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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Amy Fenton & Paul Britton

Nicola Bulley's partner said 'she's struggling' as woman recalls hearing 'inhale scream'

Tragic mum-of-two Nicola Bulley's partner said 'she's struggling' after he was told her mobile phone had been found on a bench beside a river together with her dog roaming free, an inquest into her death was told.

A dog walker also told the inquest of seeing a mystery 'man in black' as he walked towards a spot along the river where he had earlier seen Ms Bulley - and two women gave evidence of hearing a 'scream' coming from the riverside in the village of St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire.

One, nurse Heather O'Neill, who was in her garden at the time, said the scream was 'over in a couple of seconds' and likened it to two women walking along and 'one jumping out' on the other to scare her, but Veronica Claesen, the secretary of the village's tennis club who was just about to get into her car, described it as an 'inhale scream' like a sharp intake of breath.

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Witness Susan Jones, a retired careworker, told the court that at around 10am on January 27 she received a call from Penny Fletcher, who runs a campsite in the village and had discovered Willow, the dog, and Ms Bulley's mobile phone, which was still logged in to a Microsoft Teams call, on the bench.

Mrs Jones then bumped into Anne-Marie, Ms Fletcher's daughter-in-law, who recognised a photograph of Ms Bulley and her family on the phone's lock screen. She rang the local school, before speaking to Ms Bulley's partner, Paul Ansell, the inquest heard on Monday afternoon.

Ms Jones told the inquest: "Anne-Marie spoke on the phone and said that he [Mr Ansell] said 'she's struggling'."

Tributes on the bench (James Maloney/Lancs Live)

The inquest heard Mr Ansell was at the scene in 10 minutes. Mrs Fletcher used a dog harness she found in the grass to control Willow.

Ms Bulley, 45, was reported missing from the village after last being seen dropping off her daughters at school before taking the family dog for a walk by the River Wyre.

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The investigation into Nicola's disappearance attracted widespread attention and speculation, which led police to take action against social media influencers and people 'playing private detectives' who visited the picturesque village. Her body was found 23 days after she went missing.

Ms Bulley's parents, Ernest and Dot, her sister, Louise Cunningham, and her partner, Paul Ansell, were present as the two-day inquest at County Hall in Preston got underway.

The inquest heard that at 8.59am, Ms Bulley replied to a text message from a friend confirming a children's play date and that she was due to go out on the Saturday night with 'a group of mums' for drinks.

Kay Kiernan, one of the last people to see Ms Bulley alive, said she saw her drop her daughters at school.

The stretch of the river where her body was found (Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

She said Ms Bulley seemed 'her normal self' and didn't appear anxious or low in mood. "She had the dog Willow with her and Willow was sat in the back of the car," she said.

Ms Kiernan said they said 'morning' to each other then started talking about dogs. "I presumed she was going for a walk because that's what she normally does in the morning after the school run," she added. "There was nothing of concern."

Mum Claire Cheshire also saw her as she dropped off her children.

"As Nikki would always do, she bent down and stroked my dog, smiling, at the same time as walking along in the direction of Garstang Road, which was very normal behaviour," said the witness in evidence. Ms Cheshire said she saw Ms Bulley again later, in the corner of a lower field near the river with Willow. She said it looked 'idyllic' and added: "She was walking along and Willow was running up and down the banking, just having a lovely run and play round the field."

Richard Fife was walking his dog on the fields close to where Ms Bulley was last seen, the inquest heard. He said he knew her to say hello to and between 9.10am and 9.20am, said he saw Nikki from a distance.

Mr Fife, in a statement to the court, said he saw a man he referred to as a 'man in black' as he walked towards where he saw Ms Bulley and assumed 'he was waiting for a lift'.

Ms Bulley was found 23 days after she went missing (Getty Images)

He said he saw him again on his way back - dressed 'all in black and possibly a beanie hat'. Mr Fife said he thought it was 'strange' he was still there and after hearing Ms Bulley had gone missing, he reported his sighting to police.

Ms Bulley's Fitbit watch and Mercedes car keys were recovered along with her body Lancashire Police Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith told the inquest. Detective Constable Keith Greenhalgh, meanwhile, said he believed Ms Bulley fell into the water between 9.18am and 9.30am.

He told the inquest analysis of her iPhone and Fitbit watch data suggests she 'very possibly' entered the water at 9.22am.

The evidence on Monday afternoon follows on from a morning session in which pathologist Dr Alison Armour gave a cause of death after a post-mortem examination of drowning - and said Ms Bulley was alive when she entered the water.

One of two experts on drowning giving evidence - described as 'leading the world in terms of expertise' - said she would have drowned in 'one or two breaths' of water. Professor Mike Tipton, from the University of Portsmouth, said in evidence to the inquest he believed Ms Bulley, described as a 'holiday swimmer', had a 'gasp response under the water' and 'would have died in less than 10 seconds'.

Dr Armour was also asked by the coroner, Dr James Adeley, if there was any sign she had been 'assaulted or harmed' prior to her death. The pathologist replied: "No, there was not."

Paul Ansell (PA)

Another expert giving evidence, cold water expert Dr Patrick Morgan, said Ms Bulley would only have been able to hold her breath for one or two seconds at best.

Prof Tipton said there would have been a “fairly rapid incapacitation” after she went into the River Wyre. He told the inquest: "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."

It was also heard it could have been an estimated '20 to 30 seconds' before she lost consciousness.

Prof Tipton said two breaths of water would have been a 'lethal dose' for Ms Bulley, saying: "We estimate the temperature would have been around 3 to 5C (in the River Wyre), so there would be a particularly powerful cold-shock response. For somebody of Nicola's size, it would have taken one or two breaths in of water to be a lethal dose."

Ms Bulley's body was found around a mile and a half downstream from the bench where her mobile phone was discovered, the inquest heard.

PC Matthew Thackery, from the police's north west underwater diving team, pointed out two areas of 'sloping' down to the river near the bench, with the second 'much steeper' than the first. He said there would have been around a 'one metre drop' to the water at the time.

Police outside County Hall in Preston for the inquest (PA)

The river near the bench was around four metres deep, the inquest heard, with sharp rocks on the bed, and PC Thackery said of the area where her body was found: "There is nothing to grab hold of to help yourself back out." He went on: "The river was 4C, so almost freezing, and if she fell in the muscles would probably seize making it difficult to swim properly."

Ms Bulley's body may have sunk under the surface of the river after she went in, an underwater search expert said.

Dr Lorna Dennison-Wilkins told the inquest: "Nikki might have had some buoyancy in her clothing which would have dispelled. Once that happened, she would have lost that buoyancy and her body would have sunk under the surface, was my assessment."

Coroner Dr Adeley told the family as the inquest got underway: "I am sorry that you are attending court under these circumstances. You have my deepest condolences and I would be grateful if you would pass that onto the children, who are not in court for obvious reasons."

The two-day inquest continues on Tuesday.

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