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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Michael Howie and Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Nicola Bulley drowned after accidentally falling into water, inquest coroner rules

Mother-of-two Nicola Bulley drowned after accidentally falling into cold water, an inquest has concluded.

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

Dr James Adeley, senior coroner for Lancashire, concluding the inquest into her death at County Hall, Preston, on Tuesday, expressed his condolences to the family, who were present throughout the hearing.

He recorded her death as accidental as she fell into the river and drowned after suffering “cold water shock”, ruling out suicide.

Ms Bulley’s mobile phone, still connected to a work Teams call, was found on a bench overlooking the water shortly after she disappeared. Her body was found in the river about a mile from the bench, on February 19.

The inquest on Tuesday heard that Ms Bulley’s family believed her death was accidental.

Their lawyer, Sophie Cartwright KC, said: “What happened on the river bank shortly after 9.18am was a tragic accident.”

“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.”

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

On Monday, two witnesses told the inquest they had heard a short scream around the time Ms Bulley is thought to have entered the water.

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

Meanwhile pathologist Dr Alison Armour 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, and Ms Bulley had not been drinking before she died.

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 when she went disappeared on January 27.

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.

Giving evidence at the inquest on Tuesday, Nicola Bulley’s mother said “everything was normal” the day before her daughter died.

Dorothy Bulley said she picked up Ms Bulley’s daughters from school on January 26, and looked after them that evening.

“We sorted the girls out and everything was normal,” she said.

Ms Bulley’s father, Ernest Bulley, broke down in tears as he paid tribute to his daughter. “She was a great daughter, sister and mother, we couldn’t ask for any more from her,” he said.

Following the conclusion of the two-day inquest, Detective Chief Superintendent Pauline Stables, Head of Crime at Lancashire Constabulary, expressed her sympathies for Ms Bulley’s family and loved ones.

“They have been through the most unimaginable ordeal over the last six months, and 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 January 27 and will allow them to start the process of rebuilding their lives as best as they can,” she said.

“I would like to thank Dr Adeley for his careful consideration of the evidence presented to this inquest as well as legal counsel and all of the witnesses for their participation.

“I hope that HM Coroner’s clear and definitive findings will put an end ill-informed speculation and conspiracy theories which have been so damaging to Nikki’s family, the community of St Michael’s.

“I would like to finish by bringing this back to Nikki. She was clearly a much-loved mum, partner, daughter, sister and friend. and I would once again express my deepest sympathy to all her loved ones, and I would ask that their privacy is respected at this time to allow them the time and space to rebuild and to heal.”

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