A “potentially key” witness to the disappearance of dog walker Nicola Bulley has been found and is now being spoken to by Lancashire Police, officers have revealed.
The force had put an appeal out for the man to come forward earlier on Tuesday.
He was described as about 70-years-old, and is believed to have been in the area at the time Ms Bulley went missing.
In a statement, Ms Bulley’s family said: “We have been overwhelmed by the support from our community and would like to thank everyone for their ongoing efforts to help us find Nicola.
“The girls are desperate to have their mummy back home safe with them and your ongoing efforts have provided comfort to them whilst we await news on Nicola.”
The 45-year-old mother of two was last seen at 9.15am on Friday by a member of the public.
Her mobile phone was found on a bench near where she was last seen on a towpath by the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire. It was still connected to a conference call when it was found.
Ms Bulley’s dog, a springer spaniel called Willow, was found loose between the river and bench.
A search of the area involving police specialist resources, working alongside colleagues from the Coastguard and Bowland Mountain Rescue, is continuing, the force said.
Officers have said they are “extremely concerned” for Ms Bulley’s welfare, but stressed that the investigation still remained a missing person inquiry and there is nothing, at the moment, to suggest third-party involvement in her disappearance.
‘We just want her home’
Friends of Ms Bulley have told Sky News “we just want her home”.
Emma White said: “We’ve got two little girls wanting their mummy, so if anyone has any information please just come forward.”
She described Ms Bulley as “the kindest, beautiful, lovely human being inside and out”, adding that her partner, Paul, was “being strong as possible” for the couple’s two children, aged nine and six.
“We don’t know why she’s gone missing, where she is, we just want her home,” she said.
Ms White and another friend, Heather Gibbons, have been part of a widespread community search following the disappearance of Ms Bulley.
“We want to hold on to the hope that no news is good news,” Ms Gibbons said.
“But knowing Nicky, we just know that if she could be at home with her girls we very firmly believe that is where she would be.”
“She’d do anything for anybody, she is so well-loved within the community and school community.”
Ms Gibbons added: “It feels very surreal. You just want to wake up from it because it feels like a nightmare, that’s what it is… a nightmare.”
Police said on Monday they were keeping an “open mind” about what happened, but they do not believe Ms Bulley was attacked.
Ms Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, said he spent all of Sunday searching for her.
Mr Ansell, an engineer, said: “It is just perpetual hell. It is just utter disbelief.”
“We are living through this but it doesn’t feel real,” he said from the family home in Inskip, Lancashire.
“All we can say is we need to find her. She’s got two little girls that need their mummy home.
“We have got to get some good news now.”
Ms Bulley, also known as Nikki, and Mr Ansell have been in a relationship for 12 years.
Police indicated she dropped her children at a local primary school before walking her dog on Friday.
“I got a call from the school regarding somebody who had found Willow, and Nikki’s phone and the dog lead and harness on the bench,” Mr Ansell, who then called the police, said.
“We take the kids to school and take the dog down there – either myself or Nikki – nearly every day.”
Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser, is originally from Chelmsford, Essex and has lived in Lancashire for 25 years. Police said she speaks with an Essex accent.