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The coroner at the inquest into the death of Nicola Bulley—the part-time mortgage adviser whose disappearance in January triggered a rash of conspiracy theories—has recorded a verdict of accidental death by drowning.
Bulley, 45, was last seen on the morning of January 27 as she walked her cocker spaniel, Willow, beside the River Wyre in Lancashire.
She had just dropped her two young daughters off at a primary school in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre. Her body was discovered in the river three weeks later.
Bulley was deemed a “high risk” missing person when she disappeared because she had struggled with the menopause and with hormone replacement therapy drugs over the Christmas period and had suffered from issues with alcohol.
But the inquest heard the levels of alcohol in her bloodstream were so low as to be attributable to the results of decomposition.
On Tuesday the senior coroner for Lancashire, James Adeley, recorded a verdict of accidental death after hearing two days of evidence.
He said there was “no evidence” to suggest it was a suicide or foul play, as suggested by online numerous conspiracy theorists.
‘Acting out of Character’ Over Christmas
Adeley said: “Excluding a couple of comments over the Christmas period when she was acting out of character and were treated as throw away comments, there was no indication of any intention to take her own life.”
He added: “The circumstances found after her death would also be extremely unusual for suicide where Nikki left Willow, a dog to who she was devoted and was described as a third child, alone on the river bank.”
Adeley said: “Nikki would also had to have had sufficient knowledge of cold water shock to realise as to how rapidly a death may occur as otherwise she may be spotted and saved.
“That she chose to do so at the main intersection of paths where she could be interrupted at any point would be unusual and to leave her car keys in her pocket with the car in the school playground where her children, to whom she was devoted, would see it would be cruel.”
The inquest heard from Bulley’s sister, Louise Cunningham, who said: “She had a blip over Christmas but she was back on the HRT medication in January and back to work and back to the normal Nikki.”
Cunningham said she had been planning a spa day for the pair on the day she went missing and wept as she told the inquest: “I literally confirmed it was booked but she didn’t pick up the message.”
Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, said: “The blip over the Christmas period happened but in January she was back to herself, looking forward to the future and everything was on the up.”
“She had a good day the day before, came home full of beans, excited with work, with the meetings she had and plans for the year,” he told the inquest.
The inquest heard Bulley drowned after entering the river, which was almost at freezing point, and being taken downstream by the current.
‘Fairly Rapid Incapacitation’
Michael Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology from the University of Portsmouth, said there would have been a “fairly rapid incapacitation” after Bulley entered the water, which was only 3 degrees centigrade on January 27.
Tipton said the finding of water in the stomach and lungs was consistent with a “gasp response” and said she might have lost consciousness within seconds.
He said two breaths of water would have been a “lethal dose” for someone of Bulley’s stature.
Home Office pathologist Alison Armour, who conducted a post-mortem examination, concluded Bulley drowned.
Forensic analysis of Bulley’s iPhone showed its last human-generated interaction was at 9.18 a.m. and her Fitbit watch stopped recording steps at 9:30 a.m.
The inquest heard police concluded she entered the water between 9:18 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.
Bulley’s mobile phone—still connected to a work Teams call—was found on a bench overlooking the river, a mile from where her body was found on February 19.
Ansell told the inquest: “She was still listening to that meeting, so I think she must have maybe put the phone on the bench and gone to put the harness back on Willow.”
PC Matthew Thackray, a police underwater diver, said the riverbank where Bulley went missing had a steep slope.
Local Residents Heard Scream
A nurse who lived near the riverbank, Helen O’Neill, told the inquest: “I heard a scream, it’s not an alarming noise, it was just over in a couple of seconds. There were no other sounds for me to be concerned about.”
Another witness, Veronica Claesen, said: “I was just about to get into the car and I heard a scream. A very short scream and my immediate thought was, ‘Somebody is having a bit of fun at the back of the graveyard’.”
At the start of the inquest, the coroner said “additional security provisions” had been put in place as a result of “unusual online commentary” about Bulley’s death.
During the investigation, the lead officer, Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith, warned people against spreading “false information, accusations, and rumours” and said it was distracting the police.
News bulletins and newspapers in Britain were dominated by the disappearance of Bulley and the case attracted enormous speculation from armchair detectives on social media, several of whom made allegations against Ansell based on spurious evidence.
PA Media contributed to this report.