Missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley died from drowning and was alive when she entered the water, the inquest into her death heard.
Home Office pathologist Alison Armour, who carried out the post-mortem examination on the body of Ms Bulley, 45, said the evidence of water in her lungs and stomach led her to conclude the cause of death was drowning, and there was no other “third party” involved in her death.
Ms Bulley vanished after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school, then taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.
Her phone, still connected to a work Teams call, was found on a bench overlooking the water. Her body was found in the River Wyre around a mile from the bench, on February 19.
Ms Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, her sister Louise Cunningham and parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, sat in the public gallery listening as Ms Armour was called as the first witness to give evidence at the two-day inquest hearing at the County Hall in Preston.
Dr James Adeley, Senior Coroner for Lancashire, asked Ms Armour to sum up her findings and conclusion following the post-mortem examination.
Ms 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.”
Ms Armour said the presence of water in the lungs showed swallowing the liquid was an “active process” and therefore suggests Ms Bulley was alive at the time she went into the river.
She said there were no bleeding in the brain or natural diseases, only normal therapeutic levels of medication in her body and the low level of alcohol was consistent with this being the result of the natural process of decomposition of her body.
There was some bruising to Ms Bulley’s body but these did not contribute to her death, the inquest was told.
Dr Adeley asked the witness: “Is there any evidence of third-party involvement playing any part in her death?”
Ms Armour replied: “No, there was not.”
Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser originally from near Chelmsford but living in Inskip, was immediately deemed a “high risk” missing person when she vanished, sparking a huge police search operation, with hundreds of local search volunteers and intense media and public interest.
Private underwater search specialists were also called in by her family amid a conspiratorial social media frenzy fuelling waves of sightseers and content creators visiting the scene.
Police had urged people not to speculate about the disappearance and maintained from early on there were no suspicious circumstances, and that Ms Bulley may have gone into the water due to an “issue” with her springer spaniel dog, Willow.
Ms Bulley’s family and friends said they did not believe the police “theory” and urged people to continue searching.
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.
Earlier, shortly before the hearing began, the coroner Mr Adeley addressed the social media controversy surrounding Ms Bulley’s death.
He said the inquest would deal with only “proportionate evidence from reliable sources and not to explore all the theories by those who contributed to social media”.
The coroner added: “At the centre of this inquest are two children who have lost their mother, a partner, and parents who have lost a daughter.”
Mr Adeley warned if anyone had the “slightest idea” to disrupt the hearing they would be dealt with “immediately”.
The inquest hearing continues.