Peter Faulding has amassed a number of impressive qualifications in the course of his life, but he has one particular talent for which there is no formal certificate.
‘I have this natural ability to find things,’ is how he puts it. ‘And if she was there, I would have found her.’
‘She’, of course is, Nicola Bulley, the 45-year-old mother-of-two whose baffling disappearance two weeks ago has become one of the highest-profile missing-person cases of recent years.
‘There’ is the river into which Lancashire Police believe she fell while on a dog walk with her springer spaniel Willow.
Faulding, a genial 60-year-old with a lifetime’s search-and-rescue expertise, has made it clear that he disagrees with this assessment, and his dissent has put him at the epicentre of this most puzzling of cases —as well as a target for criticism from those who believe that he has no right to be spouting his theories in the first place.
Peter Faulding has amassed a number of impressive qualifications in the course of his life, but he has one particular talent for which there is no formal certificate
Among them are the police themselves, with Lancashire’s Superintendent Sally Riley taking the unusual step of pointedly stating at a press conference earlier this week that Faulding wasn’t included on all the details of the investigation ‘any more than the members of the public’.
It is criticism he deflects when we meet at the sprawling Sussex farmhouse home to which he has just returned by helicopter — which he pilots himself — after calling time on three days of dawn-to-nightfall searches of the section of river by which both Willow and Nicola’s phone were found . . . the latter still connected to a work call.
‘I’ve had some criticism, but I can hold my head high: all the high-profile cases I have worked on have been well documented.
‘I’m not a daydreamer, I speak from experience because I’ve been there, I’ve done it,’ he says.
‘I’ve helped countless families over the years who have lost loved ones in baffling circumstances, and I know that the “not knowing” is the worst thing of all.
‘If I can help with that in any way then I will.’
Faulding lives with his Canadian-born second wife Adele, 51, their nine-year-old daughter Summer — he also has two grown-up daughters Natasha 34, and Danielle, 30, from his first marriage — and a host of alpacas, emus, turkeys, chickens and dogs who roam freely on his land.
It is an idyllic retreat from the grimmer aspects of his work, which on this occasion was undertaken voluntarily, and at his own expense, after he received a direct appeal for help from Nicola’s partner Paul Ansell.
Faulding, a genial 60-year-old with a lifetime’s search-and-rescue expertise, has made it clear that the police’s disagrees with this assessment
Faulding reveals he met with Paul, father to Nicola’s daughters aged six and nine, and her sister Louise Cunningham before he departed for home on Thursday for what he calls a ‘blunt conversation’.
‘I told him I had to be completely frank with him, and that he needed to confront all options, hard though it was. Nicola was a pretty lady, she was a creature of habit, and she could have been targeted and taken.’
Although there’s no evidence for this, he later also suggests: ‘She could have run off with a lover, she could have walked from the bench to the main road and into a car. It may seem unlikely — but everything about this case seems unlikely.
‘It’s important to be upfront about these things, upsetting though it is. The cases I have worked on — you can’t rule anything out. That’s why I have been brought in.’
Certainly, over the course of his 28-year career, Faulding has located hundreds of bodies in water and on land — in many instances where the police have failed. It was Faulding’s team that, in November 2011, successfully found the body of the missing 55-year-old Gloucestershire woman Kate Prout, who had last been seen alive four years earlier.
At the time she was going through an acrimonious divorce from her husband Adrian, who was subsequently convicted of her murder. He later confessed he had buried her body on their farmland.
‘The police could not find it, as the ground radar equipment they had wasn’t effective in the kind of fine and sandy soil where she was buried,’ he recalls. Faulding used a metal detector to successfully find Kate, who was still wearing her wristwatch.
Nicola Bulley, the 45-year-old mother-of-two whose baffling disappearance two weeks ago has become one of the highest-profile missing-person cases of recent years
‘Many murder victims are buried still wearing jewellery or a watch,’ he tells me. It was also Faulding who, in 2007, found a dagger bearing the DNA of 15-year-old schoolgirl Vicky Hamilton in the loft of a property in Scotland owned by serial killer Peter Tobin. Vicky had vanished while waiting for a bus in February 1991.
It helped to convict the prolific serial killer and allow the police to close what had been a frustrating cold case.
There have been plenty of other interventions, too, among them the case of ‘Spy in the Bag’ MI6 agent Gareth Williams, whose naked dead body was found in a padlocked holdall in a bath in his flat in 2010.
Faulding’s extensive investigation has convinced him that, contrary to police assertions, Williams’s death could only have been foul play — as he explained in his new book What Lies Beneath, which the Mail serialised last month.
Today, Faulding asserts that, alongside that of Williams, Nicola Bulley’s case is the most baffling in which he has been involved. ‘In 25 years doing search and recovery, I’ve never had anything quite like it,’ he says. He is seen as a global expert in finding things that have disappeared, the result of what he calls a ‘bloodhound nose’ and a natural instinct.
Raised in a two-bedroom former council house in Reigate, Surrey, Faulding grew up tunnelling and caving with his father and quickly developed a knack for feeling at ease in confined spaces. ‘I spent my life underground as a kid,’ he recalls.
In time, this — along with the radar engineer training he undertook on leaving school — saw him teach confined-space rescue to both British teams and the Fire Services.
In 1995 — and against the advice of his bank manager — he set up his own search and rescue company Specialist Group International and was soon tasked with the first ever tunnel eviction in the UK, when he was deployed to remove the environmental protesters at the Newbury bypass in 1996.
A year later he helped to move notorious anti-roads protester Swampy — real name Daniel Hooper — from tunnels under the proposed route of the A30 at Honiton. ‘He’s actually a lovely guy. I got together with him last year after not seeing him for 35 years,’ he recalls. ‘We had lunch and a catch-up.’
Faulding has located hundreds of bodies in water and on land — in many instances where the police have failed
As the years went by Faulding — a qualified commercial diver, as well as being a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot — expanded his operations to include everything from underwater searches to crime-scene analysis.
The police have called him in to work on all manner of high-profile cases, among them the 2012 disappearance of five-year-old Powys schoolgirl April Jones and the 1997 disappearance of Alison McGarrigle, 39.
Subsequently, 46-year-old Mark Bridger was jailed for April’s murder in 2013, while convicted paedophiles Charles O’Neill, 47, and William Lauchlan, 33, were sent to prison for the murder of Alison in 2010.
But despite Faudling’s meticulous work, the victims’ bodies have never been found. It is a reminder that not all cases get complete closure, and Faulding acknowledges that while in some cases he has found bodies years after people have disappeared, every passing day makes locating Nicola slightly less likely.
The puzzling facts of her disappearance are well-rehearsed by now. Nicola was last seen by a fellow dogwalker at 9.10am while walking Willow on January 27, moments after dropping her two children off at school.
Ten minutes later her phone and her dog’s harness were found on a bench by the river, leading to what quickly became known as the ‘ten-minute window’ during which she must have vanished.
Today though, Faulding believes this is the first of a number of red herrings surrounding Nicola’s case.
Faulding acknowledges that while in some cases he has found bodies years after people have disappeared, every passing day makes locating Nicola slightly less likely
‘Everyone talks about the ten-minute window surrounding her disappearance, but the fact is that ten minutes marks the time from when she was [last] seen until when her phone was found — which doesn’t actually mean that much,’ he says.
‘It’s an open-ended ten minutes, because there are hours of unfilled time from when she was last seen where we don’t know what happened.’ Furthermore, Faulding reveals that during his investigation he spoke to friends of Nicola’s who told him that to their knowledge she rarely walked by the river bank.
‘One of them showed me the Strava app she uses which records her walking activity, and it showed that she didn’t walk by the river bank but in the fields,’ he says. ‘
Why then did the river become such an instant focus? Faulding believes Nicola’s phone focused the investigation there — but it could have been a decoy.
Faulding disputes that fell in the Wyre Estuary while on a dog walk with her springer spaniel
‘It happened with the case of Laura Torn,’ he says. Laura, 18, vanished in 2003 after celebrating passing her driving test at a pub near her home in Owston Ferry near Scunthorpe, and one of her white stilettos was quickly found by a nearby river bank.
‘It meant everyone directed their search to the river,’ says Faulding. ‘But her body was found 11 days later buried in a haystack. The stiletto was a decoy.’ Laura’s on-off boyfriend, pub landlord Guy Beckett, 32, was subsequently convicted of her murder.
This does not mean Faulding disagrees with conducting a thorough underwater search of the River Wyre, but he remains puzzled that to his knowledge it has not extended to the surrounding fields where Nicola was last seen — a sentiment he says is shared by Paul and Nicola’s sister Louise Cunningham, with whom he spent considerable amounts of time over the past week.
‘They’re clearly distraught — both Paul and Louise were fighting back tears throughout the time we were together. But they’re also frustrated that the search has focused so resolutely on the river,’ he says.
‘They’ve not seen, or certainly they don’t know about the kind of extensive search of the surrounding area you would normally expect with a missing person.’
Statements like this are one reason that Superintendent Sally Riley made her public intervention this week, although Faulding is at pains to say many police officers have got in touch privately from across the country to tell him they think he is doing the right thing.
‘I think the worst mistake the police have made was to declare early on that she’s in the river rather than saying “let’s keep lines of enquiry open”. This is a lady who knew this area intimately, she was slim and fit, and if she had fallen she could have grabbed on to the bank.’
Today, Faulding asserts that, alongside that of Gareth Williams, Nicola Bulley’s case is the most baffling in which he has been involved
He shows me a picture on his mobile phone of how shallow the water is at the spot where Nicola’s mobile phone was left, and where the police believe she might have entered the river.
‘It’s even more shallow now but on the day it would have been around two feet deep, if she slipped she would have gone in and hit rock very quickly and been up to her thigh, that’s all,’ he says. ‘This is not drowning territory.’
He also disagrees with the suggestion that she might have hit her head on a rock and lost consciousness, and that her body could have been washed round the river bend to the nearby weir.
‘I threw a big stick in the water and watched it for 20 minutes and it didn’t move, which makes it unlikely that a body would move from the spot either,’ he says. ‘It would have to be floodwater to move a body from there. People are making assumptions without the local knowledge.’
Yesterday, two boats with specialist police teams started searching the coast off Morecambe Bay, about 20 miles from where Nicola was last seen, with police suggesting finding her in the open sea had become ‘more of a possibility’. There is precedent: in 1978, the body of a teenager who drowned in the River Wyre near where Nicola disappeared washed up two months later on a sandbank.
Faulding still maintains he believes it ‘near impossible’ this happened to Nicola. ‘There’s no way she would have gone out to sea,’ he says. ‘Even in the unlikely event [her body] made it over the weir there are too many shallow areas, it would get jammed, and people would see [her].’
What about the theory that Nicola disappeared voluntarily? This does not ring true to Faulding either. ‘From all the chats with the family it’s clear she had everything to live for,’ he says. ‘Her passport was at home, and Paul confirmed that no personal possessions of hers had left the house.’
Either way, Faulding departed on Thursday unable to bring closure — although he insists he will return. ‘We did everything we came to do and unfortunately that did not result in finding Nicola,’ he says. ‘I told Paul I would be back, but in the meantime in some ways I’m glad we didn’t find the body as it means there is still hope.’
n Peter’s fee for this interview has been donated to The Lucas Dobson Water Safety Campaign, which gives lifejackets to schools.