Wild online speculation and tourists swarming the scene could provide cover for a potential criminal behind the disappearance of Nicola Bulley to intentionally contaminate or destroy crucial evidence, Express.co.uk has been told. Police and members of the missing mum’s family have urged members of the public not to carry out their own investigations in the local area or spread misinformation about the case, out of concern for the damage it may cause to Ms Bulley’s terrified loved ones. But Charlie Hedges, one of the UK’s foremost experts on missing persons, said the public involvement could also provide cover if a criminal was involved in the disappearance.
Mr Hedges told Express.co.uk that while he was not suggesting Ms Bulley’s disappearance was a criminal investigation, he said that if it was, the speculation around her investigation and the members of the public who have reportedly broken into nearby abandoned homes could provide a way for a perpetrator to influence the police investigation.
He said: “We know that if it was a crime situation, the offender often revisits the scene and inserts themselves into the witnesses or looking for evidence and that provides the cover to do that. The offender will go back, sometimes to have a look and see what’s going on and sometimes deliberately try and interfere with the investigation.”
He added: “It’s a way to contaminate evidence, destroy evidence,” saying that if it was a criminal case, the person responsible could “absolutely” be intentionally feeding misinformation to those speculating in order to create distractions.
As a result, this could draw police resources away from the actual process of finding Ms Bulley, with the expert commenting: “There’s a lot of police resources used to manage the situation to try to guide people in the right way to make sure they’ re not coming to harm, but also trying to preserve the integrity of the investigation.”
He said this can cause “lots of headaches” for the police.
Tourists have reportedly been traveling for miles to visit the spot where Ms Bulley was last seen to take photos with the bench where her phone was found. Police have also allegedly stopped a group of men going to search an abandoned house near the River Wyre, according to TalkTV’s Oliver Whitfield-Miocic.
It comes after police warned members of the public not to “take the law into their own hands” nor direct online abuse at people connected to the investigation. Lancashire Constabulary said it “will not tolerate” people committing criminal offenses by breaking into empty or derelict riverside properties to try to find the missing mother-of-two.
Police say their working hypothesis is that Ms Bulley fell into the river, and are not currently treating the case as a criminal investigation. However, Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley added that police remain “open-minded to any information that may indicate where Nicola is or what happened to her.”
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She also urged co-operation in the investigation, saying: “I would ask everyone to remain constructive, co-operative with inquiry. Not to do anything to thwart us. To respectful to each other in the search. This is an agonizing time, particularly for her two little girls who are only six and nine.”
Explaining the dangers of online speculation and public involvement, Mr Hedges said: “It’s something that’s escalated over the years, facilitated by social media.”
He said it “needs to be managed”, adding: “It becomes a distraction from doing what’s important. High profile cases attract people to turn up. If you look back to other cases, like April Jones, people do just turn up.”
Police then have to be aware of “health and safety, making sure that they’re safe” he said, adding: “There’s potential interference. What happens if they do find something that’s evidence? How do police deal with that? And in that case, what happens to the evidence?”
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Friend of Ms Bulley Heather Gibbons said that while she understands “human nature”, the large number of arrivals at the investigation site has made the area feel like a “tourist spot”, she said.
While the turnout for the search was “amazing”, Ms Gibbons said, she added: “We have noticed it does feel like some people have come to maybe use it as more like a tourist spot, to do their own personal social media things which in some ways we see and understand but it is hard, there’s a lot of people around as it is.”
Another friend of the missing mum, Tilly Ann, wrote that “inappropriate comments” online had been causing “hurt and distress” and urged everyone to show the family “as much positivity as possible please”.
Another pal Heather Gibbons said social media trolls cruelly accusing family or friends of being involved in the mother’s disappearance are being “incredibly hurtful” with their “vile theories”.