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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Brown North of England correspondent

Nicola Bulley died accidentally from drowning, coroner rules

Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley disappeared after dropping her children at school in January, becoming one of the most high-profile missing person cases in the UK. Photograph: Family photograph/PA

The family of Nicola Bulley have said she will stay forever in their hearts as a “brilliant mum, partner, daughter and sister” after a coroner concluded that her death was accidental and took place after she fell in a cold river.

James Adeley, a senior coroner for Lancashire, on Tuesday recorded her death as accidental after a two-day hearing into one of the most high-profile missing person cases in living memory.

The disappearance of Bulley, a 45-year-old mortgage broker, created intense media and social media interest and a frenzy of conspiracy theories.

After the inquest, Bulley’s family said the past few months had been “extremely tough” for them to process.

“The emotional impact will stay long in our hearts and whilst we’ll never get over the loss of our Nikki, we will forever remember her as the brilliant mum, partner, daughter and sister that we all knew and loved so very much.

“The help and support we have received over these few months has meant more than words can say. From family and friends, to complete strangers across the country and world, thank you.

“Nikki and Paul’s girls have already taken great comfort in the deeply thoughtful gifts sent to them in goodwill, and in time they will read the many cards which are filled with such kindness and love.

Bulley went missing on 27 January after dropping off her two children at their school in the small Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre before going on a routine dog walk with her springer spaniel, Willow.

Her phone, still connected to a Teams work call, was discovered on a bench overlooking the River Wyre. After 24 days her body was found about a mile away in the river.

The inquest in Preston heard pathological evidence that Bulley died as a result of drowning. There was no evidence of alcohol in her bloodstream or the involvement of any third party in causing her harm.

Evidence from world-leading experts on cold water shock suggested Bulley would have died in seconds after inhaling water.

Quite how Bulley fell in the water is not known but the inquest heard that she was juggling being on a work call with looking after her dog. Her partner, Paul Ansell, suggested she may have left her phone on a bench while she went to put the dog’s harness back on.

Adeley said there was no evidence to suggest suicide. “Excluding a couple of comments over the Christmas period when she was acting out of character … and were there was no indication of any intention to take her own life.”

The inquest heard from two villagers who heard a short inhaling scream on the morning of Bulley’s death.

Adeley said he had no doubt the scream was heard but he said it was some distance from where Bulley entered the river and she would probably already have been dead. “It was not relevant to Nikki’s death,” he said.

Speaking after the inquest Det Ch Supt Pauline Stables of Lancashire police said Bulley’s family and loved ones had been through “the most unimaginable ordeal” over the last six months.

“I can only hope that this inquest will help in some small way by answering some of the questions they had about what happened to Nikki on 27 January and will allow them to start the process of rebuilding their lives as best as they can.”

Ansell told the inquest that Bulley was “an incredible” mother and was in “amazing spirits” in the days leading up to her disappearance.

The coroner said at the start of the inquest that he would not be examining operational details of the Lancashire police search.

Questions over how long it took divers to find Bulley’s body and a decision to release personal information about struggles with alcohol because of the menopause will be examined by a separate inquiry carried out by the College of Policing.

The media have faced particular criticism from the Bulley family with ITV News and Sky News singled out for contacting them when they had asked for privacy.

Ofcom said afterwards that it was “extremely concerned” by the comments and had written to the broadcasters asking them to explain their actions.

The family’s lawyer, Sophie Cartwright KC, said Bulley’s death was a tragic accident. She told the coroner: “There has been much rumour and suspicion and speculation around Nikki’s death but the family are very clearly of the view and submit to you that that rumour and speculation is allayed completely when looking at all the evidence.

“Nikki’s death would have occurred very shortly after she entered the water.”

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