BRADFORD, England – The week-long search for Nicola Poley, a 45-year-old woman who disappeared while walking her dog in a small English village, ended on Monday when police confirmed that her body had been found.
But the intense controversy unleashed by the case – and the circus surrounding it in the national and social media – may only be beginning.
A mortgage adviser went missing on January 27 after dropping off her two daughters at school and taking the family dog for a walk on the banks of the river at St Michael’s in Wiry in north-east England.
The only clues were her mobile phone, which was discovered on a bench near the river by a local dog walker, and the family dog, Willow, running off a lead with his owner nowhere to be found.
The mysterious disappearance has caught the attention of an army of online detectives, many of whom descend upon the hamlet to follow up on leads based on speculation on social media. The vagaries of the investigation also fueled a national debate about privacy, sexism, and police treatment of women.
Privacy and sexism by the police?
Lancashire Police announced early Sunday that an underwater search team and specialist officers had found a body in the River Weary. Police confirmed that the body was that of Polly V.A Monday statementending a saga that dominated headlines and television coverage in Britain for weeks.
Family members called the media’s interest in the case “shameful”, after several outlets contacted them despite a request for privacy.
Speaking of Polly’s two young daughters, the family statement said: “It is heartbreaking to think that one day we will have to explain to them that the press and members of the public have accused their father of wrongdoing, misquoting friends and family.”
Facing mounting criticism that the case was not resolved, police said last week that Polly had been classified as a “high-risk” missing person “based on a number of identified vulnerabilities”. Then they revealed when a Press Conference She had “major issues with alcohol” which were influenced by struggles with menopause that had “resurfaced in recent months”.
The revelations drew criticism from many, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who told the BBC he was “concerned about private information being put into the public domain”.
A day after Lancashire Police revealed details about Polly’s suffering, her family issued a public statement saying they had been forced to reveal personal information about her because there were people “speculating and threatening to sell stories about her”.
“Due to menopause, Nikki experienced significant side effects such as brain fog and restless sleep and was taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to help, but this was giving her severe headaches which caused Nikki to stop taking HRT. They helped her but they only ended up being cause this crisis.”
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 Polley was postmenopausal has been criticized by some.
“The moment this information was released there seemed to be a collective response portraying Nicola as a postmenopausal alcoholic,” said Fiona L Brown, a lecturer and PhD researcher at the University of East London.
“This was sensitive information that really allowed Nicola’s account of being a middle-aged woman who used alcohol,” she said. Prior to that, she was portrayed as a loving, caring mother and partner in a professional career.
“It certainly wouldn’t have been the information released by the police if this was a man.”
NBC News has reached out to Lancashire Police for comment.
Too far from true crime?
Police tasked 40 investigators with combing through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage to try to solve the case, conducting searches on land and underwater in the river and surrounding waters while consulting with environmental and tidal experts.
As confidence in the police’s work deteriorated, some members of the public took the issue into their own hands.
The local community organized a search, while social media such as TikTok was saturated with videos from people interested in the cause, as well as influencers and self-appointed experts speculating as to what might happen and garnering tens of thousands of views.
Some have even broken into abandoned buildings in the local area or launched night patrols, challenging locals who find strangers sneaking through their properties and drawing criticism from the police for obstructing the investigation.
One influencer said he was taken into custody and fined by police after he posted on YouTube that he was 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 murder cases, the public’s fascination with true crime has never been more insatiable.
Does the circus surrounding Polly’s disappearance suggest he’s gone too far?
“On a social level, it was true crime that caused so much effort, about debunking misogyny, femicide, homophobia and ageism,” said David Wilson, a prominent British criminologist and professor of criminology and sociology at Birmingham City University.
“There will be a real crime backlash,” he said, after Polley’s case. “But I think what I’d like people to have a backlash about are those subgenres of true crime, that aren’t really concerned with trying to legitimately solve a mystery, but instead generate and anticipate.”
So why did Polly’s disappearance attract so much attention?
The vast majority of adults who go missing in Britain are found within 48 hours, according to The Guardian. missing personsA UK charity that reunites missing children and adults with their loved ones. Only 5% were found to be missing for longer than a week.
“One of the reasons I think there’s all this speculation,” Wilson said, “is that it’s one of those 5% that doesn’t get found within 48 hours.”
He added that the extraordinary attention Polly’s disappearance received on the Internet may also have been rooted in what he described as a “perfect victim”.
“The ideal victim is female, white, middle-class, and Nicola came from a postcard-perfect village where crime was almost non-existent,” Wilson said. “Her case always aroused much more interest than what a working-class black woman who might have disappeared from a central London property would say.”
“Internet practitioner. Social media maven. Certified zombieaholic. Lifelong communicator.”