Nicola Bulley was alive when she entered the water of the River Wyre and was not under the influence of alcohol, an inquest has heard.
Giving evidence at the two-day hearing, Home Office pathologist Dr Alison Armour said there is “no evidence” that Nicola Bulley was assaulted or harmed as her cause of death was confirmed as drowning.
The 45-year-old mortgage adviser disappeared on January 27 after dropping her two daughters, aged six and nine, at school and then taking her springer spaniel Willow for a walk along the river in St Michael’s on Wyre.
Her body was discovered in the water by a passer-by weeks later on February 19, just over a mile from where she was last seen.
Dr Alison Armour told an inquest at Preston County Hall that there was no evidence that Ms Bulley had been assaulted or harmed in the lead up to her death.
Asked whether there was any evidence of third party involvement, she responded: “No there was not”.
Dr Alison Armour also confirmed the cause of death. She told the court: “I gave the cause of death as drowning. The watery fluid identified within the stomach and also in the lungs themselves are classical features as we see in cases of drowning.”
She added: “Ms Bulley was alive when she entered the water - because it is an active process to swallow and inhale water into lungs. My opinion as to the cause of death is that it was drowning.”
The post-mortem examination also found “very low levels of alcohol” in Ms Bulley’s blood, which indicated alcohol levels “in my opinion, consistent with microbiological post-mortem activity”. She explained this is the release of alcohol by bacteria produced in the body when a person dies.
Therapeutic levels of beta blocker propranolol and painkiller paracetamol were also discovered.
Specialist Professor Michael Tipton told her 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. The court heard that Ms Bulley had been a “holiday swimmer”, while the water flow on 27 January was a metre per second.
A digital specialist for Lancashire Police told the court that data taken from her FitBit showed that she had “very possibly” entered the water at 9.22am. No further steps were recorded beyond 9.30am, with her FitBit eventually losing power on February 4.
Earlier that morning, Ms Bulley had spoken to several other mothers at her children’s school, with nothing unusual noted about her demeanour.
Ms Bulley was last seen along the River Wyre when she spoke to another dog walker at 8.50am, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams work call at 9.01am. Just half an hour later, her dog was found with her phone on a bench near the river by campsite owner Penny Fletcher, with no sign of Ms Bulley.
A woman whose garden backs onto the nearby Allotment Lane told the court she was in her back garden at 9.35am when she heard a scream coming from the direction of the river. Helen O’Neill, said it was “quick, a high to low pitch and over in seconds”.
As Ms Fletcher was rushing to attend an appointment, she contacted a local married couple who retrieved both Willow and Ms Bulley’s phone. Her daughter-in-law then contacted the school as she was able to recognise Ms Bulley’s husband and children from her screensaver.
Police were informed of her disappearance and she was classified as a “high risk” missing person, with Lancashire Constabulary deploying drones, helicopters and search dogs as part of a major search operation.
Over the coming weeks, a social media frenzy ensued with sightseers, conspiracy theorists and TikTokers visiting the scenes along the river where she had last been sighted.
In the latter stages of the search, Lancashire Police controversially revealed that she had been struggling with symptoms of menopause and alcohol use in the weeks before her disappearance.
This prompted widespread criticism for disclosing her private information, with both Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman questioning the police approach.
Her body was discovered in the river over three weeks, just a mile downstream from where she was last seen.
A statement released by the family read: “We will never be able to comprehend what Nikki had gone through in her last moments and that will never leave us.
“We will never forget Nikki, how could we, she was the centre of our world, she was the one who made our lives so special and nothing will cast a shadow over that.
The two-day inquest began at Preston County Hall on Monday, June 26, with evidence due to be heard from friends and family, Lancashire Police force and body recovery specialists.
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