Everything We Learned From The Inquest Into Nicola Bulley's Death

Coroner finds she died by accidental drowning as family criticises "wild inaccurate speculation" on social media.
Nicola Bulley went missing in January. Her body was found three weeks later
Nicola Bulley went missing in January. Her body was found three weeks later
PA Media

The inquest into Nicola Bulley’s death began this week, five months after she was first reported missing.

The 45-year-old mother mysteriously vanished in Lancashire, after dropping her children off at school and while she walking her dog on January 27.

Her dog was found shortly after, and her phone, still connected to a work call, was found on a bench looking at the water.

It took more than three weeks (February 19) for the mortgage broker’s body to be found a mile away from where she was last seen, following a complex search and rescue mission which prompted a great deal of criticism towards the police.

On Tuesday, after the two-day inquest, senior coroner for Lancashire, Dr James Adeley, concluded that Nicola did not have “any desire” to take her own life – and her death by drowning was accidental, the outcome her family were pushing for.

The coroner concluded “the type of clothing Nikki was wearing for a dog walk would not have slowed the effects of cold water shock”, which is believed to have caused her death, and that the river remained too deep for her to stand up for around 40 metres.

Here’s what else we learned from the inquest, at County Hall in Preston.

What did the specialists say?

Police activity outside County Hall in Preston, Lancashire, on the first day of the inquest into the death of Nicola Bulley.
Police activity outside County Hall in Preston, Lancashire, on the first day of the inquest into the death of Nicola Bulley.
Danny Lawson - PA Images via Getty Images

Nicola drowned accidentally

A home office pathologist Dr Alison Armour told the court Nicola’s forehead was covered in mud, and dirt was found in her body, both of which are “classical features” in drowning cases.

Her lungs were also enlarged and watery fluid was found inside her body.

Dr Armour said: “I conclude the cause of death as drowning. The lungs themselves showed classical features we see in drownings.

“In my opinion, Nicola Bulley was alive when she entered the water.”

There was no alcohol in her system

Dr Armour said that it is her opinion that Nicola had no alcohol in her blood at the time of her death.

Tiny traces were found, but Armour said this could be explained by postmortem process involving bacteria and in line with decomposition.

This came after Lancashire Police controversially revealed Nicola was a “high risk” missing person and had “significant issues with alcohol” during their search for her.

There were small amounts of two medications in her blood

Paracetamol and a prescription beta-blocker, propranolol, were found in the body, but it wasn’t enough to be considered an “overdose” according to Armour.

There was no evidence she was harmed before entering the river

The pathologist said there was no third party involvement or sign of any harm on Bulley’s body prior to the drowning.

Armour said there was no bleeding in the brain or natural diseases. There was some bruising, but it did not contribute to her death.

Bulley most likely fell in

A police underwater search specialist, PC Matthew Thackray, told the court: “There is a large vertical slope from the bench and into the water.

“On the day [she went missing] there was a steady flow downstream. The river was 4C, so almost freezing, and if she fell in, the muscles would probably seize making it difficult to swim properly.”

He said she would have floated a “metre a second” down stream.

Just two breaths of the water would be ‘lethal dose’

Portsmouth University’s Professor Michael Tipton, who supports search and rescue operators, said just two breaths of water would be “lethal” to “somebody of Nicola’s size”, as the water temperature was between 3 and 5C.

He said there would have been a “fairly rapid incapacitation” with just 20-30 seconds before she lost consciousness.

Another cold water expert, Dr Patrick Morgan, said: “On the occasion that the individual has taken that initial gasp on the surface of the water and then gone below, the duration would be 10 seconds that you could hold your breath, and very likely one or two seconds at best.”

Nicola’s family called the NHS mental health team days before her death

They were “concerned for her welfare” because of an increased use of alcohol around Christmas.

An emergency mental health responder, Theresa Lewis Leevy, told the inquest on Tuesday that she went to the Bulleys’ home along with a police officer and paramedic. This was after after Nicola “had made a statement to her children of not wanting to be here but the meaning of that was unclear”, Lewis Leevy said.

There was no indication of suicide or self-harm before her death

Nicola was taking antidepressants when she died – some of which was found in her body – and began HRT in October 2021. She stopped it briefly over Christmas, as she felt it was “causing low mood”, but she resumed it in January 2022.

She was also struggling to sleep while on this medication, but there was “nothing on the notes or any mention of suicide or self-harm”, according to her GP, Dr Rebecca Gray.

What did Nicola’s sister Louise Cunningham say?

She wept as she described Nicola, saying: “She was very much a planner. She had started her career again as a busy mum, as most are, juggling a career with family life.

“She always had things under control.”

She said Bulley was “getting back into a routine of working again” after having a child.

Cunningham also claimed her sister had some issues with getting “the balance” of her HRT medication right, but come January she was “getting back to herself – back to HRT medication, back to work and completely back to normal Nikki”.

Nicola was “absolutely fuming” when her sister called for the mental health ambulance 16 days before she went missing, but she said it was a “bit of a wake up call” and Nicola started to get back to normal after that and reduce her alcohol consumption.

She said her sister saw her dog, Willow, as her “third child” too.

Cunningham also said the last time she saw her sister she was “good”.

What did Nicola’s partner Paul Ansell say?

He said: “There was a blip over the Christmas period, but in January she was back to herself, looking forward to the future and everything was on the up.”

Asked if she had any suicidal thoughts, Ansell said: “No, there were a couple of throwaway comments made over the blip period but nothing that gave me any concern.”

He texted his partner at 10.30am on the day she went missing and got a call from the school about her disappearance at 10.50am.

He also explained why their dog, Willow, did not have a harness on. Ansell said: “We always take the harness off by the gate going into the fields, as being a springer the dog is very erratic. We carry the harness around the field with us and put it back on her when we get back to the gate.”

He added: “She has this conference call every Friday morning. I think she must have put the phone on the bench, carried on listening to it and then forgot to put the harness back on Willow.”

At one point, the inquest was paused to let Ansell recover his emotions.

What did Nicola’s parents say?

Dot Bulley said “everything was normal” when she saw her daughter the night before her disappearance.

Her father Ernest said: “She was full of it, she was really happy and she appreciated that we stayed a bit later so she could do what she had to do. As Dorothy said, we gave her a kiss and hug. It was just another lovely evening.”

“She was a great daughter, sister and mother – we couldn’t ask for any more from her.”

Women attach flowers to a footbridge over the River Wyre in tribute to Nicola Bulley in St Michael's on Wyre on February 21, 2023 in Preston, England.
Women attach flowers to a footbridge over the River Wyre in tribute to Nicola Bulley in St Michael's on Wyre on February 21, 2023 in Preston, England.
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

What else did we learn from the inquest?

On Monday, one passer-by who saw Nicola on the day of her death said she looked “absolutely idyllic” and said she didn’t notice “anything unusual”, while another said she looked “not happy” but “not sad”.

Someone else said there was “nothing of concern” when she saw Nicola that morning.

Eye-witness Richard Fife claimed he saw a “man in black” waiting on the road (along with two other dog walkers he recognised), around the time he saw Nicola.

He said he saw the man again later, and later reported the sighting to the police.

Eye-witness Penny Fletcher, who runs a nearby campsite, saw Nicola’s phone and dog, who was acting “bit giddy”.

Another person who lives near the bench and river path reported hearing a scream, as did someone else who was dropping her children off at school.

The latter described it as “an inhale scream”.

But the Bulley family’s legal team dismissed this bit of evidence as “irrelevant”.

The coroner later concluded those screams would have happened when she was already dead.

It seems Nicola sent an email to a colleague about a mortgage at 8.53am, received messages about a spa day, sending a text message about a play date, and received a zoom call, and turned the volume up on her phone at 9.18am.

Then there was a spike in her heart rate at 9.18am – which the coroner later decided was in line with the body’s response to cold water shock.

Her FitBit shows she stopped between 9.15am and 9.30am, and took no further steps after that.

The family also dismissed any speculation from the social media frenzy the case evoked, saying it was “allayed completely when one looks at all the evidence”.

The family also said they were “comforted” that her death would have taken “place in a matter of seconds, certainly less than 30 seconds”.

What happened during the closing statements after the inquest?

Her family made a statement via a lawyer once the inquest concluded, saying she would be remembered as a “brilliant mum, partner, daughter and sister while we all knew and loved so very much”.

Their solicitor Terry Wilcox said: “Sadly we feel the need to again raise and address the issue of social media – it is upsetting that we have continued to receive negative messages... and wild inaccurate speculation continues on various platforms.

“We encourage people to look at the facts, evidence heard in the inquest and the coroner’s verdict.”

The Lancashire Police also issued a statement, echoing the call for an end to social media conspiracy theories.

Detective Chief Superintendent Pauline Stables, Head of Crime at Lancashire Constabulary, said: “I hope that HM Coroner’s clear findings will put an end to ill informed speculation and conspiracy theories which have been so damaging to Nikki’s family and the community of St Michael’s.”

Stables did not take any questions or address the controversial way Bulley’s personal medical information was revealed.

Will the police response be examined?

The inquest will not be looking into the police’s operation into Nicola’s death or concerns over the social media response.

The case was amplified after Nicola’s family rejected the police theory she had fallen in the river because of a problem with her dog, and they called in private underwater search specialists, although their investigation was fruitless.

The police also revealed she suffered with alcohol and perimenopause, which prompted the public to question why such personal details had been revealed.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office will not be taking any enforcement action over that disclosure of Nicola’s personal health, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct cleared the force of any wrongdoing over the incident.

However, it did flag two “areas of learning” over an officer’s contact with Nicola before she vanished.

Ofcom, media watchdog, is investigating ITV and Sky after Nicola’s family criticised them for “misquoting and vilifying” Nicola’s partner, relatives and friends.

Extra security was even put in place around the inquest building due to the social media interest in it.


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