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The murder of James Bulger: 30 years on

Family photo of James Bulger
Image: James Bulger | Crimes That Shook Britain

It’s strange and painful to realise that James Bulger – forever fixed in the nation’s consciousness as a beaming young child – would now be a man in his 30s had his life not been so senselessly ended. Decades on, we look back at this horrifying crime and its complicated aftermath.

The facts of the case

It was on 12th February 1993 that a mundane trip to a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside gave way to horror. While making a payment in a butcher’s shop, mum Denise Bulger let go of James’ hand for just a few moments. It was enough time for the two-year-old to be lured away, not by a sinister adult, but by a couple of 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.

Bunking off school, Thompson and Venables had spent the afternoon shoplifting and making a nuisance of themselves. But, seemingly on a whim, things had escalated. They dragged James on a long walk, trudging almost three miles from the shopping centre. Dozens of passers-by noticed the tired, tearful toddler, but nobody intervened for long.

The trek came to an end by railway tracks, where Venables and Thompson tortured and murdered the little boy. His body was discovered two days later.

Deducing what happened

The news that James Bulger’s horrific death had been perpetrated by children triggered incredulity and horror. The press and the public erupted in fury, and one newspaper reported on a ‘lynch mob’ gathering outside the home of a child who had nothing to do with the crime. The blurry, CCTV image of Thompson and Venables leading James through the shopping centre became instantly enshrined in the iconography of British crime, as did the mugshots of the two young killers.

Reporting on the trial, The Guardian made the point that ‘their age is the single most extraordinary thing about this whole case… The brass-railed dock became a cage in a freak-show. Some reporters were instructed to watch every muscle-twitch, every blink, as if, somehow, this might yield some insight into what was going on in their minds.’

Their motivation was, and continues to be, puzzled over. Certainly, it doesn’t seem to have been some premeditated project. They took James in a moment of audacious schoolboy daring, and – rather than quickly stealing away to some hidden place – they embarked on an indiscreet odyssey through busy streets, popping into a pet shop, even chatting to some members of the public who questioned where they were going.

Some experts believe the decision to kill may have come spontaneously, amid mounting panic over the fact they had this crying child on their hands. But even so, the sheer sadism of the crime remains a troubling enigma. Some have pointed out that Thompson and Venables had troubled backgrounds and had been bullied. Their rebellious bravado came under scrutiny at the time, with one psychoanalyst wondering if the murder had ‘something to do with a hatred of vulnerability and babyness in themselves which they projected onto this toddler’.

Violence in popular culture was also blamed, with the media leaping on the fact that Venables’ father had recently rented Child’s Play 3, the horror film about the pint-sized killer doll Chucky. Despite no evidence that the boys were influenced by this or other ‘video nasties’, the idea persisted for a long time afterwards.

James Bulger's abduction captured on CCTV
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: A CCTV still of James Bulger, aged 2 years old, being led away in the 'New Strand' shopping centre in Liverpool, on the 12th February 2003.

The question of punishment

Such was the outrage over the case, that sentencing the killers became a thorny issue. They were handed a minimum of eight years, but this was increased to ten after intervention by the Lord Chief Justice. Then, in response to a petition by The Sun, Home Secretary Michael Howard upped the sentence further still to fifteen years. This was condemned by some as unwarranted interference by a politician ‘playing to the gallery’, and the boys were eventually released after eight years.

The whole issue shone a new spotlight on the ‘punishment or rehabilitation’ question. The culprits’ young age was regarded as the main mitigating factor by some, but many others were less sympathetic. Tabloids called the boys ‘freaks of nature’ and ‘little b******s’, and there was anger over the killers’ being given new identities to start their lives from scratch.

Indeed, one member of the public was so incensed that, having found out Thompson’s new name and location, they tipped off James’ mum, Denise Fergus (she had remarried since her son’s death). Denise told a newspaper in 2004 that she followed the lead and saw Thompson in the flesh but was too ‘paralysed with hatred’ to speak with him.

Further controversy

The Bulger case surged back to the front pages in 2010 when Jon Venables was recalled to prison on child pornography charges. It was revealed that he’d been living what The Independent described as an ‘existence consumed by fear… burdened with the pressure of living a lie’. Isolated, broke and abusing drink and drugs, Venables became hooked on depraved imagery, even posing as a woman online to obtain more of the indecent material.

Released a few years later, Venables was again jailed for similar offences in 2017. Though Thompson seems to have reintegrated into society, the multiple recalls of Venables have once again raised questions about the original sentence, and the inherent challenges of rehabilitation.

Speaking to the BBC after Venables’ initial jailing for child pornography, former Merseyside detective Albert Kirby said that ‘Bearing in mind the magnitude of what they did and the publicity surrounding the case, I always thought they couldn't come to terms with what they had done… I think all along there was a lot of misjudgement over Venables's suitability to be released.’

Denise Fergus, meanwhile, has been eloquent and uncompromising when sharing her feelings on the killers of her son. ‘To forgive them would be to betray James', she said in an interview with The Guardian in 2018. ‘Ask me that question when I’m dying and I’ll still say: I will never forgive them.’

Season 3, Episode 4 of Crimes That Shook Britain covers the tragic murder of James Bulger. Available now on Crime + Investigation Play.