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The James Bulger Case

Crime Files
The James Bulger Case

I can never forgive Thompson and Venables for the horrendous, calculated, cold-blooded murder of James

James' mother, Denise Fergus The Observer, March 2008

James Patrick Bulger is born on 16 March 1990 in Kirkby, England. His parents Ralph and Denise have previously lost a daughter who was stillborn. However, James is the picture of health and their bundle of joy. With his big blue eyes and light brown hair, he’s a happy go-lucky child who’s always smiling and making his parents laugh. Aged 25, Denise dotes on him and is very protective. But, a routine trip to the shops just before his third birthday is about to rip this young family apart.

Friday 12 February 1993

Denise is out with James at the Bootle Strand shopping centre. It’s late afternoon when Denise makes her final visit to A.R.Tyms butcher’s shop. She places her order, but she’s momentarily distracted and takes her eyes off James. Sadly it’s long enough for him to disappear. Rushing outside she searches frantically. For Denise Bulger her worst nightmare is coming true. The police are called after security staff fail to locate him. She describes him again as wearing a blue anorak with a hood and mustard coloured lining, silver-coloured tracksuit bottoms and white trainers. At 4pm a young PC who’s carried out a thorough search of the shopping centre is comforting a distraught Denise. By 5.30pm the shopping centre closes for the day. The police launch a major search for a missing child in Bootle, Liverpool.

What starts off as a simple hunt for a missing child turns into something sinister when by Friday night he’s still not been found. The police and security staff work through the night at the Strand shopping centre to sift through the CCTV footage. Their efforts are rewarded when they pinpoint James leaving the butcher’s shop earlier that day. Tracking his movements, the police search for further clues. They confirm that moments after James is seen exiting the butchers a panic-stricken Denise also leaves the shop and is seen on the ground floor hunting for her son. Unbeknown to her, James is now on the top floor and appears to be following two boys. The footage reveals the haunting grainy image of the last recorded moments of James Bulger. Two boys can be seen with James, one boy is holding James’ hand. They are all heading towards the exit and the direction of the Leeds Liverpool Canal.

Sunday 14 February 1993

It’s Valentine’s Day and James has been missing for two days. The police and James’ family have tried everything to find him. Patrol cars have been used with loudspeakers, press conferences have been called appealing for the two boys in the Strand shopping centre to come forward and a manhunt is underway searching the nearby canals and wasteland areas. Hope for a happy ending disappears when a young boy rushes into Walton Lane police station and announces a body has been found on the railway tracks. It’s less than 150 yards from the back of the police station.

What the police discover horrifies the nation.

The police have a murder to solve and two young boys to track down.

Bootle Merseyside UK
Brutalist 23 storey Triad building and car park in the heart of Bootle completed 1974 | Image: McCormick French / Shutterstock


12 February 1993: Two-year-old James Bulger is abducted from Bootle’s Strand Shopping Centre

14 February 1993: James Bulger’s battered body is found lying on a railway track by Walton Lane Police Station

18 February 1993: Robert Thompson and Jon Venables are arrested at their homes in the Liverpool area

22 February 1993: Robert Thompson and Jon Venables appear in court charged with the abduction and murder of James Bulger

1 March 1993: James Bulger’s funeral takes place1 November 1993 The trial takes place at Preston Crown Court

24 November 1993: The jury find Robert Thompson and Jon Venables guilty of the abduction and murder of James Bulger

22 June 2001: Having served their minimum eight-year sentence Robert Thompson and Jon Venables are released

23 July 2010: Venables is arrested and jailed for downloading and distributing indecent images of children

Key Figures

James Bulger – Victim

Jon Venables – The 10-year-old murderer.

Robert Thompson – The 10-year-old murderer who was released on 22 June 2001.

Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby – Senior Investigating Officer

Mr Justice Morland - Judge

The Aftermath


A month after James’ killers were found guilty, Denise gives birth to a baby boy called Michael James Bulger. Ralph and Denise finally have a reason to continue living. But their whole world has been turned upside down and sadly their marriage falls apart.

In 1994 Denise splits from Ralph. She later remarries in 1998 when she meets Stuart Fergus. Together they have two sons. Ralph remarries and has three daughters with his second wife.

The James Bulger Memorial Trust

In 2011, the year James would have turned 21, Denise Fergus launches ‘The James Bulger Memorial Trust’. For too long Denise has seen nothing good come from James’ death, so spurred on by Esther Ranzten and the Red Balloon Charity, she’s inspired to help benefit and support young victims of crime, hatred or bullying. Her plans are to reward those who have shown exemplary conduct in helping others. She wants to do this by providing cost-free travel and holiday accommodation for children and families. She creates James Bulger House.

'I want to see good things done in James’ name.'

Denise Fergus, BBC News Online, January 2011


The Lord Chief Justice raises the recommended minimum sentence for the two boys from eight years to 10. Then in July 1994 the Home Secretary raises it to 15 years. There’s public outcry that the government is interfering and the House of Lords overturns that ruling. In 1999 lawyers for Thompson and Venables appeal to the European Court of Human Rights that the trial had not been impartial. The European Court dismisses that charge but agrees that the case had not been fair. This leads Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf to review the minimum sentence. He reduces it from 10 back to the original eight years.

On 22 June 2001, having served their eight years, both Thompson and Venables are released on a lifelong license. Both men are given new identities and moved to different parts of the country to maintain their safety. An injunction prevents the press from publishing any details about the two killers.

On 23 July 2010, Venables, aged 27, is jailed after admitting downloading and distributing indecent images of children. He’s denied parole on 27 July 2011.

Since his release in 2001 Thompson has kept a low profile and done his best to maintain his anonymity. He came close to meeting Denise Fergus in 2004 when she managed to track him down. However, paralysed with anger and hatred, she couldn’t confront him.

The Trial

On 22 February 1993, the two boys appear at South Sefton Magistrates’ Court in Bootle to face their charges. They plead ‘not guilty’. A crowd of 300 people gather outside and as the vans leave a riot breaks out. This time the vans are decoys, but it raises questions. What would have happened if the crowd had got hold of one of the defendants?

The authorities having underestimated the public’s anger, relocates the trial to Preston. The trial begins on 1 November, at Preston Crown Court. A special platform is built to allow the defendants to see above the railings. Denise and Ralph Bulger announce they are expecting another baby, but Denise refuses to come to court. She’s vehement she won’t sit in the same vicinity as James’ killers. To this day there are still certain details of the case that she’s unaware of. Crucially the boys have now reached the age of 11 and are old enough to be convicted of murder. However, the jury needs to believe that both boys understand the seriousness of their crimes. To hide the identity of both boys they are referred to during the trial as Child A and Child B.

A special platform is built to allow the defendants to see above the railings

An injunction prevents the press from releasing any details about them. It emerges that on 12 February 1993, at around 12.30pm the boys had tried to abduct another little boy from the same shopping precinct. The mother spotted her son and daughter playing with two boys. While paying for her shopping she realised her son was missing. As she ran outside she saw the same two boys beckoning her son to follow them. Screaming his name, her son returned. During the trial she remembers overhearing Thompson and Venables say 'We’ll take one of those.' Venables mentioned in his police interview it was their intention to find a child and throw them into the path of an oncoming bus or taxi in the road outside the shopping centre. They wanted the death to look like an accident. This is a horrifying revelation and a coup for the prosecution. During the abduction of James Bulger the pair took him on a 2.5 mile walk of the city. It would take just over 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete. Thirty-eight witnesses are called to the stand to reveal what they saw at the various stages of James’ final journey.

The prosecution wants to make it clear to the jury that they don’t need to rely on Thompson and Venables’ version of events. One witness, Malcolm Walton, says he’d seen a child matching James description near the Leeds and Liverpool Canal that looked to be in a distressed state. Another, Irene Hitman, who was taking her dog for a walk close to her home in Breeze Hill, also saw the same boy at about 4.40pm. She said the boy looked to be frightened with large lumps on his head. She told Thompson and Venables to take the boy home, but that wasn’t their intention. The witnesses all blame themselves for not interfering, but they weren’t to know the terrible crime that would unfold. The forensic evidence submitted to the jury is vital. Graham Jackson, a Home Office forensic scientist, matched blood samples from James to the blood found on Child B’s shoe. There was a one in a billion chance of it being an error.

Philip Rydeard, another forensic scientist, was able to match the pattern of bruising on James’ right cheek with features of the upper part of a shoe worn by Child A. They were black brogues that had distinctive stitching and an unusual arrangement of lacing rings. Light-blue paint-marks had been discovered on James’ anorak, hair, shoes and underpants. The same light-blue paint-marks were also found on Child A and Child B’s clothing including their jackets, trousers and shoes. Andy Mulley, a forensic scientist, pointed out to the jury that a paint mark on Child B’s sleeve might well have been James’ small hand-print. Despite their strong evidence the police are concerned that the jury will only return a verdict of manslaughter. The fact that the jury needs to be sure the boys know the severity of their crimes, is troubling the police, especially Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby.

After hearing three weeks of evidence the jury are asked to deliver their verdict. On 24 November 1993, taking just six hours, the jury find both Thompson and Venables guilty. Mr Justice Morland sentences them to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for a minimum of eight years. 'Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the killing of James Bulger was an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity.' Mr Justice Morland, before passing sentence November 1993.

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: An courtroom artists impression of the James Bulger case at Preston Crown Court

The Investigation

On Thursday 18 February the arresting officers start to interview the two boys. Thompson has been taken to Walton Lane Police Station and Venables has found himself in Liverpool’s Lower Lane Police Station. Both boys have samples of their blood, hair and fingernails taken.

The police are entering new territory with this investigation as no-one has ever interviewed child murder suspects before. To ensure their testimonies will stand up in court, it’s important that the two boys understand the implications of telling lies and telling the truth and know the differences between right and wrong. Asking specific questions to prove these facts, they both pass. So the questioning commences.

Both young boys have their mothers present along with legal representation. However, they are both coping very differently with the police questioning. Venables acts his young age - he’s hysterical and extremely scared of the investigators. He keeps revealing his deep-rooted fears of being sent to prison. Thompson on the other hand is controlled and mostly composed throughout the whole process.

Venables is quick to reveal that he had been in the area on the day that James disappeared, but doesn’t mention the Strand shopping centre. Thompson eventually reveals that they were both at the Strand and goes on to describe in detail the clothes that James was wearing. The police are perplexed as to why a young boy of 10 would know that information. This is one of Thompson’s major slip-ups as it reveals James had been with the boys for a very long time. Thompson later confesses that the two boys had taken James Bulger from the shopping centre.


The police are having a hard time, as getting the story straight is proving tricky. Both boys are blaming each other for things and doing their best to hide the truth. Thompson’s testimony changes on five separate points over the course of two days of questioning. It’s when Venables asks if you can get fingerprints off skin, that alarm bells start ringing for the police. The boys are obviously hiding something.

Police start to notice a pattern in Thompson’s chatter. Whenever he starts talking about James, his anxiety causes his legs to shuffle. By lunchtime on Friday 19 February, Thompson admits they had taken James to the railway line. During the investigation, there’s an eerie moment when Thompson imitates a wailing James asking for his mother. The investigating officers find it unnerving.

Nearing 1pm, Venables finds himself alone with his parents. It’s at this point that he can’t take any more. He breaks down and confesses to being involved in the murder. The police are listening to everything. With this revelation they can now interrogate Thompson. He refuses to admit his guilt in James’ death but police feel they have enough evidence against both suspects. On Saturday 20 February 1993, the boys are charged with the abduction and murder of James Bulger.

James Bulger being led away by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables
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 Arrest

After James’ murder emotions among the Liverpool community are running high. On the bank, close to where his body has been found, hundreds of flowers are being placed.

Among them is a bunch of flowers put there by one of James’ murderers.

The only leads the police have to go on are the grainy images from the Strand revealing James’ abduction. Keeping an open mind, the police want to track down the two youths seen leading him out of the shopping centre. The problem for the police is they need a way to improve the CCTV footage in order to work out the ages of the two teenagers. The Ministry of Defence agrees to help.

With the public’s support in trying to catch the killer, the one thing the police aren’t short of is information. On Tuesday 16 February they arrest a young boy. It’s breaking news. However, neighbours who have seen the police arrive, jump to the wrong conclusion. Believing he’s guilty, a near riot ensues. The level of anger that someone could commit such a brutal and savage murder has incensed the Liverpool community. As soon as the innocent boy and his family are ruled out of the enquiry they’re forced to move house.

A woman sees the grainy images from the Strand and recognises the two individuals as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. They are known troublemakers and a quick check of the school register proves they were playing truant the day James Bulger went missing.

Thursday 18 February 1993

The police act on this information and plain clothes policemen in unmarked cars are sent to arrest them. Robert Thompson is 10 years old and lives in Walton with his mother and two younger brothers. His four older brothers have all been taken into care. When the police arrive they realise his house isn’t far from the murder scene.

Jon Venables is also 10. His parents divorced when he was three-years-old and together they share joint custody of him and his two siblings. When he appears at the top of the stairs, the police are astounded by his young age and small stature. The police are certain that the boys they’ve just arrested aren’t who they’re looking for. They strongly believe the children are just not capable of such a crime.

This belief is shared by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby who’s in charge of the investigation. He dismisses the boys as murderers but still wants to question them. Kirby believes they are looking for teenagers. So in a desperate bid for more information he asks Crimewatch to help. The programme is to be broadcast on Thursday 18 February. For the first time in the programme’s history an appeal is to be launched in the same week the murder has been committed. During the broadcast police release newer and better enhanced images of the two boys hoping that someone will be able to identify the two individuals.

What the police fail to realise is the two suspects they’re searching for are already in their custody.

Read more:

What drove James Bulger's underage killers?