Bulger disappeared on 12 February 1993 from the New
Strand Shopping Centre, Bootle, while accompanying his mother. His
mutilated body was found on a railway line in nearby Walton on 14
February. Thompson and Venables were charged on 20 February 1993 with
the abduction and murder.
Thompson and Venables were found guilty of the
murder of Bulger on 24 November 1993, making them the youngest
convicted murderers in modern English history. They were sentenced to
custody until they reached adulthood, initially until the age of 18,
and were released on lifelong licence in June 2001. The case has
prompted widespread debate on the issue of how to handle young
offenders when they are sentenced or released from custody.
In March 2010, Venables was returned to prison for
an unspecified violation of the terms of his licence of release. In
July 2010, he pleaded guilty to charges of downloading and
distributing child pornography, and was given a sentence of two years'
CCTV evidence from the New Strand Shopping Centre
in Bootle taken on 12 February 1993 showed Thompson and Venables
casually observing children, apparently selecting a target. The boys
were playing truant from school, which they did regularly. Throughout
the day, Thompson and Venables were seen stealing various items
including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint,
some of which were found at the murder scene. It was later revealed by
one of the boys that they were planning to find a child to abduct,
lead him to the busy road alongside the mall, and push him into the
path of oncoming traffic.
That same afternoon, James Bulger (often called "Jamie"
by the press, although never by his family), from nearby Kirkby, went
with his mother Denise to the New Strand Shopping Centre. While inside
a butcher's shop at around 3:40pm, Denise realised that her son had
disappeared. He had been left at the door of the shop while she placed
an order, and was spotted by Thompson and Venables. They approached
him and spoke to him, before taking him by the hand and leading him
out of the precinct. This moment was captured on a CCTV camera
recording timestamped at 15:42.
The boys took Bulger on a 2.5-mile (4.0 km) walk
across Liverpool, leading him to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal where
he was dropped on his head and suffered injuries to his face. The boys
joked about pushing Bulger into the canal. During the walk across
Liverpool, the boys were seen by 38 people. Bulger had a bump on his
forehead and was crying, but most bystanders did nothing to intervene,
assuming that he was a younger brother. Two people challenged the
older boys, but they claimed that Bulger was a younger brother or that
he was lost and they were taking him to the local police station. At
one point, the boys took Bulger into a pet shop, from which they were
ejected. Eventually the boys led Bulger to a railway line near the
disused Walton & Anfield railway station, close to Walton Lane police
station and Anfield Cemetery, where they attacked him.
At the trial it was established that at this
location, one of the boys threw blue Humbrol modelling paint into
Bulger's left eye. They kicked him and hit him with bricks, stones and
a 22-pound (10.0 kg) iron bar, described in court as a railway
fishplate. They placed batteries in his mouth. Bulger suffered ten
skull fractures as a result of the iron bar striking his head. Alan
Williams, the case's pathologist, speculated that Bulger suffered so
many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow.
Police suspected that there was a sexual element to
the crime, since Bulger's shoes, stockings, trousers and underpants
had been removed. The pathologist's report read out in court stated
that Bulger's foreskin had been manipulated. When questioned about
this aspect of the attack by detectives and the child psychiatrist
Eileen Vizard, Thompson and Venables were reluctant to give details.
Before they left him, the boys laid Bulger across
the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in the hope
that a train would hit him and make his death appear to be an accident.
After Bulger's killers left the scene, his body was cut in half by a
train. Bulger's severed body was discovered two days later, on 14
February. A forensic pathologist testified that he had died before he
was struck by the train.
The police quickly found low-resolution video
images of Bulger's abduction from the Strand Shopping Centre by two
unidentified boys. As the circumstances surrounding the death became
clear, tabloid newspapers denounced the people who had seen Bulger but
had not intervened to aid Bulger as he was being taken through the
city, as the "Liverpool 38". The railway embankment upon which his
body had been discovered was flooded with hundreds of bunches of
The crime created great anger in Liverpool. The
family of one boy who was detained for questioning, but subsequently
released, had to flee the city. The breakthrough came when a woman, on
seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television,
recognised Venables, whom she knew had played truant with Thompson
that day. She contacted police and the boys were arrested. The fact
that the boys were so young came as a shock to investigating officers,
headed by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, of Merseyside Police.
Early press reports and police statements had referred to Bulger being
seen with "two youths" (suggesting that the killers were teenagers),
the ages of the boys being difficult to ascertain from the images
captured by CCTV.
Forensic tests also confirmed that both boys had
the same blue paint on their clothing as found on Bulger's body. Both
had blood on their shoes; blood on Thompson's shoe was matched to
Bulger through DNA tests. The boys were charged with Bulger's murder
on 20 February 1993, and appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22
February 1993, when they were remanded in custody to await trial.
In the aftermath of their arrest, and throughout
the media accounts of their trial, the boys were referred to as 'Child
A' (Thompson) and 'Child B' (Venables). At the close of the trial, the
judge ruled their names should be released (because of the nature of
the murder and the public reaction), and they were identified along
with lengthy descriptions of their lives and backgrounds. Public shock
was compounded by the release, after the trial, of mug shots taken
during questioning by police.
Five hundred protesters gathered at South Sefton
Magistrates' Court during the boys' initial court appearances. The
parents of the accused were moved to different parts of the country
and assumed new identities following death threats from vigilantes.
The full trial opened at Preston Crown Court on 1
November 1993, conducted as an adult trial with the accused in the
dock away from their parents, and the judge and court officials in
legal regalia. The boys denied the charges of murder, abduction and
attempted abduction brought against them. The attempted abduction
charge related to an incident at the New Strand Shopping Centre
earlier on 12 February 1993, the day of Bulger's death. Thompson and
Venables had attempted to lead away another two-year-old boy, but had
been prevented by the boy's mother. Each boy sat in view of the court
on raised chairs (so they could see out of the dock designed for
adults) accompanied by two social workers. Although they were
separated from their parents, they were within touching distance when
their families attended the trial. News stories reported the demeanour
of the defendants. These aspects were later criticised by the European
Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1999 that they had not received
a fair trial by being tried in public in an adult court.
At the trial, the lead prosecution counsel Richard
Henriques QC successfully rebutted the principle of doli incapax,
which presumes that young children cannot be held legally responsible
for their actions. The child psychiatrist Dr. Eileen Vizard, who
interviewed Thompson before the trial, was asked in court whether he
would know the difference between right and wrong, that it was wrong
to take a young child away from its mother, and that it was wrong to
cause injury to a child. Vizard replied "If the issue is on the
balance of probabilities, I think I can answer with certainty". Vizard
also said that Thompson was suffering from posttraumatic stress
disorder after the attack on Bulger.
Dr. Susan Bailey, the Home Office forensic
psychiatrist who interviewed Venables, said unequivocally that he knew
the difference between right and wrong. Thompson and Venables did not
speak during the trial, and the case against them was based to a large
extent on the more than 20 hours of tape-recorded police interviews
with the boys, which were played back in court. The two boys, by then
aged 11, were found guilty of Bulger's murder at Preston Crown Court
on 24 November 1993, becoming the youngest convicted killers of the
20th century. The judge Mr. Justice Morland told Thompson and Venables
that they had committed a crime of "unparalleled evil and barbarity...
In my judgment, your conduct was both cunning and very wicked."
The judge sentenced them to be detained at Her
Majesty's pleasure, with a recommendation that they should be kept in
custody for "very, very many years to come", recommending a minimum
term of eight years. Shortly after the trial, Lord Taylor of Gosforth,
the Lord Chief Justice, ordered that the two boys should serve a
minimum of ten years, which would have made them eligible for release
in February 2003 at the age of twenty.
Lord Donaldson criticised Howard's intervention,
describing the increased tariff as "institutionalised vengeance ...
[by] a politician playing to the gallery". The increased minimum term
was overturned in 1997 by the House of Lords, who ruled that it was "unlawful"
for the Home Secretary to decide on minimum sentences for offenders
aged under 18.
The High Court and European Court of Human Rights
have since ruled that, though the parliament may set minimum and
maximum terms for individual categories of crime, it is the
responsibility of the trial judge, with the benefit of all the
evidence and argument from both prosecution and defence counsel, to
determine the minimum term in individual criminal cases.
The case led to public anguish, and concern at
moral decay in Britain. Tony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, gave a
speech in Wellingborough on 19 February, saying that "We hear of
crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal
proportions … These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is
becoming unworthy of that name." Prime Minister John Major said that "society
needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less".
The trial judge Mr. Justice Morland stated that
exposure to violent videos might have encouraged the actions of
Thompson and Venables, but this was disputed by David Maclean, the
Minister of State at the Home Office at the time, who pointed out that
police had found no evidence linking the case with "video nasties".
Some UK tabloid newspapers claimed that the attack on James Bulger was
inspired by the film Child's Play 3, and campaigned for the
rules on "video nasties" to be tightened. Inspector Ray Simpson of
Merseyside Police commented: "If you are going to link this murder to
a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children". The
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 clarified the rules on the
availability of certain types of video material to children.
In 1999, lawyers for Thompson and Venables appealed
to the European Court of Human Rights that the boys' trial had not
been impartial, since they were too young to follow proceedings and
understand an adult court. The European Court dismissed their claim
that the trial was inhuman and degrading treatment, but upheld their
claim they were denied a fair hearing by the nature of the court
The European Court also held that Michael Howard's
intervention had led to a "highly charged atmosphere", which resulted
in an unfair judgment. On 15 March 1999, the court in Strasbourg ruled
by 14 votes to 5 that there had been a violation of Article 6 of the
European Convention on Human Rights regarding the fairness of the
trial of Thompson and Venables, stating: "The public trial process in
an adult court must be regarded in the case of an 11-year-old child as
a severely intimidating procedure".
In September 1999, Bulger's parents applied to the
European Court of Human Rights, but failed to persuade the court that
a victim of a crime has the right to be involved in determining the
sentence of the perpetrator.
The European Court case led to the new Lord Chief
Justice, Lord Woolf, reviewing the minimum sentence. In October 2000,
he recommended the tariff be reduced from ten to eight years, adding
that young offenders' institutions were a "corrosive atmosphere" for
In June 2001, after a six month review, the parole
board ruled the boys were no longer a threat to public safety and
could be released as their minimum tariff had expired in the February
of that year. The Home Secretary David Blunkett approved the decision,
and they were released a few weeks later on a life licence after
serving eight years. They were given new identities and moved to
secret locations under a "witness protection"-style action.
The terms of their release include the following:
They are not allowed to contact each other or Bulger's family. They
are prohibited from visiting the Merseyside region. Curfews may be
imposed on them and they must report to probation officers. Breach of
those rules would make them liable to be returned to prison. If they
were deemed to be a risk to the public, they would be returned to
An injunction was imposed on the news media after
the trial, preventing the publication of details about the boys. The
injunction was kept in force following their release on parole, so
their new identities and locations could not be published. David
Blunkett stated in 2001: "The injunction was granted because there was
a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk if
their identities became known.
Upon release, both Thompson and Venables had lost
all trace of their Liverpool accents. In a psychiatric report prepared
in 2000 prior to Venables' release, he was described as posing a
"trivial" risk to the public and unlikely to reoffend. The chances of
his successful rehabilitation were described as "very high".
No significant publication or vigilante action
against Thompson or Venables has occurred. Despite this, Bulger's
mother, Denise, told how in 2004 she received a tip-off from an
anonymous source that helped her locate Thompson. Upon seeing him, she
was "paralysed with hatred" and was unable to confront him.
In April 2007, documents released under the Freedom
of Information Act confirmed that the Home Office had spent £13,000 on
an injunction to prevent a foreign magazine from revealing the new
identities of Thompson and Venables.
On 14 March 2008, an appeal to set up a Red Balloon
Learner Centre in Merseyside in memory of James Bulger was launched by
Denise Fergus, his mother, and Esther Rantzen. A memorial garden in
Bulger's memory was created in Sacred Heart Primary School in Kirkby.
He would have been expected to attend this school had he not been
Bulger's parents Ralph and Denise divorced in 1995,
and Denise married Stuart Fergus in 1998.
In March 2010, a call was made to raise the age of
criminal responsibility in England from 10 to 12. Children's
commissioner Maggie Atkinson said that the killers of James Bulger
should have undergone "programmes" to help turn their lives around,
rather than being prosecuted. The Ministry of Justice rejected the
call, saying that children over the age of 10 knew the difference "between
bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing".
In April 2010, a 19-year-old man from the Isle of
Man was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for claiming in
a Facebook message that one of his former work colleagues was Robert
Thompson. In passing sentence, Deputy High Bailiff Alastair Montgomery
said that the teenager had "put that person at significant risk of
serious harm" and in a "perilous position" by making the allegation.
On 2 March 2010, the Ministry of Justice revealed
that Jon Venables had been returned to prison for an unspecified
violation of the terms of his licence of release. Justice Secretary
Jack Straw stated that Venables was returned to prison because of "extremely
serious allegations," and stated that he was "unable to give further
details of the reasons for Jon Venables' return to custody, because it
was not in the public interest to do so." Following the Sunday
Mirror's claim on 7 March that Venables was returned to prison on
suspected child pornography charges, Straw repeated that premature
disclosure of details of Venables's return to custody was not in the
public interest, and that the "motivation throughout has been solely
to ensure that some extremely serious allegations are properly
investigated and that justice is done".
The Children's Secretary Ed Balls warned that some
parts of the UK media were coming close to breaking the law, and
stated : "If we responded to the desire for people to know the facts
in public in a way which ends up prejudicing a legal case, we would
look back and think we made very irresponsible decisions". Straw
revealed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that due to the media
and public pressure for details to be released, he would "make a
judgment about if there's information – given that it's already out in
the newspapers – we can confirm."
In a statement to the House of Commons on 8 March
2010, Jack Straw reiterated that it was "not in the interest of
justice" to reveal the reason why Venables had been returned to
custody. Baroness Butler-Sloss, the judge who made the decision to
grant Venables anonymity in 2001, warned that he could be killed if
his new identity was revealed.
Bulger's mother Denise Fergus said that she was
angry that the Parole Board did not tell her that Venables had been
returned to prison, and called for his anonymity to be removed if he
was charged with a crime. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice
stated that there is a worldwide injunction against publication of
either killers' location or new identity.
The return to prison of Venables revived a false
claim that a man from Fleetwood in Lancashire was Jon Venables. The
claim was reported and dismissed in September 2005, but reappeared in
March 2010 when it was circulated widely via SMS messages, Facebook
and Twitter. Chief Inspector Tracie O'Gara of Lancashire Constabulary
stated: "An individual who was targeted four and a half years ago was
not Jon Venables and now he has left the area".
On 21 June 2010, Venables was charged with
possession and distribution of indecent images of children. It was
alleged that he downloaded 57 indecent images of children over a
twelve month period to February 2010, and allowed other people to
access the files through a peer-to-peer network. Venables faced two
charges under the Protection of Children Act 1978. On 23 July 2010,
Venables appeared at a court hearing at the Old Bailey via a video
link, visible only to the judge hearing the case. He pleaded guilty to
charges of downloading and distributing child pornography, and was
given a sentence of two years' imprisonment.
At the court hearing, it emerged that Venables had
posed in online chat rooms as 35-year-old Dawn "Dawnie" Smith, a
married woman from Liverpool who boasted about abusing her eight-year-old
daughter, in the hope of obtaining further child pornography. Venables
had contacted his probation officer in February 2010, fearing that his
new official identity had been compromised. When the officer arrived
at his home, Venables was attempting to remove the hard drive of his
computer with a knife and a tin opener. The officer's suspicions were
aroused, and the computer was taken away for examination, leading to
the discovery of the child pornography, which included children as
young as two being raped by adults.
The judge ruled that Venables' new identity could
not be revealed, but the media was allowed to report that he had been
living in Cheshire at the time of his arrest. The High Court also
heard that Venables had been arrested on suspicion of affray in
September 2008, following a drunken street fight with another man.
Later the same year, he was cautioned for possession of cocaine.
In November 2010, a review of the National
Probation Service handling of the case by Sir David Omand found that
probation officers could not have prevented Venables from downloading
child pornography. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the
National Association of Probation Officers, commented that only 24-hour
surveillance would have prevented Venables from downloading the
In 2008, Swedish playwright Niklas Rådström used
the interview transcripts from interrogations with the murderers and
their families to recreate the story. His play, Monsters,
opened to mixed reviews at the Arcola Theatre in London in May 2009.
In August 2009, Australia's Seven Network used real
footage of the abduction to promote its police show City Homicide.
The use of the footage was criticised by Bulger's mother and Seven
apologised. A tie in with this saw the Sunrise co-hosts asking
the rhetorical question of whether the killers were now living in
Australia. When the question was answered on 24 August 2009 edition,
they used one minute and seven seconds to relate the Australian
government's two-line denial that they had been settled in the
The death of James Bulger
Shirley Lynn Scott
Children become, while little, our delights,
When they grow bigger, they begin to fright’s.
Their sinful Nature prompts them to rebel,
And to delight in Paths that lead to Hell.
-- John Bunyan, “Book for Boys and Girls” (1686)
little boys are nice until they get older.”
-- Robert Thompson, age 11
them everywhere. Those security cameras that hang in corners, bolted
to the ceiling, silently monitoring us as we shop. Do they make us
feel safer? Or do we ignore them, assuming nothing bad happens in the
safe haven of our suburban shopping centers? Like millions of cameras
installed in almost every modern shopping plaza, they are set up to
identify shoplifters and thieves. But on February 12, 1993 in the calm
of a Friday early afternoon, the security cameras at the Bootle Strand
Shopping Center near Liverpool, England, captured the most tragic of
thefts -- on this day, something priceless was stolen.
video clip, we see a young boy holding a toddler by the hand. A few
paces ahead, another boy leads. They look like family, navigating a
baby brother past shoppers and distractions. Passersby hardly notice
them, unaware that one of the most heartbreaking murders in British
history was unfolding right before their eyes. Too young to fight, too
young to know better, the toddler trusted the boys who took him by the
hand and led him away. All the while his frantic mother Denise
searched for her lost son, her only child.
two-year-old James Bulger in the hands of his killers, frozen in time.
He will be taken on a long, aimless walk, cruelly tortured along the
way. James will be senselessly beaten to death by his ten-year-old
captors, who will callously abandon him on the railroad tracks. Along
their meandering walk the three children encountered adults. A simple
inquiry could have ended the tragedy: “Is the boy okay? Let me help
you find his mom. Let me take care of that hurt . . . ” These words
and an extended hand from a concerned grown-up might have saved
James’s life. And spared his mother unbearable grief.
Venables and Robert Thompson had been stealing things all day at the
shopping center -- candy, a troll doll, some batteries, a can of blue
paint, and other incidentals. Why did they decide to steal a baby? Was
it a plot or a sudden, overwhelming compulsion? Once they had him,
they didn’t know what to do with him. They could have easily discarded
James, leaving him alone on the sidewalk, by a shop, where someone
would discover the crying baby. But Jon and Robert, like children who
would rather destroy their own possessions than give them to another,
murdered the little boy. James’s parents would never see their baby
Jon and Robert were considered delinquents. Yet nothing in their pasts
indicated that they could be so viciously cruel. Which one suggested
kidnapping? How did they decide to murder little James? Many assumed
it was Robert. He was the tough one, a purebred troublemaker. Robert
acted the part and looked the part with his closely shaved head and
pudgy, bully-like build. Jon, on the other hand, was thinner and
fragile in appearance. Compared to Robert, he seemed sensitive and
naive. After they were arrested, Jon cried hysterically and sank deep
into remorse, whereas Robert floated on the surface, keeping his cool.
It seemed that Robert was the perpetrator, and Jon the bystander. But
as investigators examined the boys’ behaviors and confessions, they
would begin to suspect something much more complex. With Robert and
Jon, first impressions were deceiving.
course, Robert blamed Jon, and Jon blamed Robert. For children, lies
seem like an easy escape, especially when there was another child
present to blame. And even if they admitted the truth, how could
ten-year-old boys put into words the depth of their hostilities and
desire to mutilate and murder a two-year-old? Child psychologists
unraveled the boy’s narratives, looking for clues as to why.
Investigators tried to get to the truth, but had to ease up when tears
turned to hysterics. The mothers were of no help. One of the boys
eventually admitted to killing James.
Would that let the
other boy off the hook?
Michele Elliott, founder of Kidscape, called “the most unfortunate
coming together of three children this century,” the tragic tale of
James Bulger’s senseless death still fascinates us. We may never know
why, but we can at least piece together some of their terrible journey
through the testimony of witnesses and by putting together Robert’s
and Jon’s versions of James Bulger’s murder.
Bulger took James everywhere. She lost her first child during
pregnancy and she did not want anything to happen to her precious son.
At 25, she planned to have more kids, but for now, James was her only
child and she kept him close. Her little boy, who would be three next
month, had large blue eyes, a beaming smile, and sandy brown hair.
Friday, Feb 12, Denise accompanied her brother’s girlfriend Nicola to
the Bootle Strand Shopping Center and, of course, she brought James.
At 2:30 they entered the modern, two-story shopping center. Inside,
ceramic tile lined the walkways, and natural lighting filled the
space. Nicola had to exchange some underwear at TJ Hughes, and Denise
waited nearby, watching the children. For a moment James disappeared
from sight. He was getting antsy, and made a fuss if he had to ride in
the stroller. James wandered, but soon cried out, frightened to
suddenly find himself alone.
picked him up and they left TJ Hughes. She bought the children a
snack, hoping to quiet James down. But the two-year-old was full of
energy. At a children’s clothing store he tossed around baby’s clothes
and at another store grabbed some candy and juice before Denise could
stop him. They would be leaving soon, after one last stop at the
butcher’s shop. Denise went in, leaving James by the door. Since there
wasn’t a line, so she figured James, who was squirming and fussing in
her arms, would be okay for a moment on his own.
butcher mixed up the order, occupying Denise a little longer than she
expected. Nicola, her companion, had just seen James playing with a
cigarette butt by the door. When the young mother left the shop to
scoop up her child, he was gone. She ran back inside, flustered. “I
was only in the shop a few seconds. I turned round and he’d gone,” she
same morning, Jon Venables left his Merseyside home for school. He
carried a note from his mother, requesting that he be allowed to take
the class gerbils home, where he could care for them over the upcoming
holiday break. But down the road, Jon ditched his school bag in his
favorite hiding place. He saw Robert Thompson, who was hanging out
with his little brother. Both were “sagging,” cutting class. Not that
they had anything else to do. Both Jon and Robert hated school, where
they felt like outcasts. Both had been kept behind a grade, a common
denominator of shame.
They became expert
Friday, they walked to the Bootle Strand. As they strolled through the
mall, browsing the stores, sales people watched them closely. Their
school uniforms signified their truancy, their potential for trouble.
Robert came to the shopping center to steal. It didn’t seem to matter
what. They lurked around the counters, pocketing whatever was in reach
when the salesperson was busy. They stole batteries, enamel paint,
pens and pencils, a troll doll (Robert collected trolls), some fruit
and candy, makeup, and other trinkets. They swiped a wind-up toy
soldier, played with it on the escalator, and tossed it down the
moving steps. They discarded much of what they took. Stealing was the
Everywhere, Jon and Robert were told to leave. They kicked a can of
enamel paint until it started to leak. They teased an elderly woman,
poking her in the back, then running off. They climbed all over the
chairs at a McDonald’s until they were chased out. Shop clerks asked
them, why aren’t you in school? They lied and said it was a holiday.
get a kid”
idea was it to lure a child? In custody, Robert claimed Jon said,
“Let’s get a kid, I haven’t hit one for ages.” But Jon blamed Robert.
“Let’s get this kid lost,” he quoted Robert as saying, “let’s get him
lost outside so when he goes into the road he’ll get knocked over.”
Perhaps both are telling the truth, perhaps they became giddy as they
talked about taking a child. Was the idea first brought up as a joke,
a dare? Boys talk tough, exaggerating their feats, goading one another
to bigger challenges. Was Jon desperate to impress his tough friend?
Was Robert trying to maintain his hooligan act? Neither would chicken
out or back down once the challenge “let’s get a kid” was made. By
stealing a baby, it seems, they were proving to each other that they
were not babies themselves.
department store TJ Hughes, a woman noticed her three-year-old
daughter and two-year-old son were playing with a couple of older
boys. The boys, Jon and Robert, were kneeling down, opening purses and
snapping them shut, attracting the kids’ attention. She called them
back, but they strayed off again. After she paid for her item, she
found her daughter and asked her where her baby brother was. “Gone
outside with the boys,” she said. The mother raced outside and yelled
her child’s name. She saw Jon and Robert, motioning to her son to come
along. He had already followed them this far. But when Jon saw her,
they froze. “Go back to your mum,” they said, and the two boys quickly
Jon and Robert went to a concession stand near the butcher’s shop,
hoping to pocket some candy, but the stand was closed. As they stood
there for a moment, wondering what to do next, Jon spotted a little
boy in a blue anorak by the butcher’s door. He was eating Smarties.
on, baby,” said Jon. James followed and Jon took him by the hand.
walked through the Strand, a few women noticed the threesome.
Sometimes James ran ahead. The older boys were calling to him: “Come
on, baby.” Together, they left the shopping center. The video camera
captured them as they left at 3:42 p.m.
little boy’s gone missing”
was panicked. She was directed to the security office, where she
described her son. He was wearing a blue anorak and grey sweatsuit.
His tee-shirt had the word “Noddy” printed on it, and his blue wool
scarf had a white cat face. Security wasn’t alarmed -- it was routine
to announce the names and descriptions of lost children over the
loudspeakers. But no one responded. Denise and Nicola searched the
shops and again called the security officers -- still no James. At
4:15 p.m. they called the Marsh Lane Police Station to report a
by the Railway
Robert left the Bootle Strand and walked up Stanley Road. They carried
the toddler, who cried and fussed. They set him down near the post
office and said loudly, “Are you all right? You were told not to run.”
James cried for his mother, but the boys continued on, ignoring his
pleas. Jon held the boy’s hand as they walked. Sometimes he ran ahead,
other times he fell behind. They walked down to the canal and under a
bridge to an isolated area. Jon and Robert joked about pushing James
into the water.
at the canal that they first hurt James. One of them (each blamed the
other) picked James up and dropped him on his head. If they were
earnest about wanting to murder a baby, why not here and now? They had
their opportunity and had made their first assault on the toddler. Yet
Jon and Robert ran away, afraid. They weren’t prepared to kill, so
they left James alone by the canal wailing.
saw James and assumed he was with some other children nearby. Jon and
Robert turned around and walked back toward James. “Come on, baby.” In
his utter innocence, little James with a big bruise and cut on his
forehead, once again followed his tormentors. They covered the child’s
head with the hood of his anorak so that his wound would be less
visible. Holding James’s hand, they walked back toward Stanley Road
and crossed at a busy intersection. Some saw the child with the
tear-streaked face. Some saw the cut on his forehead. It made some of
them uneasy, but no one knew what to do. If James had screamed and
cried for his mother or if the older boys had acted cruelly, surely
someone would have rescued the child. Who could have imagined what was
truly taking place? The thought of it impossible to fathom -- these
ten-year-old boys were marching a little boy off to be murdered.
returning from the canal, the boys seemed to have lost their purpose
and their direction. They meandered, strolling past shops, halls,
offices, and parking lots. A witness on a bus saw the two boys,
swinging the toddler’s hands, as he walked between them. A motorist
later saw the boys pulling the baby, against his will. He was crying
and did not want to go further. He saw Robert kick the baby in the
ribs. “A persuading kick,” the witness later described it.
Robert, and James had walked over a mile by now, along a busy road in
Liverpool. It was late afternoon. Many drivers caught in the commute
rush hour noticed the boys. A woman saw James running between the two
boys and assumed they were playing. At another intersection, James
began to cry for his mother again. He ran off and almost ran into
traffic, but Robert caught him and pulled him back. Motorists watched
the boys as they crossed the street and could see that James was
crying, dragging his heels. Some thought James was crying because he
was not allowed to run free. But others wondered where the parents
carried James by the legs, while Robert held him by the chest. They
awkwardly carried the boy to a grassy plateau by a reservoir where
they sat on a step and rested, placing James between them. A woman
walking her dog passed them by and noticed that little James was
laughing. But moments later, another person saw Jon punch James,
grabbing him and violently shaking him. For some inexplicable reason,
this witness pulled her curtains, shutting out the scene. It was
growing dark. (These witnesses would later be called by the papers the
“Liverpool 38” and shamed them for turning the other way. Some of the
James sightings seem to be justifiable. James laughing, James swinging
his hands between two boys, looking like family. But some of the
sightings, when the boys were hurting James, or dragging him as he
screamed for his mother, are mysteries as to why no one called the
now I had done something.”
grassy knoll by the reservoir, an elderly woman noticed the baby, who
was obviously hurt. She approached them and asked what the problem
was. James was in tears, his face bruised and red.
just found him at the bottom of the hill,” Jon and Robert claimed as
if they didn’t know him.
told the boys to take him to the Walton Lane Police Station just down
the road and gave them directions there. The little boy’s injuries
worried her. She pointed them in the direction of the police, but
watched incredulously as they walked off in the opposite direction.
She shouted after them, but they didn’t turn back. As she stood there,
unsure what to do, another woman who had seen the boys earlier said
that James had been laughing. She believed the baby was okay; they
were probably inexperienced brothers watching over their younger
that night, the woman saw the news of the missing toddler on
television. She immediately called the police and told them about her
encounter. “I wish now I had done something,” she said.
boys walked down the knoll, eventually ending up at County Road. It
had been nearly a two-mile hike by now. They stopped inside some of
the shops. A woman walking a dog eyed the boys with the toddler and
asked what was going on. They told her that they found the lost boy at
the Strand and were on their way to the police station. Another
concerned woman, who had a little girl with her, overheard the
conversation and joined in. “Well,” she said, “you’ve walked a long
way from the Strand to Walton Lane Police Station.”
said, “That’s where the man directed us.” When she asked where they
lived, Robert was about to answer, but Jon cut him off. “The police
station is on our way home.”
let go of James’ hand, as if willing to relinquish him. The women
watched Robert as he looked away. He seemed nervous. But then Jon took
control. “Get hold of his hand,” he said. Robert once again took James
by the hand.
younger woman with the child looked down at James, who was hurt, and
appeared upset. “Are you all right, son?” she asked. James didn’t
answer. Jon insisted they would find the station; they would take care
of it. But the woman felt something wasn’t right. It was getting dark
and the boys weren’t honest. She asked that the other woman with the
dog to watch her little girl, who was tired, while she escorted James
to the station. But the woman with the dog refused -- her pet did not
like children. As the boys took off, the younger woman called out,
“Are you sure you know the way?” Jon pointed in the direction. “I’ll
go that way, missus.”
walked into a store. Robert asked the clerk where they could buy some
candy for their kid brother. The shopkeeper noticed James’s bruises
and scrapes. Then they stopped at a pet shop, where Robert noticed a
fish at the bottom of the tank. “It’s dead,” he said to the
shopkeeper. The clerk thought it was a little strange how Jon gripped
James’s hand, refusing to let him go.
Outside, a fire broke out down the street. They watched for a bit,
then crossed heavy traffic to Church Road West. They encountered two
older boys who knew Robert and had a pair of trick handcuffs. They
planned to use them on Robert and Jon, until they noticed the hurt
toddler. “Who is he?” they asked. Robert said it was Jon’s brother,
and they were taking him home. The older boy was worried by the
toddler’s red-streaked face and injuries. “If you don’t take him home,
I’ll batter you,” he later claimed to have said.
Robert continued on. They came to the entrance of the railway and
stopped. It was not too late to abandon the crying baby. The police
station was not far off. Some people passed by and one of the boys
said loudly, “I’m fed up having my little brother. I have him from
school all the time. I’m going to tell my mum I’m not going to mind
him no more.” They walked back out toward Walton Lane, and stood close
to the heavy traffic. The walked into an alley and as they emerged,
someone later remembered seeing James laughing. Jon and Robert were
amusing James, playing a game. It was now approximately 5:30 p.m. and
night had fallen. The police station was to their right; Robert’s home
was to their left. But the boys decided to go back to the railway,
avoiding the police station.
the decision to go to the rail tracks, Jon and Robert’s uncertain and
meandering intent now turned deadly. On the way, Jon ripped off the
hood of James’s anorak and threw it into the trees. It was this very
hood that they had used to conceal his facial wounds. Apparently they
decided it was no longer necessary.
of the line
point along their treacherous journey did Robert and Jon decide to
kill James? If murder were intended all along, perhaps they would have
been more secretive with their captive. Instead, they paraded him
around in busy intersections and shops, as if he were their brother.
But now it was night and James was hurt. They had kicked and punched
him along the way. If they brought him to the police station, the cops
would see James’s freshly inflicted injuries and punish Jon and
Robert, perhaps lock them up on the spot. Was it the fear of being
caught that the two ten-year-old boys decided to kill James? Or did
their desire to inflict further pain on the toddler overwhelm them?
journey had been long, over two and a half miles. They had spent hours
together. They had protected James, holding him back from traffic.
They picked him up after ditching him by the canal. Only Jon and
Robert know why they took James up the dirt embankment and to the
railway. They found a hole in the fence, passed James through, and
crossed the grass, kicking up dust as they walked through slabs of
white shale to the rail tracks. The police station was just down the
attack and murder of James Bulger occurred between 5:45 and 6:30 p.m.
It began with one of the boys flinging paint on James’s face into his
left eye. He screamed. As Blake Morrison points out in his book As
If, Jon and Robert probably used the paint to “dehumanize James,
to wipe him of his normal features. Splashed in sky color, he looked
like something else -- a troll doll or alien -- and was less
conscience-troubling to kill.” The boys threw stones at James, kicked
him, and beat him with bricks. They pulled off his shoes and pants,
perhaps sexually assaulting him. They hit him with an iron bar. When
they thought James was dead, they laid his body on the railroad track,
covering his bleeding head with bricks. They left before the train
the assault, Jon and Robert walked back to town. They went to visit a
friend who wasn’t home, but hung out in front of his house anyway.
Bored, they ambled over to the video store, one of Robert’s favorite
places. Sometimes he ran errands for one of the women behind the
counter, including picking up overdue rentals. She offered them a
reward if they could collect on a particular past-due rental. Back at
the video store, the boys were about to receive their reward when
Susan Venables, Jon’s mother, swung through the door, furious. She had
been searching for Jon everywhere, including the railroad tracks.
pulled both Jon and Robert out of the video store, screaming and
beating them both. Robert ran away. She hauled Jon to the police
station and asked the officer on duty to lecture Jon. At home, Jon was
in tears. Susan told him that a little boy had been kidnapped from the
shopping center -- and whoever the maniac was, he could have taken
meantime, Robert had run home in tears and told his mother how “Jon
Venables’ mum ragged me out of the video shop.” Robert’s mother, Ann
Thompson, was furious and immediately reported the beating to the
police. (As David James Smith, author of Beyond All Reason
said, “both boys were immediately back in their more familiar role as
victims rather than victimizers.”) At the station, the officer noticed
a small scratch under Robert’s left eye.
They assumed it was
from Susan Venables.
seen them lads, I’d kick their heads in.”
disappearance made the evening news and immediately calls poured in.
Many believed they had seen the toddler in Walton. After one report
that James was spotted by the canal, investigators planned to drag the
water in the morning. The police interviewed Ralph and Denise Bulger,
retracing her steps at the Bootle Strand. As with most child
abductions, the parents are routinely considered suspects. But police
had too many leads, which took the focus away from the Bulgers. After
midnight on the day James disappeared, authorities watched the
security videos taken at the shopping center, hoping to catch a
glimpse of his abductor. They were especially interested in reports of
an older man with a ponytail who was at the Strand, who witnesses say
approached other children that day.
video image eventually scattered across the television screen. There
he was, with two boys, not the ponytail man. Blurry, jumpy images,
almost ghostlike. As they watched in disbelief, they realized they
were not dealing with an older pedophile, but two young boys, children
themselves. There was no way to identify the two older boys, but the
baby’s clothing matched Denise’s description. They played the tape
over and over, watching in horror as James was led toward the exit.
Why would two children take another child? Police could understand the
motives of a pedophile, but this was incomprehensible.
next morning underwater searchers grimly searched the canal. Other
searches organized to find James on land. Police released the video
stills of the boys to the media, which appeared on television and in
the papers. They hoped someone would recognize the boys, but
unfortunately, the boys were so fuzzy that it could have been just
about any neighborhood kid. Mothers suspected their sons. Ann Thompson
asked Robert outright if that was him on the video. He denied it. Ann
worried and confided her fears to a friend and even threatened to take
him to the police.
Sunday morning, a train engineer noticed something on the tracks that
looked like a doll. At first it didn’t strike him as unusual --
neighborhood kids routinely laid things out on the tracks. But after
he thought about the missing child, he called the police that evening.
cat. It’s a cat wrapped up. Then we seen its legs.”
boys found James’s body on the tracks on Sunday afternoon, when they
went up to the railroad to look for footballs. At first they thought
he was cat, then a doll, torn into two. Jon and Robert had laid out
James directly on the track, aware that a train would come by soon.
Perhaps they believed that the community would think it was an
accident that James had wandered up to the tracks on his own and was
run over. Or that if the train hit James, it would destroy all clues.
upper body was hidden within the coat. His lower body was further down
the tracks, completely undressed. He had suffered 42 injuries, most to
his face and head and had not died during the attack, but some time
before the train hit him. Jon and Robert had left him while he was
crime scene at the tracks
Investigators stopped all approaching trains. Led by Detective Albert
Kirby, police roped off the tracks and shielded the scene from
bystanders and reporters. James’s body had been severed with some
distance in between. It was as if there were two crime scenes, two
bodies to examine. The upper part of his body, at first, appeared to
be nothing more than a bundle of clothing. His lower half, however,
was starkly naked. Police determined that James had been laid by the
waist onto the rail, with his upper body on the inside of the tracks.
It looked as if his head had been covered with bricks, but the force
of the train disturbed the arrangement. The lower half of his body had
been carried further down the track.
clothing, which had been removed from the waist down, was laid near
his head. His underwear was heavily soaked with blood. Nearby police
found a heavy iron bar, two feet long, with bloodstains, and many
bricks and stones with blood. They also found 3 AA batteries near the
body. These batteries intrigued the investigators, who had suspicions
about their placement before James was hit by the train. A tin of blue
paint was also found nearby. James had been severely beaten around the
head and neck. There had been fractures, cuts, bruises caused by blows
from heavy blunt objects and there had been severe bleeding. On one
cheek, a patterned bruise appeared, which indicated the imprint from a
shoe. Although there was no conclusive evidence indicating a sexual
assault, forensic specialists believed that some of the injuries below
the waist were suspicious and sexual in nature.
the most experienced investigators were shocked and dismayed by the
injuries to James. “You slip into professional mode, but you can
never, ever forget,” said Kirby, years later. It was bad enough that
he had been abducted and murdered, but the beating was brutal,
incomprehensible. Although it was common knowledge that a train had
severed James's body (the kids who discovered him were already talking
to reporters), the police decided to withhold the nature of the
James’s injuries from the public.
Bulger, who had been at the police station since her son’s
disappearance, sensed something was going on. Suddenly, the office was
buzzing and police were mobilizing. When she heard that a body had
been discovered, she became horribly distressed. There was nothing she
could do but wait, hysterical but contained in the claustrophobic
station, anticipating the terrible confirmation that they had found
later brought a single rose to the crime scene. Other Merseyside
mourners had created a makeshift memorial for James near the railway.
Robert noticed that television crews were filming the mourners and
later argued that if he had killed James, why would he bring a flower
for the baby?
home, Jon showed an intense interest in the story of James’s
disappearance. He asked his mother if they caught the boys. “If I seen
them lads, I’d kick their heads in,” he said. On Sunday, when his
mother told Jon that the little boy had been found dead by the
railroad, Jon expressed concern for “his poor mum.” Neil, Jon’s
father, asked him about the blue paint on his coat sleeve and Jon said
Robert threw it at him. When the news reported that blue paint had
been found on the boy’s body, the Venables did not openly suspect
their son, even though he had missed school the day James was murdered
and wore a “mustard” colored jacket, the same as the boy in the video.
even more outrageous than the brutality of the murder was the search
for suspects, who were only boys themselves. How to find the killers?
Police would check Friday’s absentee lists from schools and held press
conferences, partially in hope of finding more witnesses, but also to
keep the public calm. It was as if a witch hunt developed overnight in
Merseyside, but this time the suspects were boys. Reports came in
casting blame on one bad child or another. Even parents called the
station to report their own kids as suspects. When police arrested one
suspicious 12-year-old boy, residents were so furious that they
attacked his house and broke the windows after a mob of police led the
boy away. His family had to be moved and the boy hadn’t even been
officially charged with the crime.
mother suspects her son
anonymous woman called the police station, reporting that her friend
Susan Venables had a son named Jon, who had skipped school Friday and
had blue paint on his jacket sleeve. He resembled the boy in the
video. She said he had a friend named Robert Thompson, with whom he
skipped school that day. With no other solid leads, investigators
decided that Jon and Robert should be brought in for questioning.
in the morning on Thursday, February 18, four police officers appeared
on Ann Thompson’s doorstep with a search warrant. When Robert realized
that he was a suspect, he began to cry. They rounded up his clothes
and immediately noticed that there was blood on his shoes.
they came for Jon Venables, his mother Susan answered the door and
said, snidely, “I knew you’d be here. I told him you’d want to see him
for sagging school on Friday.” Susan mentioned that Jon “came home on
Friday, coat full of paint.” Officers promptly asked for Jon’s
mustard-yellow coat, which had indeed been splattered with blue paint.
It even appeared that there was a small handprint on the sleeve. Jon
grabbed hold of his mother and sobbed. “I don’t want to go to prison,
mum. I didn’t kill the baby.” He cried hysterically. “It’s that Robert
Thompson. He always gets me into trouble.” Through tears, Jon told
police they should speak to Robert. As they drove him to the police
station, Jon continued to ask about Robert. Had they arrested him yet,
and where were they taking him?
Robert and Jon’s distressed reactions to being arrested, the police
did not immediately suspect that they were the killers. They were
simply following up on a tip. There were other boys with violent
records out there and, besides, the boys in the Strand video looked to
be 13 or 14 years old. Jon and Robert were small, still little kids
themselves. But, following procedure, investigators interviewed Jon at
the Lower Lane police station and Robert at the Walton Lane police
station, which was just down the slope from where James had been
boys, especially Jon, were both terrified and fascinated by the police
procedure. As they took Jon’s fingerprints, he nervously asked how
fingerprints worked. They seemed like invisible ink, magical to him.
“Do you leave these on whatever you touch?” he asked. “If you touch
someone’s skin does it leave a fingerprint? If you drag someone really
hard, do you leave your nails in his skin?” He wanted to know if they
were taking Robert Thompson’s prints too. Police took blood, hair, and
fingernail samples from both boys.
meantime, a shopkeeper from the Strand called the police. The boys
from the video might have been in their store on the day James
disappeared, so police came down and took fingerprints.
Jon’s were matched.
Robert Denies, Jon
interviews: Robert Thompson
Thompson was interviewed on Thursday, the same day he was brought in,
by Detective Sergeant Phil Roberts and Detective Constable Bob Jacobs.
The interview was recorded with his mother Ann sitting by, along with
legal representation. Questioning a ten-year-old boy for murder would
be difficult. It was hard to know if Robert even grasped his legal
rights. They asked him if he knew the difference between truth and
lies. Robert said he understood, but during the course of the
interview, he slipped between the two with ease. Robert was used to
skirmishing around with the truth, but usually over petty things, like
whether he went to school that day or where his homework was. He
replied to difficult questions with a bratty, “well, I was there, and
you weren’t” or “that’s what you think.” But Robert’s lying skills
would soon snap like cheap clips under the weight of the charges.
admitted that he and Jon skipped school on Friday and went to the
Strand shopping center, where they walked around, looking at the
shops. Trying to sound like a witness, not a suspect, Robert claimed
that he saw James with his mother while he and Jon were on the
escalator. This struck the investigators as odd -- why would Robert
take notice of this little boy with his mother? The shopping center
was filled with mothers and children. But he insisted that he saw
James with Mrs. Bulger. Robert then claimed that he and Jon left the
Strand, went to the library and then home.
a break, both investigative teams conferred. Jon had said that he was
with Robert, but would not admit to going to the Strand. Upon
commencing the interview, the detectives asked Robert why he thought
Jon would lie about being at the Strand.
thought that perhaps Jon did do something bad. He might have made the
baby follow them and then lost him somewhere, but Robert didn’t know
because he didn’t look behind his shoulder. When investigators said
that he had the same jacket as one of the boys in the video, Robert
replied, “Many jackets get sold the same as mine.” But what about
Jon’s more distinctive jacket? “Yeah, well, he’s not walking along
with me.” Throughout the interview, Robert’s responses were
unflustered. He has been a tough guy all of his life and knew how to
keep his cool. He admitted nothing.
We believe that you left with baby James and with Jon.
Robert Thompson: Who says?
Detective Roberts: We say, now.
Robert Thompson: No. I never left with him.
Detective Roberts: Well, tell me what happened, then.
Robert Thompson: It shows in the paper that Jon had hold of
slyly implicated Jon without admitting to have seen him do it. But he
had also claimed to be with Jon all day. It was only moments before he
would be cornered into admitting more. Robert sometimes cried when he
was caught in a lie, but detectives were suspicious of his sorrow. No
tears and the crying suddenly stopped when the pressure was off. He
began to sob, “I never touched him.”
had now admitted that Jon had James by the hand, and that they walked
around, but let him go by the church. Upset, Robert lamented that he’s
going to get all the blame for murdering him.
Finally, late in the evening, Robert was told that he was being
detained and could not go home. “Why do I have to stay here?” he
asked. “Jon’s the one that took the baby.”
next morning, Robert said that he left Jon and James by the railway
after Jon threw paint at James’s eye and had no idea what happened
after that. But when the investigators asked if he stole batteries,
Robert’s face grew crimson (“Yeah, well, I’m hot.”) He denied it, but
was obviously deeply embarrassed by the mention of the batteries.
more hours of Robert’s denials and eventual admissions, his mother Ann
tells her son that it will be easier if he just tells the truth.
Robert has been sobbing.
Jon threw a brick in his face.
Ann Thompson: Why?
Robert Thompson: I don’t know.
Detective Roberts: Right, try to think. Right, let’s see what
we’ve got, we’re getting there, aren’t we? We’re getting to the truth
Robert Thompson: Yeah, well, I’m going to end up getting all
the blame ‘cause I’ve got blood on me.
goes on to describe Jon in an out-of-control killing frenzy. He
claimed Jon threw more bricks at the baby, and then hit him with a
“big metal thing with holes in it.” Then Jon hit James with a stick.
James was lying there, still, eyes open, across the tracks. Jon had
the batteries and threw one of them at James’s face. All the time
Robert said he was trying to pull Jon away, screaming at him to stop.
Astounded, the detectives asked, “Why did Jon do all this?” Robert
didn’t know. “I only pinched,” he said. When investigators tell Robert
they think he hit James too, he replied, “Well, that’s what you
cried for himself, but showed genuine concern for his mother, who sat
through the interviews in utter disbelief. Many of Robert’s responses
were directed at his mom: “I tried to get him off, he just kept
hittin’ him and hittin’ him and hittin him and I couldn’t do nuttin’
about it.” When she asked why he brought a rose to James’s memorial,
he said, “‘Cause then baby James knows I tried to help him up there
and I’m thinking of him now.” Robert also expressed some fear about
being haunted by the murdered baby.
next day, Saturday, Robert admitted to touching James, but he said it
was because he was trying to move him off of the track. (This is his
excuse for the blood on his shoes.) He put James down, however, when
he saw how much blood there was. He was afraid his mother would be mad
at him for staining his clothes with blood. Throughout the interviews,
Robert worried that Jon would get off easy. At one point he cried,
“Well, you can go ask our teacher who’s the worst out of me and Jon
and she’ll tell you Jon.” He also said that he had his own little baby
brother Ben. “Why would I want to kill him,” Robert said, “when I’ve
got a baby of me own? If I wanted to kill a baby, I’d kill me own,
not a pervert”
Detectives saved the most difficult questions for last. James had some
trauma to his genitals, and police believed that one (or both) of the
boys had inserted AA batteries into his rectum. These questions upset
Robert more than any other accusations. When they asked who removed
James’s pants and underwear, he began to cry. “I’m not a pervert, you
know,” he said, suddenly agitated. “Well, how would you like me
calling you a pervert?” Normally collected, Robert lost it. “He said
I’m a pervert, they said I’ve played with his willy,” he told his mom,
and refused to answer any more questions. But the detectives
persisted. “What would Jon say you did to James?” they asked. Robert
was greatly upset by now. He said Jon would say he took off James’s
pants and played with his “privates.”
the end of the interviews, Robert said that Jon tried to cover up
James’s head with stones, but he admitted to putting one brick on, to
stop all of the bleeding.
interviews: Jon Venables
Robert, for a good portion of the process, kept control of his
composure and sparred with his interviewers, Jon was hysterical from
the start. He was extremely scared and intimidated by the
investigators. They had to halt the questions when Jon became so
distressed that he couldn’t speak, which was often. He didn’t lie as
much as he avoided the truth. After he calmed down and was encouraged
to be honest, Jon would admit to some things (unlike Robert, who
mother Susan was there and her presence upset Jon. It was only after
the detectives pulled her and Jon’s father Neil aside and asked them
to reassure Jon that they would love him no matter what happened, that
Jon was able to admit to his participation.
first morning of the interviews, Jon wanted to put down Robert. Robert
was the bad one, the troublemaker, and he avoided Robert at school.
Robert mostly played with girls because everyone else thought he was
bad. “He’s much of a girl,” he said. Jon talked about how Robert
collected troll dolls, the naked ones: “It shows you their bum and
that.” Jon said Robert sucked his thumb. Yet Jon sounded enamored with
Robert and his willingness to do bad things. He talked about how
Robert “sags” and how they go stealing together, and said it was
exciting being with Robert. He did things with Robert that he didn’t
do with other “good” friends. He wouldn’t do bad things on his own --
“I’m too scared.”
Friday, the day of the crime, Jon said it was Robert’s idea to miss
school. Jon spun a long yarn about the details of the day: they went
to a park, the old railways, and to a cemetery, where Robert wanted to
steal the flowers, but Jon said no. Jon said that Robert stole paint
and threw it at Jon. As elaborate as Jon’s story was, he made no
mention of the Bootle Strand. When he later heard that Robert admitted
they had gone to the Strand, Jon cried that Robert was lying.
You see, Robert says that he was with you, and that you were indeed in
Bootle New Strand together.
Jon Venables: We wasn’t.
Detective Dale: Robert says you were.
Jon Venables: Yeah, we was, but we never saw any kids there.
We never robbed any kids.
Detective Dale: So you were in the Bootle New Strand.
Susan Venables: (shouting in anger) Was you in Bootle Strand?
Jon Venables: (in tears) Yeah, but we never got a kid, Mum. We
never…we never got a kid.
Detective Dale: Mrs. Venables, would you? I must ask you not
to get angry with him.
Jon Venables: (in hysterics) But we never got a kid, Mum. We
never. We saw those two lads together, we did. We never got a kid,
Mum. Mum, we never got a kid. You think we did. We never, Mum, we
point Jon was deeply distraught and wouldn’t sit down. Susan said, “If
I would’ve known all this now, Jon, I would’ve had you down the police
station right away, instead of them banging on my front door and
making a show of me in the street...”
next morning, investigators confronted Jon with more of Robert’s
version of events. Robert claimed that Jon took the baby. Jon jumped
out of his seat. “I haven’t touched a boy,” he screamed over and over.
“I never killed him. Mum, Mum, we took him and left him at the canal.
Mum, that’s all,” he cried to Susan. They asked how did they get the
baby at Strand? He was just walking around on his own, he claimed. Jon
saw that he was contradicting himself, telling obvious lies. The more
cornered (and the closer he got to the truth) he was, the more
distressed he grew.
detectives believed that Jon wanted to tell the truth, but he was
scared by what his mother would think. After both Susan and Neil
Venables reassured Jon they’d love him no matter what and urged him to
tell the truth. Jon climbed into his mother’s lap and sobbed.
kill him,” said Jon. “What about his mum, will you tell her I’m
was what investigators needed. Jon had admitted it, plain and simple.
But they were curious about the “I” in the confession. They were sure
Robert participated -- the question was, to what extent.
interviews continued later on in the day. Jon said that Robert stole
paint at a toy store in the Strand. They saw a child and Robert said,
“Let’s get this kid lost.” The two boys brought him through the TJ
Hughes department store until his mother found them. They saw James in
front of the butcher shop. Jon confessed that he walked toward the
baby and took him by the hand, but it was Robert’s idea to kill him.
As they walked around, Jon said they thought about looking for his
mother, but Robert suggested that they throw him in the water at the
canal. Robert tried to get the toddler to lean toward the water,
hoping he would lose his balance and fall, but James wouldn’t go to
the water’s edge. Jon then said that Robert picked up James and threw
him down. Scared, they ran away, but came back, Jon couldn’t say why.
They just wanted to walk around with the baby. Jon admitted that he
took the hood off James’s anorak and threw it up into a tree as they
walked toward the railway. But this is as far as he would go for now.
The closer they got to the murder, the more upset Jon became. He did
not want to talk about the “worst bit.”
Jon was willing to talk, he blamed the violence on Robert. “We took
him to the railway and started throwing bricks at him.” When asked who
threw the bricks, Jon said, Robert, who also threw the metal pole. Jon
admitted to throwing two bricks, “only teeny, little stones,” and only
on the arms, not his head.
According to Jon, Robert threw the blue paint in James’s face. James
began to cry, and Robert asked, “Is your head hurting, we’ll get a
plaster on,” and he lifted a brick and threw it at James’s head. James
screamed and fell back, but got up again. Jon said at one point he
tried to pull Robert back. James just kept getting back up and Robert
was saying, stay down. Robert was shouting and calling James bad
names. After Robert hit him with iron bar, James fell onto his stomach
on the tracks and both boys ran. Jon claimed he then said to Robert,
“Don’t you think we’ve done enough now?”
said that he was never mad at James: “No, I didn’t really want to
hurt him, I didn’t want to hurt him or nothing ‘cause I didn’t want to
hurt him with strong things, only like light things… I deliberately
missed...” He also said that it was Robert who pulled off James’s
pants and underwear. Jon did help by pulling his shoes off, but he
couldn’t say why. He said Robert picked up the underwear and covered
James’s face. Although Jon claimed to feel no anger toward the baby,
he showed physical signs of agitation during the interview when
talking about his murder, including clenching his fist.
said he kicked James, but “only light,” and punched him light in the
chest and face. He guessed that Robert had kicked James in the groin
about ten times and kicked him in the face. I’d never done it before,”
when the subject of batteries came up, Jon became hysterical once
again and started to cry. “I didn’t know anything about what Robert
did with the batteries.” Jon was afraid that “you’ll blame it on me
that I had them.” Asked if Robert did anything else to James’s
genitals, Jon grew very upset, began to punch his father, Neil, who
sat beside him.
Saturday, both Robert and Jon were exhausted and distraught. The
investigators knew they had enough to prosecute the boys and concluded
the interviews. While both boys had been difficult, they both had been
informative in different ways. Robert denied and called other
witnesses liars, but when he did talk, he seemed to be closer to the
truth. He was definitely the more manipulative of the two, and cried
only when it suited him. Jon, on the other hand, consistently blamed
Robert for everything, but finally did admit to more than Robert had.
His lies were more elaborate, but he was also quicker to admit to his
lies. It was mostly Jon’s incredible distress that hindered the
process of getting to the truth.
Walton police decided to take the boys on a drive to verify the route
they walked with James. Jon went first in an unmarked car. He asked
the police, “can fingerprints come out on skin?” When they took Robert
out, he was worried about encountering Jon. Indeed, both boys were
anxious about seeing each other after the crime. Were they mad at each
other, or afraid the other would be angry about the lies the other had
Saturday at 6:15 p.m., Jon was charged with the abduction and murder
of James. (Authorities also charged both boys with an attempted
abduction of the other child at TJ Hughes.) Jon sat and drew on some
paper while waiting for the charge to be read, crying only when his
mother cried. When Robert was charged that same night, he simply
responded, “It was Jon that done that.”
boys were detained until their trial, set for November of 1993. They
would undergo psychiatric evaluations and additional interviews. In
the meantime, the British court system had to prepare accommodations
for the two young defendants.
violent child is the most potent image of violated innocence that we
have. If humankind is capable of this, then perhaps we are beyond
-- Ian McEwan
Merseyside community was flabbergasted at the age of the suspects, but
relieved that they had been charged. On Monday, reporters swarmed the
school where Jon and Robert were students, trying to get pictures of
the young suspects and to interview classmates. One child took
Robert’s chair and chanted, “I’m in the murderer’s seat!” But not
everyone was relieved. The Venables and Thompson families were forced
to flee the angry mobs that gathered around their homes.
to the trial, the Sun newspaper published a picture of Jon with
a lollipop on his way to court, accompanied by an article, which
berated the juveniles’ “lush” lives behind bars. The public was
infuriated that these suspects were being treated to such supposed
Robert presumed false identities for their own safety. They were
housed in special secure units, separate from one another, where they
pretended to be older, and convicted of crimes other than the murder
of James Bulger. Some argued that this encouraged the boys to suppress
the truth about what happened. Neither Jon nor Robert would receive
counseling before trial because it might affect their memories of the
event. As it currently stood, both kids were in denial of the beatings
and murder, each blaming the other for the most brutal acts. Only
Jon’s admission “I did kill him” indicated any kind of culpability for
14th, 1993, both Jon and Robert appeared at the Liverpool Crown Court
to enter their pleas of “not guilty.” The case would be tried in
Preston, which was closer to the boys’ secure units. Jon
hyperventilated during the court hearing and could not participate in
the police line-ups because he was too distraught. Both the
prosecution and defense worried about his ability to participate in
his own defense.
interviewed the parents of both boys. The Venables believed that Jon
was a good kid, well behaved but sometimes hyperactive. Susan worried
that Jon was the victim of bullies at school and insisted that this
was the reason that Jon was moved from one school to another. At his
new school, Susan believed that Jon befriended Robert Thompson because
he felt sorry for him. But she worried that Robert was bullying Jon.
older brother Mark had speech and learning disabilities and was sent
to a special school. He also exhibited an uncontrollable temper. Jon’s
younger sister, Michele, also became a special needs student. Jon was
in the middle and perhaps jealous of the extra attention his siblings
received. Jon’s parents repeatedly split and reunited, which
undermined his sense of security in the family. Jon exhibited low
self-esteem and seemed defensive if anyone suggested his family was
not ideal. It was as if he was working hard to hide something.
Susan Bailey, who examined Jon for the trial, believed that there were
no organic disability or brain damage, which caused Jon’s behavioral
problems. She concluded that he was fit to stand trial. Psychological
reports assured that Jon did not suffer from any severe mental
illnesses, including depression or hallucinations. He was anxious,
fidgety, and temperamentally fragile. Jon could be easily distressed
and was unable to discuss the murder. (He did, however, report to his
mother about flashbacks that haunted him, particularly disturbing
images of blood spurting out of James’s mouth. Jon also had rescue
fantasies, dreaming that he saved James from harm and returned him
safely to his mother.)
important to establish that Jon understood the permanence of death,
which would affect his understanding of the severity of his crime. Jon
said that death meant that people could not come back, and had an idea
of heaven and hell as permanent places. In fact, he claimed to be
scared of television violence. If there was a scene in a movie with
“blood coming out,” Jon said he’d turn away from the screen and put
his fingers in his ears.
Psychiatrists were interested in Jon’s intense relationship with his
mother. If Jon had three magic wishes, they would be: 1) to be free
from the secure unit; 2) to turn the world into chocolate factory, and
3) to live forever, with money, no accidents, or illnesses. If he
could be anyone, he’d be Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky, or
Sonic the Hedgehog, because he “ran fast and saved his friends.”
Robert’s psychological profile
Jon was unwilling to talk about the murder, Robert was at least
willing to reenact his version. Psychiatrist Eileen Vizard met with
Robert and brought some dolls that represented the primary characters
in the crime. There was also a railroad track laid out and miniature
weapons that were used in the assault. As Robert picked up the dolls
and moved them through the motions of the murder, he demonstrated how
the “Jon doll” senselessly beat the “James doll,” while the “Robert
doll” tried to stop the attack. Robert showed how he tried to pull Jon
away and how they fell backwards in the struggle. But he couldn’t
explain how the “James doll” sustained any sexual damage. When the
psychiatrist continued to ask about any sexual abuse, Robert became
increasingly defensive and agitated. He was willing to reenact
everything else, why not this? When the psychiatrist brought up the
possibility that the entire attack was sexually motivated, Robert
hardly reacted, as if he wasn’t surprised. But he didn’t deny or
confirm the possibility.
Robert feel about James? Robert didn’t have much to say, except that
James was more quiet than his own baby brother Ben, and that James
asked for his mother all of the time. Robert described how Jon didn’t
like babies, but that Robert did. He wished that he could kick Jon’s
face in. Go ahead, said the psychiatrist, referring to the dolls.
Robert acted out one doll beating up on the other.
Robert discussed his family with the psychiatrist, she found that
Robert was defensive about his mother’s drinking. He had a repetitive
nightmare in which he was chasing someone, running into the street and
then being struck by a car.
end, the psychiatrist reported that Robert was of above average
intelligence, and exhibited no sign of mental illness or depression,
but that he was currently displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress
November 1, 1993: Trial begins
order to allow the defendants to see above the railings, the Preston
Crown Court built a special raised platform on which the two boys
would sit during the trial. (It would later be argued that this
extraordinary “displaying” of the defendants constituted an unfair
trial.) Carpenters bolted down the chairs in public gallery so that no
one could throw them. The hours of the trial approximated school day
hours, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The boys would be tried together.
Presiding Judge Sir Michael Morland ruled that the boys be known as
Child A and Child B (Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, respectively.)
Although the defendants were supposedly anonymous by name, everyone
got a good look at them, and watched their behavior closely. On the
raised platform sat Robert, heavier than before, and looking older
than his now 11 years. He stared ahead, or up at the ceiling, kicked
off his shoes, and yawned. He showed little emotion. Onlookers assumed
Robert was the “guilty one.” He had no family present and sat glumly
next to his social worker, who showed little affection toward him.
Like author Frank Jones, many believe that in cases where two children
are involved, one is usually the ringleader, the other a more passive
follower. Spectators were convinced that burly, unemotional Robert was
the instigator of James Bulger’s murder.
the other hand, won some sympathy with court observers. He seemed more
contrite, anxious, constantly looking back at his mother for her
support. In his book “As If,” Blake Morrison describes the
sight of Jon and Robert on the platform: “I look at Jon, and he
reminds me of a gerbil. A hamster, anyway: the bright, darting eyes;
how, when he’s upset, he beds down and disappears in the lapels of his
jacket; his blinking at the noise and the light. Robert is squatter,
porkier, more of a guinea pig, an aggressive one at times. Jon flicks
him nervous glances, seeking reassurance; Robert ignores them, putting
the squirt in his place. Jon seems to be in thrall of Robert.”
Bulger family attended each day, except for Denise, who was now seven
months pregnant. She was, understandably, horribly upset, and her
mourning had been disturbed by the incessant media attention.
Robert’s defense attorney David Turner immediately suggested that a
fair trial was impossible. Inflammatory papers called the boys evil,
demonic, monsters, fiends. He also requested that two evidence photos
of James’s head injuries be removed because of their potential
emotional effect on the jury. But the judge denied both requests.
Jon’s attorney, Brian Walsh, was more reserved in his requests.
prosecution, led by Richard Henriques, presented their case,
contending that both boys took part in James Bulger’s death. Because
both defendants were under the age of 14, the prosecution had to prove
they knew that their actions were severely wrong. “You can properly be
satisfied that each of them knew it was seriously wrong to take a
young child from his mother, to try to do so, and to use such extreme
violence on a child of such tender years.” As the jury received files,
which included photos of the crime, they were visibly moved. Jon’s
mother also began to cry and Jon leaned over the rail to see if she
was all right.
witnesses, or “The Liverpool 38” as the tabloids called them, took the
stand, one by one, and confirmed the boys’ route. Many changed their
story from their original police statements, in response to the guilt
that they had not done something to stop the deadly march. A cabby
testified that he saw Jon jerk the boy up violently. One woman on the
bus saw the two boys swinging James and made a comment to her
daughter, according to her police statement. But in court she claimed
she shouted at the sight of the boys and that the whole bus had turned
to gawk. The elderly woman with the dog, who saw them at the
reservoir, felt a lot of guilt for not helping and also changed her
statement. While these passive witnesses may deserve some
recrimination for not intervening, who could have known that the
little boy was going to be killed by the older boys that held his
hands as they walked? As Judge Morland later said, “many of the
witnesses were doing the humdrum things of everyday life on that
Friday afternoon when, wholly unawares, they were caught up in the
last few tragic hours of James Bulger’s tragic life.”
Robert did not participate in trial -- they did not take the stand and
the court rarely addressed them. They were incapable of understanding
the procedures. Denise Bulger, who didn’t appear, had her statement
read to the jury. They watched as the evidence clearly indicated their
guilt: the Strand security videos, blood-splattered bricks, stones,
clothing, a tin of blue paint, and a heavy bar. Forensic scientists
gave assessments of James’s injuries, which were so numerous, that
they couldn’t determine which one caused his death. One particular
imprint on James’s cheek was conclusively linked to Robert’s bloody
shoe, indicating that he was an indisputable participant.
boys know the difference between right and wrong? This was an
important issue for the prosecution. The Victorian concept of “doli
incapax” was established to protect innocent (and ignorant) children
from corporeal punishment. In an earlier era, wild street children
were executed for their crimes. “Doli incapax” meant that children
were incapable of wrongdoing because they cannot grasp the
consequences of their actions. To this point, Jon and Robert’s
teachers testified. Psychiatrists took the stand, believing both
defendants knew the severity of their crime. The court then played the
recorded police interviews, which also revealed their understanding of
the charges. Jon’s hysterical, high-pitched crying affected many who
heard it. It was at this point in the trial that the boys paid close
attention. Each was interested in what the other had said and
indignantly listened as they accused each other of the murder. Robert,
who tried to appear cool and tough throughout the trial, was upset
when he heard Jon claim that Robert was like a girl because he played
with dolls. Jon sheepishly watched Robert’s reactions when he accused
him of beating James.
closing argument, the prosecution portrayed the boys as equally
liable: “They preferred, you may think, to avoid detection, which was
clearly a greater priority than James’s well-being. Together they
abused James. Robert Thompson delivered a persuasive kick, while Jon
Venables chose to shake James. Venables led him from the Strand, with
Thompson leading the way…At the tracks their roles reversed. Thompson
carried him up on the railway embankment with Venables leading the
way. They each heard each other lie to adults…if ever a crime was
committed jointly and together, then this was that crime. They were
clearly both together as James sustained his terrible injuries.”
defense countered: Neither of these boys had done anything violent
before, only shoplifting and truancy. This was a mischievous prank
gone out of control. If they had planned to kill a child, they could
have drowned him at the canal, or thrown him in traffic, but they
didn’t. If the plan was to kill him at a railroad, why walk along one
of the busiest stretches in Liverpool and converse with potential
witnesses? They told adults they found the child -- if they were set
on killing him, why allow adults the opportunity to intervene?
Robert’s lawyer Turner argued that Jon and Robert were tired, unaware
how to end their own prank, and did not know what to do with James.
They were afraid of abandoning him or handing him over to a grown-up.
Turner argued that it was Jon who was in control, and reminded the
jury that Jon admitted, “I did kill him.” Brian Walsh, Jon’s
defendant, said, “the two defendants are in fact very different boys.”
Walsh tried to summon sympathy for Jon by casting Robert as the bad
one, which was easy for most to believe. Walsh claimed Jon admitted to
some involvement, but he didn’t want to kill James.
judge then turned to the jury and said it wasn’t an issue of whether
Jon or Robert intended to kill James at the time of the abduction or
while they walked. The question was, did Jon or Robert intend to
murder James at the railway? After more precise instructions, the jury
began deliberation on Wednesday, November 24, more than 3 weeks after
the trial had begun.
waited, Robert knit gloves for his baby brother and said he knew that
they would find him guilty. The verdict came in that afternoon. For
the first time, Denise set foot in the courtroom with her husband
Roger by her side. As expected, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were
found guilty. Jon sobbed while Robert sat motionless.
Judge addressed the boys: “The killing of James Bulger was an act of
unparalleled evil and barbarity. This child of two was taken from his
mother on a journey of over two miles and then, on the railway line,
was battered to death without mercy. Then his body was placed across
the railway line so it would be run over by a train in an attempt to
conceal his murder. In my judgment your conduct was both cunning and
sentence that I pass upon you both is that you should be detained
during Her Majesty’s pleasure, in such a place and under such
conditions as the Secretary of State may now decide. You will be
securely detained for very, very many years, until the Home Secretary
is satisfied that you have matured and are fully rehabilitated and
until you are no longer a danger.” The judge also allowed that the
media be allowed to publish the boys’ names.
the gallery, someone shouted, “How do you feel now, you little
Thompson was the tough one, the one everyone assumed to be the
ringleader in the case. But Robert’s personality was constructed not
so much out of aggression as for the purposes of defense. He lived in
a rough, even brutal environment. To survive the multiple assaults of
his five older brothers and alcoholic mother, Robert developed a
flinty edge. He didn’t look for trouble as much as he tried to slip
out and away from it. When cornered, he would lie, cry, or take his
beating with defiance.
Robert’s father beat his wife mercilessly, and then abandoned the
family for good. Robert Thompson Senior’s own upbringing paralleled
his sons: left without adult supervision, the older brothers bullied
the younger brothers into submission.
mother also came from an abusive family. At the age of 18, Ann married
Robert Thompson Sr., also 18, to escape the severe beatings from her
father. But with the new family came a new round of beatings. Like her
father, Ann’s new husband was an aggressive alcoholic. He beat Ann in
front of the boys and Ann, out of frustration and fear, pummeled her
sons with sticks and belts. She attempted suicide with pill overdoses,
but eventually turned to drinking as her means of escape. The six
brothers were left to their own devices, left to watch out for one
another. But instead of protecting each other, they needed protection
from each other. Predictably, the oldest beat the youngest, and the
vulnerable turned to the younger, the more vulnerable.
age of four, the eldest Thompson boy was placed in child protective
services after he had been abused. It was downhill from there. Another
sibling became a master thief, taking little Robert with him on his
adventures. One brother was an arsonist and suspected of sexually
abusing young children (Robert may have been a victim himself.)
Another brother threatened his teachers with violence. When the eldest
had to baby-sit the youngest, they would lock them in the pigeon shed.
One of the brothers left to stay in a voluntary care center. Others
attempted suicide. The police and social workers knew the Thompson
boys well. Whenever a crime was committed, the Thompsons were checked.
Not surprisingly, all of the Thompsons were truants and learned to
was the fifth child out of the six brothers. He did try to be a good
son. Robert would help his mother in the kitchen, trying to please
her, and provide some support. He babysat his mother’s seventh child,
baby Ben, who had a different father. Robert was not aggressive as
much as sly. A poor student, he skipped school, but when he did attend
he was not considered a troublemaker. Teachers thought he was shy and
quiet, yet manipulative of others. Robert was both hindered by his
reputation as a Thompson, but also seemed to hide behind it. Teachers
didn’t expect much from him and other kids avoided him. Jon would
become one of his few friends.
Sometimes he talked tough, trying to act the role of a “Thompson,” but
he was not considered violent or aggressive. He was mostly a truant,
known to roam the streets of Walton at 1 a.m. His mother Ann sometimes
hid his shoes to keep him home. If it were his shoes that kept him
from leaving the house, it would be his shoes that would ultimately
take him out of his home for good. Robert’s bloodied shoes were key
forensic evidence linking him to the beating of James. Even his
shoelaces were indelibly imprinted on James’s cheek.
Unfortunately, Robert’s abuse at the hands of his older brothers began
to repeat in his treatment of his younger brother Ryan. He intimidated
his younger brother, but they shared a strange bond. At night, they
would lie in bed together, sucking one another’s thumb. (During the
course of Robert’s trial Ryan began exhibiting increasingly disturbing
behavior. He wet his bed regularly, set fires in his room, and gained
weight. He seemed jealous of the attention his brother Robert received
and his mother Ann was fearful that he would do something equally
horrible to get the same treatment. Extraordinary violence was proving
to be an effective ticket out of the hellish Thompson household.)
Robert’s relationship with Ryan may provide some rough blueprints to
the crime against James Bulger. Robert bullied Ryan into skipping
school and accompanying him on his adventures. He once abandoned the
distraught Ryan at the canal, the same place where Jon and Robert
temporarily left James. Robert said himself, “If I wanted to kill a
baby, I’d kill my own, wouldn’t I?” As if he had been considering it.
Journalist David James Smith proposed that it was likely that Robert
initiated the plan to steal a child, perhaps as a way to act out his
anger toward Baby Ben, who was 18 months at the time. James might have
been a “stand-in sibling” for Robert. Not only was Robert replicating
the treatment he received at the hands of his older brothers, he might
also have been jealous of the younger Ryan and Ben. As a ten year-old
boy, Robert could only exert power and control over those younger than
him. But this does not mean that Robert initiated the violence against
James. Once they had the child, Jon seemed to exert control over
keeping him. It was Jon that beckoned the children away from their
parents. At one point in their journey, when confronted by an adult,
Robert, who was holding James by the hand, let go of the boy, and
looked away, as if he wanted to leave. But Jon said to Robert, take
back his hand. Robert obeyed.
took the brunt of the bad press during the trial. One journalist
reported that the Thompson kid was “staring him down,” as if he were a
mini-Charles Manson. Robert had developed a tough guy act as a
survival strategy, but this was used against him during the trial. He
appeared unremorseful and hardened. But this does not mean he was
solely responsible for the violence against James Bulger. In fact, Jon
Venables showed a more disturbing predisposition for violent
believes Jon responsible for the worst of the violence, but Rob no
bystander: “I imagine a great deal of nervous and exciting tension
between them. Laughter, fear, aggression, anger, viciousness. The
attack, once it had begun, was unstoppable. Compulsive violence played
out to its inevitable conclusion.” Robert might have been responsible
for the alleged sexual assault against James. He may have been a
victim of his own brother and seems to have been acting out with his
younger brother Ryan. During the interrogation, he became flustered by
the allegations, and worried that Jon was going to tell the police
that Robert played with James’s privates. He fretted, crying that
people would think he was a “pervert.” While Jon also became upset by
the allegations of sexual abuse, he did not implicate himself the way
that Robert did. Of course, there is no way to know what happened, or
who did what. In Robert’s words, “I was there, and you weren’t.”
of Robert’s toughness, he still exhibited childish tendencies for
which he was teased. He played with troll dolls and sucked his thumb.
Jon put him down for playing with girls and being girlish himself.
Molded into hardness beyond his years and forced to repress his own
childishness, it is possible that Robert took out his aggressions on
an innocent baby, something Robert himself was never allowed to be.
unusually agitated the day before James was abducted. He was restless
and out of control.
Teachers started noticing Jon’s attention-seeking behavior when it
began in 1991. He would do strange things, like rock back and forth in
his chair, holding onto his desk, moaning and making odd noises. His
teacher moved him to the front of the class where she could keep an
eye on him, but then he took to knocking things over on her desk. At
first, Jon’s violence was self-inflicted. He banged his head on the
furniture, against the wall, and would throw himself on the floor. Jon
cut himself with scissors and tore at his own clothing. But sometimes
his self-destruction pivoted outward. He roamed around the classroom,
tearing down the displays and artwork of other students. Jon stood on
his desk and threw things at other children. Teachers documented his
disruptive antics -- they had never seen anything like it before.
strange behavior was growing increasingly violent. In one incident, he
approached another classmate from behind and began choking the boy
with a wooden ruler. (It took two adults to pry Jon off of the boy.)
He was soon transferred to another school. He was hyper and easily
distracted. One teacher thought he was lazy. Falling behind in his
assignments was probably another way to call attention to himself. No
one thought of Jon as a “bad” kid, in fact some teachers thought of
him as a sweet child, and felt sympathy for him. They thought he was
pleading for help.
was going on with Jon at home? Did his family life have something to
do with his increasingly disturbed behavior?
born August 13, 1982, to parents Susan and Neil Venables. Neil worked
as a forklift driver but was often unemployed. Jon was the middle
child, and both of his siblings had developmental problems. His older
brother was born with a cleft pallet, which led to communication
problems and increasing frustration and temper tantrums. Jon’s brother
attended a special school, and his parents spent a lot of their time
trying to control him. Sometimes he would be sent to foster families.
Jon’s younger sister also had developmental problems and ended up at a
special needs school as well. Jon was stuck in the middle, feeling
ignored, and perhaps resentful of the attention his siblings received.
Sometimes Jon would mimic his older brother’s tantrums.
and Neil Venables had a tumultuous relationship, splitting apart, and
then reuniting. The household was in a state of constant upheaval.
After Neil left, Susan and the children lived with her mother, and
then moved in with Neil again, only to move out to find public housing
in Liverpool. Sometimes Neil would return for reconciliation. The
instability affected all three kids. Both parents had histories of
clinical depression, and Susan was particularly prone to hysterics.
She came from a “strict and disciplined” background, and had been
observed physically and verbally assaulting Jon. In stressful times
she would shuttle Jon off to Neil’s house, unable to cope with him. At
the age of seven, Jon was showing signs of anti-social behavior. He
hated the neighborhood children who would tease him and his siblings.
Jon himself had a squint in his eye, which other kids mocked. Jon was
an easy target for the other kids, and they teased him mercilessly,
because he was so easily worked up by their provocations.
he was too difficult to manage, Jon was transferred to another school,
but kept behind a year. This is where he met Robert Thompson, another
student who was also kept behind. Susan said that Jon was transferred
because other students were bullying him, but once he met Robert, the
two became bullies. They singled out kids who were weak or easy
targets and picked on them. With Robert as his companion, Jon felt
tough, emboldened. The two also took to skipping school on a regular
Teachers noticed how Jon and Robert seemed to bring out the worst in
each other, and made efforts to keep them apart. Although they could
separate them in the classroom, there was nothing they could do when
they skipped school. No one saw the boys as potentially violent, or
even more troublesome than the other kids. Jon wasn’t willing to work
and disrupted the class. Robert was quiet, but seemed to be a shrewd
liar, and able to manipulate other students. He seemed more mature
home, Jon’s mother changed his diet, hoping it would calm him down,
but nothing worked. He picked fights with his brother. When Jon stayed
with his father Neil, Robert would come by, but Neil would chase him
away. Robert had a bad reputation and Neil warned Jon to stay away
some would later argue that more deadly influences came to Jon at home
with his father. Not through abuse, but through rented movies. Neil
Venables rented a lot of videos, and much has been made of his
selection. Even the judge at the Bulger trial made mention of the bad
influence of horror movies. Neil did not rent esoteric or particularly
brutal movies. Jon loved the karate movies, and wished he could be
like Rocky. He drew scenes from the Halloween films. But it was Neil’s
January 18, 1993 rental, “Child’s Play 3” that called attention to the
video/violence connection. In “Child’s Play 3,” the soul of a serial
killer inhabits a doll named “Chucky”. The evil doll, about the size
of James, runs around slaughtering hapless victims. But in the end, he
is killed in a haunted roller coaster/train ride. A battle ensues on
the tracks, and Chucky, who is eventually dismembered, has blue paint
splattered on his face from an earlier scene. Although there is no
proof that Jon saw the entire film, there are some coincidences. The
little child-doll as bad guy, who the heroes destroy in the end.
Perhaps it took this cinematic image to invert James into the bad boy,
the one who has to die. Jon fantasized about being a hero, the good
guy. But he was too scared to take on anyone other than a baby.
Although Jon had an active imagination, he apparently repressed a
great deal of hostility. He denied that there were any problems at
home, despite his hysterical behavior in class. While he claimed that
his family was very loving and supportive, his physical actions speak
another truth. During his confession, Jon acted out some hostility
toward his father, particularly when the issue of sexual assault on
James came up. He walked over to his father and began punching him,
crying “me dad thinks I know and I don’t.” After the first day of
trial, he shouted angrily at his absent father. There is little
information on the Venables family. Neil didn’t appear to be abusive.
Susan, however, appears to have wielded an extreme amount of control
over Jon. More than anything, he absolutely feared her condemnation
accounts, Jon took the lead in attempting to coax children away from
their mothers. It was Jon who tapped on the window of a store, trying
to attract a toddler’s attention. And Jon took James by the hand. When
the boys encountered adults on the walk through Liverpool, Jon seems
to have been the dominant one. The most compelling evidence against
Jon is his own confession: “I did kill him.” Not “we,” not Robert. He
admitted to participating in the attack on James, but says he
deliberately missed, or only threw light stones. Jon had a festering
temper that might have propelled the mischief into a murderous
those familiar with the case, the theory seems to be that it was
probably Robert’s idea to take James, and to bring him to the canal.
But who instigated the first blow? Did Robert, who had come from a
violent background, find it easy to drop James on his head? Or did
Jon, wanting to show off for his tough friend, callously injure the
toddler? Yet both boys seemed to be protective of younger kids --
Robert had his siblings, and Jon played with younger children. Perhaps
this is why they came back to retrieve James after running away from
him at the canal. But somehow their compulsion for violence
overwhelmed their instinct for compassion. As they meandered through
the neighborhood they encountered adults who could have intervened but
didn’t. Adults who suspected something was wrong, but didn’t act, or
couldn’t. If only there had been intervention in Robert and Jon’s
life, before they got hold of James.
was like a doll, a toy
life, James Bulger was as cute as a doll, an adorable little tike. In
death, he was initially mistaken to be a doll. The driver of the train
saw what he thought was a doll on the tracks. At first he didn’t think
much of it -- many kids laid out dolls on the tracks as a morbid
prank. Later, when the boys playing around the railway discovered the
broken body of James, they first thought he was an abandoned toy.
“Then you see doll’s legs, and they all ran, and I said no, no it’s
not,” said one of the boys to a reporter.
are both precious and disposable. As much as a doll is a cherished
gift, it is also something children feel compelled to take apart
before giving it up. Flea markets are filled with discarded dolls,
usually naked, often dismembered. A missing head, missing arms, crayon
scribbles over their faces.
and Robert see James as not much more than a doll, something for them
to play with and discard? According to Jon, he became Robert’s friend
when Robert gave him troll dolls, which “shows you their bum and
that.” At the Strand Shopping Center, Robert wanted to shoplift a
troll doll for his collection. They went in looking for dolls, and
left with James.
might also have had dolls on his mind. Like Robert’s trolls, Jon’s
doll was also comically malevolent, a “Chucky” doll. Jon and Robert’s
most uncanny symbolic gesture, as pointed out by Blake Morrison, was
the alleged placing of batteries in James’s rectum, as if James were a
walking-talking doll. Was this an oddly childish attempt to “get him
alive again,” as Robert claimed he tried to do?
through dolls that Robert was able to reenact the murder. He denied
participating, but when he used the psychiatrist’s dolls to stage what
happened, he became agitated, almost traumatized, as if the dolls were
closer to the truth in Robert’s mind than the murder of a little boy.
Many adult murderers dehumanize their victims in order to kill them.
(Edmund Kemper talked about turning his victims into “living human
dolls.”) Of course, Jon and Robert were aware that James was a living
human being. But James was small and doll-like in size, too young to
tell them his name. He only cried for his mother, incessantly. Both
Robert and Jon longed for their absent mothers. In killing James,
perhaps they were acting out a violent wish to sever themselves from
their own dependencies. Yet this is all conjecture. Just like the
“who” and “how,” the “whys” of the James Bulger murder remain silent.
Was Justice Served?
a Grimm’s fairy tale, “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other”:
children get together for a game. One will be the butcher, one will be
the cook, and the other will be the pig. The “butcher” cut the throat
of the “pig” while the “cook” caught the blood in a basin. An adult
sees what has happened, and immediately hauls the two remaining
children to the mayor. They cannot decide what to do. Was it innocent
child’s play or murder? A wise elder made the following suggestion:
the judge would hold a juicy red apple in one hand, and a gold coin in
the other. He would call to the “butcher” child to him and see what he
chooses. If he chooses the apple, the boys are innocent. But if he
chooses the gold coin, the boys would be put to death. As it turns
out, the child, in his innocence, took the apple, and everyone was
Robert took James from the front of a butcher’s shop, but we can
assume that they knew what they were doing. At what age does “Doli
incapax” end, or in other words, when do children lose their
innocence? For Britain, it was the age of ten. Both Jon and Robert,
ten years and six months old, were six months past the legal limit. Of
course, imposing a fixed date on culpability is hardly effective. Jon
was less mature than the average ten-year-old-boy, but that does not
matter in court.
Geraldine Bedell points out, most studies on child cruelty are
intended to explain violence in adults and are conducted on adult
offenders. Did they hurt animals? Start fires? We are concerned with
the process of violence as a seed in the child, but need to study the
proverbial “bad seeds” themselves, for their own sake. Some studies
have suggested that children go through a “cruel phase.” Do some
children get stuck here indefinitely? The rampant escalation of
schoolyard shootings has been blamed on a number of things -- violent
films, video games, and easy access to guns. But Robert and Jon’s
murder did not involve shooting down distant targets within minutes.
It is the intimacy that is most troubling. They walked with James for
an entire afternoon. They held him, soothed him at times, and carried
him across the street. How were they able to stone James to death and
smack him with an iron bar after holding his little hand in their own?
boys are now teenagers, serving their sentences in their familiar
secure units. The Lord Chief Justice increased their sentences, which
were originally set for eight years, to ten years. But Home Secretary
Michael Howard, in reaction to public concern over the case, bumped up
the sentence to fifteen years. But defense lawyers argued that
politicians had no business tampering with criminal sentences, and
challenged the ruling. The case has gone to the European Commission of
Human Rights. In late 1999 the European Court decided that Robert
Thompson and Jon Venables were not given a fair trial in 1993, and
concluded that the ten-year-old boys should not have been tried as
adults. The raised platform, on which the defendants sat during the
course of the trial, was inappropriate and intimidating. Above all,
the formalities of the British legal system were beyond the boys’
comprehension. The European Court awarded the boys the cost of their
trials, which is being put toward their defense expenses. But the
ruling that concerns people the most is that Howard’s imposed sentence
of 15 years was not legal. Currently, Jon and Robert’s release date
has been deferred to the Lord Chief Justice to decide.
Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, will be reviewing the boys'
sentences. "I think it is very important that all those involved
should have an opportunity to have an input into the process…" he
announced. That means that James Bulger's parents will have a say in
the length of the sentences.
Needless to say, Denise Bulger, who has since remarried, is against
releasing the boys soon. She contends that these boys are still
capable of equally heinous acts. Both James’s parents have been
actively petitioning against Jon and Robert’s impending release.
Albert Kirby, who led the original investigation in the James Bulger
murder, is also disgusted by the European Court’s allegations that the
boys weren’t properly handled while in custody, or given a fair trial.
Home Office is also changing laws to prohibit the boys from selling
their story to publishers. Those eager to cash in on their story have
already approached the boys and their families. (Currently, the
Proceeds of Crime Act 1995, which was set up to prohibit criminals
from profiting from their story, is set up for six years after
the boys are released, they will be issued new identities, verified by
new birth certificates, passports, and other documentation. They will
also receive police protection for as long as they request it. “There
has not been this sort of fuss since Mary Bell,” said a Home Office
information is available on Jon Venables’ or Robert Thompson’s
incarceration. According to David James Smith, who has received recent
information on the boys, Robert had initially suffered from symptoms
associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including rashes,
illnesses, nightmares, and sleeplessness. He was frightened by his own
notoriety, worried that photographers waited just around the corner in
jail, or that new counselors would give him away to the media. He
became afraid to leave his cell, and was harassed by other inmates.
Predictably, he got into some fights, for which he was punished.
Robert was slow to talk about what happened, and at one point said
that he did not have any feelings. But in 1995, he seemed to have had
a breakthrough. He talked about the murder, admitting to participating
in killing James equally. He is now studying and may get an Open
University degree. Robert has shown an interest in design and
textiles. He had created an intricate wedding dress, with “the
intention of creating an object of beauty,” according to Smith. He has
also developed talents in cooking, catering, and computers.
Venables had suffered with his memories of the murder, and was
tormented by ongoing nightmares of a brutalized James. Early on, he
had “two difficult years,” according to psychiatrists, when he
re-enacted the murder. He repeatedly fantasized about bringing James
back, and even wished he could “grow a new baby James inside him for
rebirth,” wrote Smith. Jon seems to have responded more favorably to
therapy than Robert. His remorse and guilt will stay with him forever,
he says, but the fact that he acknowledges his responsibility has
helped him accept it. He now spends his time as an avid sports fan,
and plays video games. Psychiatrists report that Jon is no longer a
threat to the public.
Robert Thompson and Jon Venables can only remain in their current
secure units until they turn 19 in 2001. At that point they must be
moved to a young offenders’ institute for two years, and then onto
prison. But it remains to be seen if they will ever see prison.
Retired Detective Albert Kirby hopes they spend some time in an adult
prison for their crimes.
and Jon have not spoken to each other since the day that they murdered
Update to July, 2002
their conviction in 1993 for the abduction and murder of 3-year-old
James Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson became the youngest
convicted murderers in Britain for almost 250 years. They were
originally sentenced to detention at “Her Majesty's pleasure” and were
not to be released for at least 20 years. After sentencing, the boys
were housed in separate secret locations somewhere in the north of
England and were expected to stay there until they turned eighteen
when they would be transferred to an adult facility to serve out their
time. However, when the European Court of Human Rights decreed in
December 1999 that the boys had not received a fair trial and awarded
costs and expenses of £15,000 to Robert Thompson and £29,000 to Jon
Venables, the plan changed.
following March, British newspaper The Observer ran the
announcement by Jack Straw, Britain’s Home Secretary, that Thompson
and Venables would be freed by 2003. Straw's decision was based on
the European Court of Human Rights ruling that Michael Howard, Home
Secretary at the time of the boys sentencing, had “acted illegally
when fixing a 15-year sentence for them.”
According to the report filed on March 12, 2000, the Home Secretary
“had the option of referring the case to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord
Bingham, for a full review, because of the long-standing confusion
over serious child crimes and the open-ended sentences imposed.”
detailed were two other options: “to accept the original sentence of
eight years set by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Morland, which would
have meant the boys walking free next year , or the 10-year
tariff imposed later by the then Lord Chief Justice after a campaign
by James Bulger's parents. He opted for the latter.”
also suggested that the decision could have far-reaching consequences
as it could mean future cases of a similar nature would not be tried
in an adult court.
Thursday October 26, 2000, the Guardian reported that Lord
Woolf, the British lord chief justice, had cut the minimum sentences
of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables “effectively granting them their
freedom early next year  subject to a parole board decision.”
According to the report, Lord Woolf said: "Because of their behaviour
they are entitled to a reduction in the tariff (the minimum term for
punishment and deterrence) to eight years, which happens to be the
figure determined by the trial judge.
eight-year tariff would expire on the 21st February 2001. I have
already pointed out that it would not be in their or the public's
interest for these two young men to be transferred to a young
added, "However grave their crime, the fact remains that if that crime
had been committed a few months earlier, when they were under 10, the
boys could not have been tried or punished by the courts."
Tuesday November 14, 2000, the Guardian followed up with a
report that described how Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were at
“real risk of reprisals which could threaten their lives if their
whereabouts and new identities are revealed” and applied for
“unprecedented lifetime injunctions preventing the media from
disclosing information which would identify them.”
applications were based on comments by Ralph Bulger, James’s father,
who had vowed to “hunt his son's killers down.” Edward Fitzgerald QC,
council for Venables stated, "taken in context, it is abundantly clear
what he intends to do when he hunts them down." They also cited a
“declared intention by the media to ‘out’ the pair.”
answer, Ralph Bulger told reporters: "James had the right to live, the
right to grow old, to love and be loved and to have children of his
own. But they took his rights away from him and so they should have no
rights at all, never mind the right to privacy or the right to hide
injunction was sought under the Human Rights Act, which came into
force in October 2000 and, according to Fitzgerald, “was justified to
protect their right to life and to freedom from inhuman and degrading
treatment, which could be threatened by revenge attacks.”
asked that the injunction “ban anyone publishing anything about the
boys' whereabouts or their assumed identities when they are released.
Disclosure of that information would expose him (Venables) and his
co-detainee to serious physical risk and serious psychological fear
and the likelihood of harassment. It is necessary to protect his right
to life and freedom from persecution.”
Guardian also reported that the application “was backed by the
attorney general, in his role as guardian of the public interest. The
home secretary and the official solicitor also support the application
for a media ban, which is opposed by three newspaper groups.”
report described the president of the high court's family division,
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, as saying “she hoped to decide before
Christmas  whether to grant the ban.”
days later, James Bulger’s mother Denise Fergus held a press
conference and told reporters that "I feel let down and betrayed by
the system. The only shred of hope I have is that Dame Elizabeth turns
down the application for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables to be given
anonymity for the rest of their lives. As children one can understand
them being given some protection but what right have they got to be
given special treatment as adults as well?"
seven years the system persuaded me to rely on the criminal justice
procedures and to remain silent although all this time I feared the
"Venables and Thompson have dragged me, my family, and the name of
James through every court possible in this country and Europe for
which unlimited funds have been made available to them. This is in
complete contrast to the help made available to victims of crime. The
European court of human rights has become a friend of criminals and
enemy of their victims".
January, 2001, the injunction application was approved and Venables
and Thompson were granted a lifetime of immunity from exposure, to
“protect them as they adjust to life outside.”
Friday June 22, 2001, the British home secretary, David Blunkett,
confirmed that the parole board had approved the release of Robert
Thompson and Jon Venables. In a special report published the same
day, the Guardian reported the story including the furor that
greeted the announcement.
statement to the press, Norman Brennan, a spokesman for Denise Fergus
is absolutely devastated and stunned. There has to be a punishment
element for such a crime but all Denise sees is Venables and Thompson
being rewarded. It has never been about revenge, it's just about a
justice denied. Denise points the finger directly at the lord chief
justice, Lord Woolf, as being the head of the liberal elite, who has
basically sent a message that crime pays.
Venables and Thompson are being released back to their families, who
themselves could only dream of the living conditions they will now
enjoy. If they had given their children love and support, as they
should have done nine years ago, James would never have been
home secretary, Michael Howard also stated: "I very much regret this
decision. It may well be that the parole board had no alternative but
I think Lord Woolf was wrong to decide that eight years was sufficient
time for Thompson and Venables to spend in custody in the light of the
uniquely dreadful circumstances of their crime."
next day the Guardian followed up with a report that the safety
of Venables and Thompson was already in doubt after the Manchester
Evening News “appeared to have breached the injunction banning
information which might identify their whereabouts.” The report also
reported the attorney general reiterating the high court injunction
and was considering contempt proceedings against the paper.
following week the Guardian ran a story quoting Denise Fergus
as saying: "No matter where they go, someone out there is waiting."
later in her first TV interview since the decision to release her
son’s killers, Denise Fergus told ITV’s Tonight with Trevor
McDonald that she was “frightened an innocent person might be
mistaken for his killers. Right now I think they are still dangerous,
and the saying goes 'once a murderer always a murderer'. I'm not
going to hunt them down, try and kill them, but if it happens then I
can't stop it. If you opened a paper or heard on the news someone had
attacked them - I wouldn't feel sorry for them.
I'm frightened of is someone innocent getting mistaken for them and I
do fear that. Now I don't want anyone else under mistaken identity to
be hurt or worse. So what I'd say is be sure. Don't think or assume,
Guardian also reported that the authorities held real fears for
the safety of Thompson and Venables after threats were made to post
recent photographs of the pair on the Internet.
2, 2001, the BBC’s Panorama program reported that Robert
Thompson's family is in hiding after Robert’s mother Ann was attacked
and threatened, prompting fears for her younger children's safety.
In a letter sent through her solicitor, Mrs. Thompson said she was
"effectively in hiding, unable to live anything like a normal life
because of the constant and real fear of revenge attacks."
According to the program’s report, she admitted that her son had
committed "a terrible crime" but her innocent younger children were
being denied a proper education because of having to abandon their
homes and belongings to escape attacks.
letter also pleaded for an end to threats to find and kill her son,
adding, "Two appalling wrongs do not make a right."
Morrison, Blake. As If. New York: Picador, 1997.
David James. Fatal Innocence. New York: St. Martin’s
(Published in hardcover as Beyond All Reason, and in the UK as
The Sleep of Reason.)
Mark, Every Mother's Nightmare: The Killing of James Bulger. London:
Pan Books. 1993.