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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Amy Fenton & Abigail Nicholson

Nicola Bulley conspiracies debunked at first day of inquest

Conspiracy theories and myths relating to the disappearance of Nicola Bulley were debunked on the first day of her inquest.

Known to friends as Nikki, she was last seen alive taking her dog for a walk along the River Wyre on January 27. An inquest, which started on Monday, June 26, was told police believe the 45-year-old had somehow fallen down the steep banking leading to the near-freezing water.

With the temperature as low as four degrees celsius, two of the world's leading experts on drowning concluded she would have been "rapidly incapacitated" from a phenomenon known as cold water shock. The court was told Nicola would have died within a matter of seconds, LancsLive reports.

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First to give evidence was Home Office pathologist Dr Alison Armour who carried out a post mortem two days after Nicola was found, more than three weeks after she disappeared. Her body had made its way downstream around a mile and a half from where Nicola had entered the water.

Dr Armour found no signs of assault or third-party involvement but did note several bruises on Nicola's arms and legs consistent with a fall. Dirt was found in Nicola's throat while her lungs contained 200ml of "watery fluid" and she had also swallowed 100ml of water.

The presence of water within the alveolar spaces in the lungs allowed Dr Armour to conclude the cause of death was drowning. After Nicola's body was found, on Sunday February 19, conspiracy theorists and armchair detectives speculated on the cause of her death, and how she had been found down the river despite extensive underwater searches.

Suspicion over how someone who was a confident swimmer, as Nicola was, wouldn't be able to simply swim to the side and climb back out was also raised. Extra security was in place for the inquest into due to the significant social media interest in the case.

The disappearance prompted widespread speculation at the time - which Dr James Adeley, senior coroner for Lancashire, made a point of stating would not be considered.

He said “additional security provisions” were there "to ensure the safety of everyone attending". The coroner also warned attendees not to disrupt proceedings, following “unusual online commentary” about Nicola's death.

Experienced police diver PC Matthew Thackery explained that the water in the River Wyre was incredibly murky and demonstrated how easily a person can be taken along by the flow of the river and occasionally caught up in "snag hazards" before being released and continuing downstream. PC Thackery described how there is a man-made river wall, constructed of large square bricks, on the corner of the river close to where Nicola entered the river, which he said he “presumes has been done to prevent the river banking being worn away”.

The coroner asked: “If you were in the water and trying to climb out would it be possible to find a foothold on [the bricks]?” PC Thackery replied: “No not at all… it’s very difficult to get out of the water here.”

Nicola was described as a "holiday swimmer" and Senior Coroner Dr James Adeley asked PC Thackery to give an account of his experiences of deaths by drowning. He said: “I have attended a number of deaths where the water is chest deep and with a flat bottom with no flow to the water.

"You could avoid drowning by keeping calm and standing up, however, it doesn’t happen like that when you suddenly enter cold water.

"You gasp and you breathe in water and these drownings could have been prevented if they had kept calm and kept your head above the water but it’s never that simple. In this case you can’t put your foot down, the river was moving and even if you got to the point of safety it’s difficult to climb out.”

Furthermore, one of the world's leading experts on what happens to an individual when they suddenly find themselves in cold water explained how that person would solely be focused on trying to take a breath. Professor Mike Tipton said that on entering cold water an individual would go into cold water shock and instinctively take a gasp.

He believed that, given the depth of the river and the nature of her fall into the river, Nicola's initial gasp would have happened underwater which would mean she would immediately swallow a quantity of water.

Prof Tipton said: "We have heard people talk about roots to grab onto and points of safety but you would not be thinking about that. You are preoccupied with attempting to hold your breath and get back to the surface.

"There is no normal, logical cognition going on. You are absolutely distracted and entering such water is a painfully cold experience."

Someone of Nicola's build and weight would take in between one to two litres of water in that first breath underwater. The amount of water needed to cause drowning is around two litres and Prof Tipton concluded: "It would only take maybe one or two breaths to cross the lethal dose.”

Prof Tipton concluded her death "would have been almost instantaneous and certainly within 30 seconds" of her falling into the water. Moreover, the estimate of 10 seconds before a person falls unconscious is the "upper limit", and Prof Tipton said it would more likely have been one or two seconds.

The inquest was attended by Nicola's partner Paul Ansell as well as her parents; Dot and Ernest Bulley, and her sister Louise, who listened intently as several members of the public gave evidence. They were the last people to see Nikki alive before she disappeared.

As the extensive search for Nicola continued, in the three weeks since she was last seen, many began to speculate whether someone else had been involved in her disappearance and, once her body was discovered, her death. One eye-witness, who was unable to give evidence in person, claimed to have seen a "man in black" acting strangely but several others did not report seeing the same man.

Richard Fife saw the man, who he described as being dressed all in black and possible wearing a beanie hat, standing near the field twice and thought it was "strange". After hearing Nicola had gone missing, Mr Fife reported his sighting of the man in black to police.

Much of the speculation spreading on social media after Nicola disappeared circled around the fact that there had been a concern for welfare call in the weeks earlier as she had been having "significant issues" with alcohol brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause. Police were criticised for taking the unusual step of releasing that information which led to some to suspect Nicola had taken her own life.

However, all of those who saw Nicola on the morning she went missing, including some close friends, all said she was acting normally. Toxicology tests revealed there was no abnormal level of drugs, alcohol or medication in her system at the time of her death and she had made plans for the days following January 27.

Claire Cheshire saw Nicola in the school car park after dropping her child off. She said that Nicola was acting normally and saw her later while she was walking Willow. When asked what they were doing she said: “It looked absolutely idyllic. From having a younger dog pulling on a long lead I looked up and my thoughts were ‘that’s where I want to be with my dog’. She was walking along and Willow was running up and down the banking just having a lovely run and play round the field.”

Lucie Musella was one of Nicola's friends and had replied to a message from her on the Friday morning agreeing to a play date later that day. She said Nicola was also due to go out with a group of mums on Saturday night.

Penny Fletcher, who owns Wyreside Caravan Park next to where Nicola was last seen, found Willow between the bench and the riverbank where it is believed Nicola entered the water. Susan Jones, who went with her husband Roger to retrieve the dog, said Willow initially refused to leave the scene but she then revealed this was because the lead was hanging down under Willow and once she moved it the dog happily walked away with her.

Anne-Marie Fletcher, Penny's daughter-in-law, managed to get hold of Nicola's partner Paul on the phone. Sue said: “Anne-Marie was on the phone to Paul and when she came off the phone she said Paul had said ‘she is struggling’.”

The inquest was also told how two women described hearing a scream near the river on the morning Nicola Bulley disappeared.

The pair separately spoke of hearing the short sound as they gave evidence. 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 the mortgage advisor 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.

The inquest continues tomorrow

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