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

Short scream heard on morning Nicola Bulley disappeared, inquest told

Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley’s body was found on 19 February, about a mile from where she was reported missing from. Photograph: PA Media

Witnesses heard a short gasping scream on the morning Nicola Bulley disappeared, her inquest has been told, with other testimony suggesting the mortgage broker drowned with no evidence of third-party harm or alcohol in her bloodstream.

Two villagers told the inquest in Preston they heard a scream on the morning of 27 January.

“My immediate thought was someone is having fun at the back of the graveyard,” said Veronica Claesen, the secretary of the village tennis club. It was an “inhale” scream, she said, not an “exhale one”. She described it as a drawing in of breath, a scream someone would make if they were suddenly surprised by something.

Helen O’Neill, a nurse, also heard the scream, which was over in a couple of seconds, she said. “I pictured in my head it was two females, teenagers, walking on the river path and one jumped out on the other.”

Bulley’s body was found more than three weeks later on 19 February, about a mile from where she was first reported missing.

The 24-day police search was unlike any other UK missing person investigation anyone could recall. It has been described as a “carnival of hysteria” and became the focus of intense media attention, a social media frenzy of conspiracy theories and drew online sleuths, influencers and psychics to the Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre, where she was last seen.

On Monday, Alison Armour, a Home Office pathologist, told the inquest all the evidence suggested Bulley died as a result of drowning. Her forehead was caked in mud, Armour said, and dirt found in her body was among “typical features we see in cases of drowning”. Her lungs were enlarged and watery fluid was found in her body.

Tiny traces of alcohol were found but they could be explained by a postmortem process involving bacteria, she said.

The coroner, Dr James Adeley, asked: “At the time of her death, she essentially had no alcohol in her bloodstream?” Armour replied: “That’s my opinion.”

Armour was asked if there was evidence Bulley had been assaulted or if there was any third-party involvement. She replied no.

PC Matthew Thackray, a police diver, said he believed Bulley fell into the water, describing a fairly steep and then vertical slope down to the river.

The water temperature would have been about 4C and felt more like freezing, he said. It is likely the river would have carried Bulley downriver at about a metre a second.

Two experts on cold water shock gave evidence. Prof Mike Tipton said it would have taken seconds and only “one or two breaths in of water to be a lethal dose”.

He added: “In my opinion, given the nature of the likely entry into the water, I would suspect Nikki had a gasp response under the water, initiating the drowning process. On the balance of probability, there was a fairly rapid incapacitation due to the cold shock.”

Bulley, who was originally from Chelmsford, Essex, was living with her family in the village of Inskip, Lancashire. She disappeared after dropping off her daughters, aged six and nine, at school.

She then took her springer spaniel, Willow, on what was their usual dog walking route along the River Wyre in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre. Her phone, still connected to a Teams work call, was discovered on a bench overlooking the water.

Penny Fletcher, a campsite owner, described how she came across the spaniel running loose and noticed a dog harness on the steep riverbank as well as a mobile phone.

Because she had to get to a medical appointment in Garstang she tied the dog up with bailing twine and contacted friends to ask them to help further.

Other witnesses recalled seeing and speaking to Bulley as they were dropping off their children at school.

She seemed normal. Nothing out of the ordinary, they said. “She was not happy, but who is on a Friday morning school run? She wasn’t sad, just how I normally knew her,” said Kay Kiernan.

Det Supt Rebecca Smith, who led the investigation, gave the inquest a detailed timeline of Bulley’s last movements and said there was no evidence of any third-party involvement that gave police cause for concern.

Adeley, the Lancashire senior coroner, opened the inquest by expressing his condolences to Bulley’s family. He said the inquest would not be looking into the police’s operational response to her death or concerns over social media.

Extra security was in place because of the interest in the case, the coroner said.

The huge police search for Bulley, involving drones and helicopters, volunteer search parties, detailed examination of CCTV and searches of outbuildings, took place amid a conspiratorial social media frenzy.

As the days passed and speculation continued online, Lancashire police revealed Bulley had struggled with alcohol and perimenopause. This prompted widespread criticism with commentators and campaigners accusing police of sexism.

When Bulley’s body was finally discovered a mile downstream from the bench where her phone was found, there was further criticism of the police and the media.

Ofcom, the media watchdog, has been in contact with ITV and Sky after Bulley’s family directly criticised them.

Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, and her sister Louise Cunningham are expected to give witness evidence on Tuesday.

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