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Nicola Bulley disappearance leads ‘TikTok detectives’ to U.K. village

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LONDON — The puzzling disappearance of a 45-year-old woman has captivated Britain, fed a national debate about trust in police and launched a wave of crime tourism to the small English village where she was last seen walking her dog three weeks ago.

Nicola Bulley, a mortgage adviser, dropped her two young daughters at school on the morning of Jan. 27 and set off with her springer spaniel for a riverside walk. She sent an email to her employer, texted a friend about a playdate and logged on to a Microsoft Teams work call — with the camera and microphone off — just after 9 a.m. The meeting ended at 9:30, and a few minutes later a passerby found her phone abandoned on a bench, still connected to the conference call. The dog was running nearby, the harness on the ground.

Lancashire Police say they do not have any evidence that a third party was involved. Their “main working hypothesis” is that Bulley fell into the nearby river. Divers found nothing in the immediate area and have shifted their operation downstream.

It’s hard to overstate the level of public interest in the case, which comes at a time when polls show women’s confidence in policing is at a low, after a series of policing scandals involving misogyny and violence, including the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a serving police officer.

While the search for Bulley continues, amateur sleuths have been picking over the case, in what police have described as “TikTokers playing private detectives.” Social media influencers are trampling up and down the riverside looking for clues, posting selfies from the scene and offering theories about a glove and a red van and a derelict house across the river.

“We are being inundated with false information, accusations and rumors, which is distracting us from our work,” Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith complained at a news conference on Wednesday.

Police suggested they were trying to quash “further speculation or misinterpretation” when they released a statement that Bulley had been classified as a high-risk missing person because she “suffered with some significant issues with alcohol which were brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause.”

That statement prompted backlash, with critics saying the release of such personal information was an egregious breach of privacy.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday told broadcasters that he was “concerned that private information was put into the public domain.”

Zoe Billingham, who worked as a police watchdog inspector for 12 years, told The Washington Post that it was “very rare” to release personal details in a case like this — and that the decision may have been influenced by bias.

“It’s utterly inexplicable that, 20 days into an investigation, they chose to put out this really personal information,” she said, adding: “Would we talk about a man in a similar situation? ‘Poor old Barney’s hit the bottle, because he’s got erectile dysfunction.’ … That would be unimaginable for the police to put that out.”

Billingham said she worried most about the potential for a “dangerous precedent,” where others won’t come forward with intimate details over fears that they might end up in the public domain.

She also said she was stunned by the wave of crime tourists descending on the village of St. Michael’s on Wyre.

While police do rely on the public for tips and footage from dash cams and private doorbells, she said, “I’ve never come across the phenomena of the public saying, ‘Right, let’s pack up the iPhone and get over there and start doing investigations and post on TikTok.’”

Michael Vincent, the leader of Wyre Council, told The Post that his village of 600 people has begun to feel like “a theme park where people are coming along to play detective.”

Some of the visitors just want to post selfies by the bench where Bulley’s phone was found, he said. But “a certain number have taken things too far, making people feel unsafe.”

He said residents have reported people peering into the windows of their homes and “people trying door handles to gain entry.” Someone “tried to remove the paneling from a pumping station, presumably to see if she’s in there.” Responding to a theory on social media that she was in a specific derelict house, an “influx descended” on that property.

“People are trying to take on the job of the police,” he said. “I hope this is a one-off, it’s all very disappointing.”

The police said they had issued dispersal orders and warnings to people making videos for social media near private property. An analysis by the BBC found that while there was interest in the case on several social media sites, TikTok was especially popular. The BBC said that, as of Friday, videos discussing the case and using Bulley’s name as a hashtag had more than 270 million views.

One social media influencer, Dan Duffy, was arrested and fined for breaching public order laws after he joined the search for Bulley. In one clip he posted on social media, he said that he had “searched the abandoned house” and “been in people’s back gardens at nighttime with torches.” His TikTok account has been removed.

Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, told a Channel 5 broadcaster that he was 100 percent convinced that she had not fallen into the river — and that a local might be to blame. He said there “has to be a way to find out what happened, there has to be. You cannot, you cannot walk your dog down a river and just vanish into thin air.”

correction

The original version of this story incorrectly said Zoe Billingham worked as head of the police watchdog inspectorate. She was a police watchdog inspector.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.

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