Two witnesses tell Nicola Bulley's inquest they 'heard a scream'

Two witnesses tell Nicola Bulley’s inquest they ‘heard a scream’ at the time the mother-of-two was last seen – as experts rule out third party attack and say ice-cold water could have killed her in seconds

  • Ms Bulley vanished after walking her dog walk along River Wyre on January 27
  • Her body was found on February 19 around a mile from where she disappeared 

A scream like someone gasping in shock was heard by two witnesses when mother-of-two Nicola Bulley is feared to have slipped to her death, an inquest heard today.

Both tennis coach Veronica Claesen and nurse Helen O’Neill told Preston’s County Hall the noise rang out from the banks of the River Wyre just after 9.30am.

The inquest heard this morning the icy water in January this year when the tragedy happened could have killed Ms Bulley in just 25 seconds when she fell in and drowned.

This afternoon Ms Claesen said she had heard ‘a very short scream’, adding: ‘My immediate thought was someone having a bit of fun at the back of the graveyard’.

She described it as sounding like ‘an element of surprise’, clarifying that it was ‘an inhale scream and not an exhale scream’ and giving a gasp in demonstration.

Ms O’Neill, who had been having breakfast when she heard it, had mistakenly put it down to girls playing.

She said: ‘It wasn’t an alarming noise. It was over in a couple of seconds.’

Ms O’Neil told the hearing she was used to hearing the sound of young children screaming from the direction of the primary school, but this sounded like it was coming from the riverside path.

Earlier in the day Dr James Adeley, senior coroner for Lancashire, was told Ms Bulley had not been drinking and died by drowning with no sign of foul play or an attack by a third party.

Mother-of-two Nicola Bulley, 45, vanished while walking her dog in Lancashire on January 27

Ms Bulley’s friends Heather Gibbons and Hannah Swale arrive for the inquest today. They helped lead the search

Her partner Paul Ansell and her family attended the hearing this morning. He appeared to be wiping away tears as he heard the evidence about the cause of her death. 

Professor Michael Tipton, a world-leading expert on the effects of falling into cold water, gave evidence about how a typical response to plunging into a river where the temperature was 10C or below was to ‘gasp’ and inhale one or two litres of water.

Commenting on Ms Bulley’s build and the heavy outdoor clothing she was wearing on the day she went missing, he said: ‘It would only take one or two breaths to cross the lethal dose for drowning.’ Someone in that situation would have around 25 seconds before they lost consciousness, he said, experiencing ‘very rapid incapacitation’. Police diver Matthew Thackray said photographs shown to the hearing of the riverbank above which Ms Bulley was last seen showed there was a steep ‘cliff edge’ into the water where she fell.

She vanished while walking her dog next to the Wyre after the morning school run on January 27. It became the most high profile missing person case of recent years. Lancashire Police faced a furious backlash over its handling of the case and for revealing Ms Bulley suffered from ‘significant issues with alcohol’ in the past as well as battling the menopause. 

Giving evidence at County Hall in Preston today, Dr Alison Armour said that there was ‘no evidence’ Ms Bulley was harmed before she fell in the Wyre. She died as a result of drowning and was alive when she fell into the water, the Home Office pathologist then said. Ms Bulley had not been assaulted or injured before she died, Dr Armour added. 

Dr Adeley asked her: ‘At the time of her death she had no alcohol in her bloodstream?’ Dr Armour replied: ‘That’s my opinion.’ 

Paul Ansell, Ms Bulley’s partner of 12 years, wiped away tears as he heard evidence about her death today

A police diving team at the River Wyre near St Michael’s-on-Wyre in Lancashire on February 19 

Dr James Adeley, senior coroner for Lancashire, told Mr Ansell and his family: ‘I’m sorry that you are attending this court under these circumstances.’ 

He was told to refer to Ms Bulley as Nikki during the hearing, which had extra security as a result of ‘substantial social media interest’ and ‘unusual online commentary’ around Ms Bulley’s disappearance.

Extra security brought in for Nicola Bulley inquest to prevent it being disrupted 

Extra security is in place for the inquest into Nicola Bulley’s death due to the social media interest in the case, the coroner said.

Dr James Adeley, senior coroner for Lancashire, said ‘additional security provisions’ have been put in place by police and the county council.

He added: ‘This is to ensure the safety of everyone attending the inquest.’

The coroner also warned attendees not to disrupt proceedings, following ‘unusual online commentary’ about Ms Bulley’s death.

At the outset of the hearing, Dr Adeley warned that extra security had been imposed as a result of ‘substantial social media interest’ and ‘unusual online commentary’ around Ms Bulley’s disappearance.

Addressing the hearing at County Hall in Preston, he said: ‘If anybody has the slightest idea of contemplating disrupting this inquest, or matters in the precinct of this court, they should be aware this may amount to contempt of court.’

He said anyone who attempted to do so would be given a ‘short period’ to arrange legal representation before facing penalties which could include a fine or imprisonment.

While friends of Ms Bulley arrived through the same entrance to the building as media, members of her family avoided waiting photographers by using a different way in. Police patrolled around the building as the hearing went on, some of them on horseback.

A walker has described the moment she discovered Nicola Bulley’s phone and dog Willow next to the River Wyre.

Penny Fletcher, who runs a nearby campsite, St Michael’s-on-Wyre told the inquest: ‘I saw a springer spaniel loose, it was near the bench and going right towards the river where it drops down very steeply.

‘I wouldn’t say it was acting chaotic at all, it was a bit giddy, yes.’

Ms Fletcher found the phone, as well as a dog harness, and tied Willow to the bench. She later found out it was Ms Bulley’s dog and heard that she had gone missing. She called her daughter-in-law who recognised the description of the dog as Ms Bulley’s and exclaimed: ‘Oh no, it’s Nikki’s dog and Nikki has gone missing’.

People who saw or had text contact with her in the hour before said Nikki had seemed herself. Ms Bulley had agreed to a playdate for one of her children and a night out with friends that Saturday.

A mother who bumped into Nicola Bulley on the morning of her disappearance said there was ‘nothing of concern’.

Kay Kiernan, a receptionist, told the inquest she spoke to Ms Bulley about her dog Willow while dropping off her children at school at just after 8.30am.

She said: ‘She was not happy, but who is on a Friday-morning school run? She wasn’t sad, just how I normally knew her.’

Ms Kiernan went on: ‘There was nothing of concern.’

A dog walker who saw Ms Bulley as she was walking Willow on the morning of her disappearance spotted a man dressed all in black at the end of a nearby lane.

Heating engineer Richard Fife said the ‘stocky’, round-faced man appeared to be waiting for a lift beside the main road through the village.

But he thought it was ‘odd’ that he was still there when he returned from exercising his Labrador, he said in a statement read to the hearing.

By the time he drove that way in his van, the man had gone.

After Ms Bulley was reported missing he contacted police about his sighting of the man, who he hadn’t seen before.

A PSCO walks towards an appeal poster for Ms Bulley in St Michael’s-on-Wyre in February 

Assistant Chief Constable Peter Lawson (left) and Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith (right) of Lancashire Police update the media in St Michael’s-on-Wyre on February 15

Mothers who spoke to Ms Bulley as they dropped their children off at the village primary school that morning told the hearing she had seemed ‘normal’.

The disappearance of Nicola Bulley led to intense public interest, a conspiratorial social media frenzy, criticism of police and media and questions in Parliament.

Her body was found in the River Wyre on February 19 around a mile from where the mother-of-two, aged 45, vanished, while walking her dog in St Michael’s on the Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.

Here is a timeline of events after her disappearance:

– January 27

  • 8.26am – Ms Bulley left her home with her two daughters, aged six and nine, dropping them off at school and engaging in a brief conversation with another parent around 15 minutes later.
  • 8.43am – She then took her spaniel, Willow, for a walk along the path by the River Wyre.
  • 8.50am – A dog walker who knew her saw her, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways.
  • 8.53am – Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, followed by a message to her friends six minutes later.
  • 9.01am – She logs on to a work Microsoft Teams call.
  • 9.10am – Last known sighting of Ms Bulley by a second witness.
  • 9.20am – Her phone was back in the area of the bench before the Teams call ended ten minutes later, with her mobile remaining logged on after the call.
  • 9.33am – Another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with her dog darting between the two.
  • 10.50am – Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance. Police are called and she is deemed a ‘high-risk’ missing person.

– January 28

  • Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation.

– January 29

  • Around 100 locals meet in the village hall to organise a search party. Police urge caution, describing the river and its banks as ‘extremely dangerous’.

– January 30

  • Police hold first press conference. Superintendent Sally Riley, from Lancashire Constabulary, said officers were ‘keeping a really open mind about what could have happened’, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious.

– January 31

  • Ms Bulley’s family release a statement saying they had been ‘overwhelmed by the support’ in their community, and that her daughters were ‘desperate to have their mummy back home safe’.

– February 1

  • Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, tell the Daily Mirror of the ‘horror’ they face over the possibility of never seeing her again.

– February 2

  • Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit search the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found.

– February 3

  • Lancashire Police said it was working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre.
  • Supt Riley urged against speculation, but said it was ‘possible’ that an ‘issue’ with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge.

– February 4

  • Ms Bulley’s friend, Emma White, cast doubt on the police theory that she fell into a river, telling Sky News it was based on ‘limited information’.
  • In a Facebook post, Ms Bulley’s sister Louise Cunningham urged people to ‘keep an open mind’ as there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ her sister fell in the river.

– February 5

  • Peter Faulding, leader of underwater search experts Specialist Group International (SGI), began three days of searching the river after being called in by Ms Bulley’s family – but nothing is found.

– February 6

  • Ms Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell, in a statement released through Lancashire Police, said: ‘It’s been ten days now since Nicola went missing and I have two little girls who miss their mummy desperately and who need her back.’

– February 10

  • Police urged people to refrain from indulging in commentary and conspiracy theories about Ms Bulley’s disappearance as speculation increases online.

– February 15

  • Police hold a press conference at force HQ and reveal Ms Bulley was classed as a ‘high-risk’ missing person immediately after she was reported missing due to ‘vulnerabilities’.
  • They later ‘clarify’ the vulnerabilities and disclose Ms Bulley’s struggles with alcohol and perimenopause.

– February 16

  • In a statement released through Lancashire Police, Ms Bulley’s family said the focus had become ‘distracted from finding Nikki, and more about speculation and rumours into her private life’ and called for it to end.
  • Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanded an ‘explanation’ over the disclosure of Ms Bulley’s private information by the force, following growing criticism of the move.

– February 17

  • Lancashire Police announced it was conducting an internal review into the handling of Ms Bulley’s disappearance and the Information Commissioner said he would ask the force questions about the disclosure.

– February 18

  • Ms Braverman met with police leaders to discuss the handling of the investigation after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also expressed ‘concerns’ about the revelations into Ms Bulley’s private life.

– February 19

  • At 2.32pm, Lancashire Police reveals a body has been found in the river after it was called earlier that day at 11.36am to an area of the River Wyre, about a mile from where Ms Bulley first disappeared.

– February 20

  • The force confirmed the body had been identified as Ms Bulley. 
  • In a statement, Ms Bulley’s family said she was ‘the centre of our world’.

– June 26

  • Inquest into the death of Nicola Bulley begins at County Hall, Preston.

Kay Kiernan, a receptionist, said her ‘mannerisms’ were ‘the same’ as normal.

She said they spoke for two-three minutes during which Ms Bulley commented about how she couldn’t believe that at the age of seven her dog Willow was classed as ‘old’.

Another, Claire Chesham, also went to walk her dog along the footpath following school drop-off and saw Ms Bulley exercising Willow between the two riverside fields.

She described it as an ‘absolutely idyllic’ scene and recalled thinking she wished her dog was as obedient as Willow.

Asked if Ms Bulley had a ball with her, she said she hadn’t seen one.

Lucy Musella, a waitress, said she had been messaging Ms Bulley about her daughter going on a play date with her on January 28, the next day.

She said at 8.13am on the day of her disappearance she messaged Ms Bulley to say that ‘my daughter would love to come and play’.

At 8.59am, Ms Bulley messaged back with a time for the playdate and a smiley face emoji.

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’.

The coroner then asked if there was ‘any indication’ that Ms Bulley suffered ‘assault or harm’ on the day she vanished. ‘No there was not,’ Dr Armour replied. She confirmed there was no evidence of ‘third party involvement’ from her examination.

Home Office pathologist Dr Armour, who carried out the post mortem after Ms Bulley’s body was found on February 19, concluded the cause of her death was drowning.

She said she based this opinion on the presence of ‘watery fluid’ in her stomach and lungs as well as fragments of dirt found in her throat.

‘In my opinion I consider Nicola Bulley was alive when she entered the water as it is an active process to swallow water and inhale fluid into the lungs,’ she told the hearing.

Traces of alcohol found in her blood following toxicology reports were consistent with bacterial activity after her death, she said, while medication including paracetamol was within ‘therapeutic levels’.

Neither bruises found on her arms and legs nor any underlying disease had contributed to her death, she said.

Dr Armour said there was no evidence of ‘trauma’ to Ms Bulley’s neck.

Police diver Matthew Thackray said specialist divers searching the water for Ms Bulley had to be helped out of the river by colleagues.

The coroner asked: ‘If you were in the water trying to get a foothold, would it be possible?’

‘Not at all,’ he answered.

He said water temperature on the day was 4C which would have felt ‘almost freezing’.

A key area of speculation during the search for Ms Bulley was whether it would have been possible for a casualty or a body to be pushed over a nearby weir by the current.

Beneath the weir, the Wyre becomes tidal as it flows towards the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay.

In a video, Pc Thackray could be seen floating easily over the weir, despite the lower water level compared to when Ms Bulley went missing.

He clarified the water temperature on January 27 as being 3.6C with the water flowing at around twice the speed as when he filmed the clip for the coroner.

Nicola Bulley may have only been able to hold her breath for ‘one or two seconds at best’ in the river, an inquest into her death heard.

Cold water expert Dr Patrick Morgan said: ‘(After falling in) the heart rate goes excessively high, the blood pressure surges excessively high.

‘The heart pumps no blood, and the brain switches off. The potential conscious time here quoted are optimistic… it is potentially shorter.

‘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.’

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

Dr Lorna Dennison Wilkins told the inquest in Preston: ‘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.’

The 45-year-old mortgage adviser’s body was found in the River Wyre in Lancashire on February 19 – around a mile from where she vanished on January 27.

Ms Bulley’s phone was found on a bench overlooking the water in the village of St Michael’s-on-Wyre, while still connected to a work Teams call.

Large rocks in the river immediately beneath the bank where Ms Bulley was last seen had probably been placed there deliberately in the past to combat erosion, Pc Thackray said.

The hearing was shown a video filmed by Pc Thackray in April as he floated downriver from the point Ms Bulley was last seen.

He said it was not possible to stand up in the river until around 40m downstream – and its level was around half-a-metre lower than on the day Ms Bulley went missing.

Speaking on the video about the water temperature, he said: ‘If you fell in accidentally, cold water shock would probably have taken effect and caused you to gasp and your muscles to seize so you can’t swim properly.’

Police divers were seen back in the river in April in an operation which Dr Adeley’s office later said was intended to assess the stability and topography of the bank.

Paul Ansell, her partner of 12 years, gave TV interviews appealing for help – saying their daughters wanted 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 of the broadcasters by Ms Bulley’s family.

The inquest, expected to last two days, continues.

Friends of Ms Bulley hold missing person appeal posters in St Michael’s-on-Wyre in February

A search on the River Wyre in Lancashire after Ms Bulley went missing earlier this year

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