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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Lydia Chantler-Hicks and Barney Davis

Nicola Bulley died from drowning and there was ‘no third party’ involved, inquest hears

Missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley died from drowning and was alive when she entered the water, the inquest into her death heard.

Ms Bulley, 45, was declared missing after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school, then taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.

At an inquest into her death, which began on Monday, two women claimed to have heard a scream near the riverside on the morning she vanished.

Nurse Helen O’Neill said she was with her dogs in the garden of her house on Allotment Lane, not far from a path that leads to the bench overlooking the River Wyre where Ms Bulley disappeared.

She told the inquest: “I heard a scream, it’s not an alarming noise, it was just over in a couple of seconds. I’m quite used to hearing the children in the school out back, but it was not that noise.

“I vividly remember thinking it’s unusual at this time. In my head, I had two females, walking along by the river and one jumped out on the other. I didn’t think anything of it until later on. There were no other sounds for me to be concerned about.”

A second witness, Veronica Claesen, a housewife and club secretary for the village tennis club, said: “I was just about to get into the car and I heard a scream. A very short scream and my immediate thought was, ‘Somebody is having a bit of fun at the back of the graveyard’.”

Ms Claesen said it was an “inhale scream” like a sharp intake of breath.

Penny Fletcher, who runs a nearby campsite, described the moment she discovered Nicola Bulley’s phone and dog Willow.

She said: “I saw a springer spaniel loose, it was near the bench and going right towards the river where it drops down very steeply.

“I wouldn’t say it was acting chaotic at all, it was a bit giddy, yes.”

Ms Fletcher found the phone, as well as a dog harness, and tied Willow to the bench.

Susan Jones, a retired careworker, told the court that at around 10am on January 27 she received a call from Penny Fletcher, who had discovered Willow and the phone.

She then bumped into Anne-Marie, Ms Fletcher’s daughter-in-law, who recognised a photograph of Ms Bulley and her family on the phone lock screen.

She then rang the local school, before speaking to Ms Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell.

Ms Jones told the inquest: “Anne-Marie spoke on the phone and said that he (Mr Ansell) said ‘she’s struggling’.”

She later found out it was Ms Bulley’s dog and heard that she had gone missing.

Nicola Bulley, 45, vanished after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school, then taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre (PA)

A mother who bumped into Nicola Bulley on the morning of her disappearance said there was “nothing of concern”.

Kay Kiernan, a receptionist, told the inquest she spoke to Ms Bulley about her dog while dropping off her children at school at just after 8.30am.

She said: “She was not happy, but who is on a Friday-morning school run? She wasn’t sad, just how I normally knew her.”

Ms Kiernan went on: “There was nothing of concern.”

The bench where Nicola Bulley’s phone was found, on the banks of the River Wyre, in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

Ms Bulley may have only been able to hold her breath for “one or two seconds at best” in the nearly freezing river.

Cold water expert Dr Patrick Morgan said: “(After falling in) the heart rate goes excessively high, the blood pressure surges excessively high.

“The heart pumps no blood, and the brain switches off. The potential conscious time here quoted are optimistic… it is potentially shorter.

“On the occasion that the individual has taken that initial gasp on the surface of the water and then gone below, the duration would be 10 seconds that you could hold your breath, and very likely one or two seconds at best.”

A police underwater search expert added he believes Ms Bulley fell into the river before her muscles “seized” in the “almost freezing” water, making it difficult to swim.

Pathologist Dr Alison Armour, giving evidence at the inquest at County Hall in Preston, said watery fluid and fragments of dirt found inside Ms Bulley’s body were “typical features we see in cases of drowning”.

She added that Ms Bulley was alive when she entered the water and that there was no other “third party” involved in her death.

Dr Armour added that Ms Bulley had not been drinking before she died, as no alcohol had been found in her bloodstream.

PC Matthew Thackray, a police underwater search specialist, also told the hearing he believes Ms Bulley fell into the River Wyre before floating downstream.

A video of PC Thackray in St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire, where Ms Bulley is believed to have fallen in, was shown to the court on Monday morning.

“There is a large vertical slope from the bench and into the water,” he said in the video. “On the day there was a steady flown downstream.

“The river was 4C, so almost freezing, and if she fell in the muscles would probably seize making it difficult to swim properly.”

He estimated she would have floated at a “metre a second” downstream.

Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Answell, and sister Louise Cunningham are set to give evidence on Tuesday, as the inquest, expected to last two days, continues.

Coroner Dr James Adeley addressed Ms Bulley’s family before the hearing began on Monday, saying: “I’m sorry that you are attending this court under these circumstances.”

He was told to refer to Ms Bulley as Nikki during the hearing.

Dr Adeley added that extra security has been put in place for the inquest due to intense social media interest in the case.

An inquest is underway at County Hall in Preston, Lancashire (PA)

Ms Bulley vanished on January 27 after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school, then taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre.

Her phone, still connected to a work Teams call, was found on a bench overlooking the water.

Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser originally from near Chelmsford but who was living in the Lancashire village of Inskip, was immediately deemed a “high risk” missing person.

A huge police search operation was launched, with hundreds of local search volunteers and intense media and public interest.

Private underwater search specialists were also called in by her family, while a conspiratorial social media frenzy attracted waves of sightseers and online content creators to the scene.

Both police and the media faced criticism after Ms Bulley’s body was found in the river around a mile farther downstream from the bench where her phone was found, on February 19.

Police had urged people not to speculate about the disappearance and maintained from early on there were no suspicious circumstances and that Ms Bulley may have gone into the water due to an “issue” with her springer spaniel, Willow.

Ms Bulley’s family and friends said they did not believe the police “theory” and urged people to continue searching.

Mr Ansell, her partner of 12 years, gave TV interviews appealing for help – saying their daughters “need[ed] their mummy home”.

As the days passed and speculation continued online, Lancashire Police revealed Ms Bulley had struggled with alcohol and perimenopause.

This prompted widespread criticism for disclosing her personal information, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak questioned about the police approach and the force facing investigation.

An independent review of Lancashire Police’s handling of the case is currently under way by the College of Policing, ordered by Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden.

Part of the review will include inquiries made by the Information Commissioner’s Office over the force’s disclosure of Ms Bulley’s personal information.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct also looked at a welfare check on Ms Bulley carried out by police 17 days before she went missing.

Media watchdog Ofcom is also in contact with both ITV and Sky after criticism by Ms Bulley’s family.

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