birmingham City University.
“There will be a backlash against real crime” after the stalker case, he said. “But I think I’d like people to have a backlash against those true crime subgenres, who aren’t really concerned with legitimately trying to solve the mystery, they’re generating and speculating.”
So why did Bulley’s disappearance draw so much attention?
The vast majority of adults who go missing in Britain are found within 48 hours, according to Missing people, a UK charity that reunites missing children and adults with their loved ones. Only 5% are missing for more than a week, he found.
“One of the reasons I think there’s been all this speculation is because she’s part of that 5% that isn’t there within 48 hours,” Wilson said.
He added that the unusual attention Bulley’s disappearance received online may also stem from what he described as her being perceived as an “ideal victim.”
“An ‘ideal victim’ is female, white, middle class, and Nicola came from a postcard-perfect town where crime was almost non-existent,” Wilson said. “His case of her was always going to generate far more interest than that of a working-class black woman who might have disappeared from a central London property.”