The mum who went for a jog and disappeared off the face of the earth: Australia’s Nicola Bulley mystery grips the nation as her family ask: Why DID her iPhone signal suddenly cut off permanently?

The mum who went for a jog and disappeared off the face of the earth: Australia’s Nicola Bulley mystery grips the nation as her family ask: Why DID her iPhone signal suddenly cut off permanently?

  • Now her anguished family are asking: Why DID the signal from her iPhone and smart watch suddenly cut off permanently four miles into her run? 

To exercise outside in Australia during the summer you have to set out early, before the sweltering sun and thick haze of humidity make any exertion impossible.

It’s why mum-of-three Samantha Murphy left her home on Sunday, February 4, just 18 minutes after sunrise, at 7am, for a nine-mile run before a planned 11am brunch with her husband Mick and their kids.

As she set out in her black knee-length ­leggings and maroon singlet, the 51-year-old former aerobics instructor looked like any other busy mum keen to squeeze in some exercise before family activities took over the day.

It’s peaceful at this time of the morning as the sun peeps through the pine trees and Samantha, an experienced runner, had ­covered the national park trails around ­Ballarat, 70 miles north-west of Melbourne, many times.

But that day she didn’t come home. A month later she is still missing, having vanished ­without a trace.

Last picture: The 51-year-old was last seen leaving her property on Eureka Street to go for a run in Canadian State Forest at about 7am

Where is she? In Australia during the summer, joggers have to set out early, before the sweltering sun and thick haze of humidity make any exertion impossible

In the age of technological advancement and forensic wizardry, it’s not only confounding that someone can just disappear but deeply chilling. 

Last night, in a shock development, a 22-year-old local man was arrested in connection with the disappearance. The Ballarat local is not connected to the Murphy family.

With the entire country intrigued and the local community increasingly fearful about what may have ­happened, Samantha’s husband Mick appealed to the public for information. Someone had to know something. As he said: ­’People don’t just vanish into thin air.’

Those seven words echo to the letter those uttered by Nicola Bulley’s sister Louise when the 45-year-old mother-of-two went missing near the Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre while walking her dog last January.

Apart from the weather conditions — ­bitterly cold in England versus the blistering 36-degree day that would become the backdrop to Samantha’s disappearance — the two cases are eerily similar. Both devoted mums, both wearing a smart watch and carrying a phone, both living lives offering no clue as to why they might disappear.

Nicola was eventually found, her body ­spotted in the river by two dog walkers 23 agonising days after she first went missing. An inquest, aided by data from her Fitbit, concluded her death was due to accidental drowning.

Yet the reason why both cases make us shudder, draw our children closer and force us to consider how vulnerable we might be in our everyday lives is the nothingness, the ominous silence that descends when someone goes missing.

In an era of hyper-surveillance, where we are comprehensively tracked via bank transactions, car dashcams, CCTV and our own devices, to be rendered invisible to your ­family, friends and community is too unbearable to contemplate.

And it’s into that silence that the psychics, conspiracy theorists and keyboard warriors pile with their crazed conjecture and vigilante propositions. It happened when Nicola went missing. It’s happening here, too.

Anguish: Friends have said Sam, pictured, would never have leave her children deliberately

Distraught: Samantha Murphy's daughter Jess breaks down in tears at a press conference with father Mick and Acting Inspector Lisa McDougall in Ballarat last month

Frantic search: A dedicated team looking for clues into the disappearance of missing  Samantha Murphy

Nicola was one of us. So is Samantha. Juggling work, home and dogs, she still found time to manage the school uniform shop and attend her kids’ dance performances. She is everywoman. Right down to the ponytail she casually pulled her hair into on that quiet Sunday morning jog.

Of course, no one can know what goes on within a family, but friends of the Murphys say they are as straightforward as they come.

Mick and Samantha — Sam to her friends — head up a busy panel-beating business in the town where the company’s ­website lists her as the head of administration and the ‘backbone’ of the office.

Among her many roles, she notes cheekily, is ‘keeping Mick in check’. As her daughter Jess, who is in her final year of school, told reporters in the week following her disappearance, her mum is ‘a really strong woman, far too determined to give up this fight’.

Geographically, the UK is a small nation; Australia an enormous ­continent. But when it comes to people disappearing, the odds remain the same. The longer they are missing, the less likely will be their safe return. Monday marked a month since Sam disappeared.

While the bizarre cases of Natascha Kampusch, Jaycee ­Dugard and Elisabeth Fritzl — held for eight, 18 and 24 years ­respectively — have fuelled theories of snatched women in secret ­bunkers, in this case police doubt the loving mum is still alive.

Just over a week ago, data from her devices suggested something happened about 4.5 miles into Samantha’s run — with detectives ruling out a medical episode or any indication she left the area of her own accord.

Initially there were fears she may have been bitten by a snake or fallen down one of the thousands of disused mineshafts in the former goldmining region. But now police say her disappearance most likely involved ‘one or more parties’.

Her husband is not a suspect at this stage. Like Nicola Bulley, Samantha Murphy clearly adores her kids. Her Facebook posts recently urged friends to buy tickets to see her youngest child, Liam, play Kurt in an amateur production of The Sound Of Music, while a photograph of ­middle child Amelia, known as Milly, receiving the student of the year award at the local performing arts centre comes with a proud ­caption from her mum.

Tragedy: 45-year-old mother-of-two Nicola Bulley went missing near the Lancashire village of St Michael¿s on Wyre while walking her dog in January last year

Heartbreaking: Nicola Bulley appeared to be happy in this snap with her partner Paul Ansell

An animal lover, Samantha constantly shares posts about missing pets, and last year the couple’s business was congratulated for sponsoring kids’ theatre productions. Even the last image of her, ­captured on CCTV outside the family home, is unnervingly prosaic: she is about to drop a small bag of dog litter into the bin. Friends have said Sam would never leave her children, and when mutterings online pointed out that she was absent when her family enjoyed their usual caravan park holiday down the coast earlier this year, there was quick clarification that she stayed home because she had Covid.

Friend Virginia O’Loughlan, who first met the Murphys more than a decade ago through their children, says Samantha has no enemies and she couldn’t think why anyone would want to do her harm: ‘Everyone absolutely adores Sam because Sam is like a backbone of a lot of community organisations. Sam doesn’t do anything half-hearted and throws herself in 150 per cent.’

That effort is currently being repaid with hundreds of volunteers joining police in the search. Many exercise regularly in the Woowookarung Regional Park and one mum, who was also out running on the same trails on the morning Samantha disappeared, speaks for many when she says she doesn’t want searchers or the public to give up hope.

Speaking to the Press for the first time, Chantelle, who doesn’t want to use her surname, told the Mail she has had disturbed sleep at the thought of what might have ­happened to Samantha and has made significant changes to her own routines amid fears an attacker could still be in the area.

Since Samantha went missing she wears only one ear bud, listens to podcasts rather than the ­motivating loud music she ­previously favoured, keeps to the dirt roads round the perimeter of the bushland and has signed up to the running app Strava, which transmits her route via her ­smart watch. ‘Normally I’d follow ­wherever the path took me and feel free and blessed to be in the bush — but not any more,’ she says. ‘The longer it’s [the search for Samantha] pressed on, the more rattled we’ve become.’

Chantelle crystallises the concerns of many when she says it’s unimaginable that you can be wearing a smart watch and carrying a phone yet still can’t be found. Indeed, there is frustration that recommendations from the coronial inquest into the disappearance of Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez in Byron Bay in 2019 have been ignored.

The Hayez inquest found that laws have not kept pace with advances in technology and that police needed quick cooperation from tech companies to be able to access someone’s electronic trail. It turns out police searching for 18-year-old Hayez spent more than a week looking in the wrong area having used triangulation from phone tower pings.

It was only when family members gained access to Hayez’s Google account and reset his password that they were able to see his exact movements on the night he went missing.

While Chantelle says the signal drops out in parts of the park, Samantha’s iPhone and Apple Watch would’ve monitored various biometric data including her heart rate, stride length and altitude. That there was a ‘disturbance’ at the 4.5-mile mark reveals a level of sophistication, according to Nigel Phair, a former police officer who headed investigations at the ­Australian High Tech Crime ­Centre. ‘That means that someone’s done something active against those two devices and you have to know what you are doing to think: ‘I’m going to completely take these out,’ ‘ he says.

Phones, he explains, have two signifiers. The number, which can be changed if you replace the SIM, and the hardware identifier, known as an IMEI number, which makes the phone still traceable if it is on.

A data footprint helped experts determine Nicola Bulley’s cause of death when she was found on February 19 last year with her ­Fitbit recording a significant spike in heart rate consistent with cold water shock.

Her device continued to give a sporadic heart rate reading for eight days after she drowned, possibly due to the movement of water passing between the device and her wrist until it lost power.

But often, it’s what electronic monitoring doesn’t throw up which leads experts to fear the worst and families to become distraught. It’s the void that unnerves us and into which we spin our increasingly fantastical theories.

Ultimately, it’s hope that makes us human and encourages us to continue praying and searching. It’s hope that still finds Samantha’s friends referring to her in the present tense, not the past — ‘Sam is’ not ‘Sam was’ — and hope that’s driving the community in Ballarat to plan another widespread search.

As Chloe Farout, who helps coordinate the searches, tells the Mail: ‘The community is still very focused on getting answers for Samantha’s family.

‘It’s disheartening that it’s been a month and there has still been no news. However, we as a community are still steadfast on continuing the search.’

As the town, home to 117,000, plans for this weekend’s annual Begonia Festival, showcasing the rarest collection in the southern hemisphere, thoughts constantly turn to the Murphy children as they spend another night without their mother.

Missing people are sometimes found, often thanks to an alert member of the public.

In 1994 it was a suspicious neighbour who led to baby Abbie Humphries being returned to her parents 16 heartbreaking days after she was snatched from her cot just hours after her birth in a ­Nottingham hospital.

As the neighbour told police, the woman with the newborn had said she was having a boy yet she’d returned home with a girl.

And, here in Australia, the Cleo Smith case made international headlines in 2021 after the four-year-old, who went missing from her family’s tent in a West Australian campsite, was found alive and well 18 days later.

There were fears that the girl would become another Madeleine McCann. But when a shopkeeper noticed that the oddball single man Terence Kelly had started buying disposable nappies, the tip-off led police directly to Cleo.

There wasn’t a dry eye in Australia when we woke one morning to the news of her discovery and the voice of the little girl telling jubilant police: ‘My name is Cleo.’

As they begin another week looking for Samantha, the Murphy family will be hoping for such a miracle.

Angela Mollard

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